Anyone who has studied psychology is very likely familiar with the work of Dr. Stanley Milgram at Yale University during the 1960s. Students were assigned to be teachers to a learner in a different room. The “teacher” read words for the learner to repeat as part of a memory exercise, but the teacher could administer an electric shock to the learner for a mistake.
At a supervisor’s urging, many teachers (65%) increased the voltage to dangerous levels, despite the learner’s apparent screams and unconsciousness. Only some teachers protested and stopped the experiment early. It was not until after the fact that the teachers were told that the learner was acting and not actually being shocked.
The experiment has been replicated in similar forms ever since, but the conclusion holds up: under pressure or under an authority’s instruction, many otherwise normal people are capable of harm and evil to fellow human beings. To put in the context of the 21st century: Nazi soldiers were us in a perfect storm of situation.
So how does this apply to our daily lives?
Saying or thinking, “I would never say/do (whatever someone perceived to be inferior is doing) is not a guarantee that you would not–especially in similar circumstances. And regardless of circumstance, assuming someone thinks as you, values what you value, and would do what you would do is one of the prime sources of human misery.
Also, just because some one appears to be heartless or devoid of feeling, does not mean it is not in there. If anything, the lack of demonstrable proof indicates it is deeper and more embedded, with no outlet yet.
Many world religions and Western democratic governments uphold the equality all humans–that no one individual can be better than any other. Operationally, this rarely holds in defined areas and is only true on a macro, infinite, and academic plane: in work, someone must be perceived and designated as better for a job than other candidates, we pull out friends and spouses from the general population based on their narrow fit to our arbitrary specifications, we get to choose which businesses to patronize and goods to buy and cities to live in based on their relative adherence to our unique preferences.
Reconciling the fact that we are all equal, and that a number of us are capable of horrific things, and therefore we are all capable of horrific (or great) things, is a mystery still lacking a satisfying conclusion. Neither religion nor psychology has yet been able to shut down the debate. If we accept the premise that all men are created equal, then we must accept that we are all a couple turns away from being torturers. Filling in the line in between those dots is still work ahead for most of us.