Re: Mass-killings

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Sun, 14 Sep 1997 21:35:26 -0500

Arjen Kamphuis wrote:
> "Eliezer S. Yudkowsky" <> wrote:
> >The Nazis took genocide to a new level, not in numbers,
> >but in cold-blooded cruelty.
> Again, in spite of my own emotional involvement, I can't see the difference
> between the horrors of '39-'45 and the terrible things that happened in
> various communist country's right up to this moment (China - N-korea).

Truth is, I don't know. I've only seen documentaries on the Holocaust, not
any of the other genocides. But from the bits and pieces I've picked up, I
get the impression that people were starved, or killed, or tortured briefly,
but not all of the above for months before death.

> >I wouldn't argue with anyone who called Chad, Cambodia, or a crack ghetto a
> >"continuing Holocaust". Far from mocking the dead, this would prevent
> similar
> >tragedies. Nor would I argue if someone wanted to add a fourth floor to the
> >Holocaust exhibition, documenting ongoing genocides around the world.
> Now, there's a good, contructive, idea! This is an Exibition in the US? or
> somewhere else?

Washington D.C. It's the "Holocaust Museum". I don't know whether the
Permanent Exhibition is taking more floors, but you could probably get an
additional exhibition added if enough people demanded it.

> >But, as human history demonstrates, genocide was once as fashionable as
> >theories of racial superiority. If not for the Holocaust, we might today
> >cheerfully dismiss Chad and Cambodia as the extinction of vermin.
> I sure as hell would not!
> And I can only hope that you would not either, you're much to smart to such
> a thing anyway.

I hope I wouldn't. There's no way I can be sure. If I'd grown up in the
beginning of the 20th century, I might. If in the beginning of the 19th
century, I might think slavery was a fine idea. There's no *instinct* that
acts against such ideas. Quite the contrary. Even I am not arrogant enough
to assume that I, through sheer logic and innate moral superiority, could
duplicate a hundred years of hard-earned experience.

Someone once tried to tell me that killing was inherently abhorrent. Another
quote I ran across, from "Mindkiller", stated that too many people of the
video generation are convinced they have what it takes to kill in cold blood.
Perhaps I'm from the video generation, then, but it seems to me that
civilization is a thin veneer over basic human nature, and basic human nature
has no problem with killing at all. I hope I never need to kill anyone, but
if I have to, I don't think that doing so would be either difficult or
traumatic. Uncouple civilized restraints and killing would barely ripple the
emotional surface of the mind. Still, I could be wrong. With luck, time will
never tell.

> >By
> >associating something not instinctively abhorrent, genocide, with something
> >that is instinctively abhorrent, torture, the Holocaust made genocide as
> >unfashionable as theories of racial superiority.
> Both may be unfashionable in your neighborhood, racial theories still kill,
> asks any Rwandese genocide victim. this happened just a few years ago! in
> the nineties! It's not over folks, it's just not being covered so extensively.

Whose point did you think this proves? If genocide were inherently abhorrent,
it wouldn't happen so often. It took the Holocaust, which is inherently
abhorrent, to create our modern taboo against it.

Perhaps that very taboo is responsible for our refusal to acknowledge the
lesser genocides. Still, we do try to stop them - although not with enough force.

> >But, speaking as a
> >human, we are simply not sensitive to the deaths of people we don't know.
> >It provokes no instinctive reaction in us.
> I'm sorry here we have a most serious disagreement (*most* serious).
> But maybe you've never seen someone die. I hope you won't ever have to,
> even though it is quite a learning experience (beats years of university,
> hand down)

I was speaking of seeing it in the morning newspapers, not seeing it in
person. More on this a bit later, I'm developing a theory here...

> I appreciate that the exibition shocked the hell out of you, that is not a
> bad thing, it merely shows you're human (Sorry Anders).
> Maybe I'm different but those images have not 'overloaded' my responses
> since I was ten. Seeing the UN do nothing for several years whilst women
> and children were being shelled with artillery got me pretty pissed though.
> Seeing a little boy die from sniperfire (no not on TV!) damm-near did the job.

Of course, being a victim of genocide is inherently abhorrent. Committing
genocide is what fails to bother us. Likewise, watching it happen to other
people doesn't cause you innate discomfort, it violates a taboo you have
against genocide. This taboo is no more and no less arbitrary than our taboo
against cannibalism, emotionally speaking. It simply happens to have more
powerful ethical support.

> Eliezer, in other coutry's persons you're age are seasoned veterans of some
> pointless civil-war, they have *done* the kind of things you get overloaded
> by just looking at pictures of them.


> Read some contemporary history, and hold-on to someone you love while
> you're at it. It helps.

I've read about Vietnam in "From The Jaws Of History". Evidently the taboo is
only against seeing other countries commit genocide.

I wasn't around in 1945, but if the Nazis had simply shot everyone instead of
torturing them, the world might have shrugged. The torture invoked the
compassion that created the taboo against genocide.

Perhaps someone with no taboo against genocide, given a live tour of a modern
genocide, would react as strongly as someone walking through the Holocaust
Museum. Or, if their sympathies were on the other side, they might join in.
That's the way our minds work, sadly enough. While I hope that a horrible
racist, forced to view the Holocaust Museum (not even forced to tour a
concentration camp!), would react with instinctive revulsion. The Nazi guards
simply tuned it out or enjoyed it, but hopefully in a Museum, with no
distractions and no chance to actually bully someone, the other emotions would
kick in.

Anyway, I'm wandering a bit far from both my area of knowledge and the
original subject. It's possible that there are genocides just as bad as the
Holocaust going on even as I waste time typing, and I refuse to acknowledge it
simply because of my taboo against genocide. That's the way taboos work,
after all.

I once compared crack ghettos to the Holocaust, and I retain that comparision
after walking through the Holocaust Museum, even though I've only read text
descriptions of a crack ghetto, even though no deliberate genocide is being
planned. Neurological havoc can easily cause as much or more suffering as
physical torture. Maybe that's why I acknowledge the problem; no deliberate
genocide, so it doesn't violate my taboo.

Anyway, I'm not really sure what we're arguing about. Regardless of whether
modern genocides are as bad as the Holocaust, we both think they're not good.

I'll handle the ghettos if you handle Cambodia. Deal?

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.