The fear of misanthropy

Why we fear fearing ourselves

Misanthropy is a frightening concept.

It is the only worldview that maintains without equivocation that the human condition is corrupt by design. Misanthropy, unlike most religions, denies the binary nature of good and evil; there is no salvation, no redemption from what we are. No son of a deity will come forth and sacrifice himself for our sins in the hope of bringing us closer to god. No holy book or moral code will suffice to make us free of sin. Furthermore, misanthropy also does not see good and evil as a spectrum. Most of us can agree that there are degrees of goodness and degrees of evil: for all his notoriety, the recently deceased mass murderer and cult leader Charles Manson is not in the same category of malice as Adolf Hitler. However, it is far more complicated to compare Hitler with Udai Hussein (one of Saddam’s two sons), a man who would on occasion crash a wedding, rape the bride and murder the groom for sheer amusement. Hitler may have ordered a genocide, yet to him even this had a twisted purpose to make Germany great again. Hussein’s crimes, which included murder, torture, and rape appeared to be entirely wanton and random, an almost feral sadism that could only be explained in one way: that he could get away with it by virtue of being the son of a dictator.

Barring mental health disorders which explain much of the behavior of some truly malicious people like serial killers, much of the psychological evidence suggests that evil has more to do with circumstance than nature, as Hannah Arendt explained in her controversial classic, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Put people in a situation where they can dehumanize others who have some discernible difference (race, culture, ideology), deindividualize themselves from the moral consequences of their behavior, and be immune from the legal consequences of it, and you have a perfect formula for brutality. It is telling that no society resists this formula, although it is true that many people within them do. If you find this notion hard to accept, imagine for a moment that the government of any Western nation, be it the US, UK, France, or Germany, decided to sanction the murder of Muslims. Does anyone seriously believe that the better angels of our nature would prevail to stop the killing spree that would follow? Would “good” non-Muslim men and women go out into the streets and risk their lives to oppose the murderous hordes or would they simply cower in their homes and wait until the bloodlust was satiated, happy that they weren’t the ones being hunted down? Now just think that the only thing stopping this is the signature of a president or a prime minister.

The fear of misanthropy (misanthrophobia?) is therefore the fear of fearing ourselves. It is the fear of accepting the darkness inside each other (including oneself) and knowing that while we may share 98.8% of the genetic code of a chimpanzee, we also share 99.9% of Hitler’s and Udai Hussein’s. There is no more frightening thought than this.

Artwork credit: Virginia Hovendon, “In the Shadow”