Notable and accomplished University of Maryland professor James M. Glass spent over 35 years studying madness in political life. His work includes several books, interviews with resistance survivors and extensive discussions with those whom our society deem “psychotic.”
Glass was the featured speaker for The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace at this university April 5. His presentation, titled “The Psychotic in Public Life: Human Nature and the Political Justification of Brutality,” dissected the social constructs of two societies that justified brutality, torture and murder: the Antebellum South and Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
How could an individual in their “right mind” warrant killing and torturing another human body and feel no empathy? In today’s liberal, democratic society, most view the crimes committed by Nazis or plantation owners as crazy, but Glass emphasized many of these individuals committing such atrocities saw no wrong in their actions.
These individuals are “psychotic” to us because the term revolves around perceptions and values in given cultures, as well as rational assumptions about human decency and behavior, according to Glass.
Glass explained atrocities in the Antebellum South and Nazi Germany were socially justified because “a system of ideation or social facts guided them with absolute certainty.” In both cases, eugenics and “proven science” warranted social exclusion and racial domination.
Moral rightness lay with those in positions of power, allowing them to disregard any connection between their actions and their ability to empathize with victims whom were not of their status.
Eugenics creates a very deterministic view of the body, according to Professor Glass. “Jews and slaves were pushed into a universe of evil.” Societies determined specific ethnic groups were unable to suffer, and “looking at the body as unable to suffer becomes a rational form of social functioning.”
Glass stressed trauma is central to how we think of democratic theory; “it is those whom a system has denied feeling trauma that suffer.” Much of medical history in Germany speaks of Jews as a public health menace and an innate carrier of Typhus, thus making the Jewish body an “infinite supply source for medical experimentation.” This belief became a norm of society, emphasized with vicious posters and depictions.
Similarly, many whites in the Antebellum South believed the black body could not suffer, or at least not in the same way as the white body. “If a slave was sick, a white physician recognized it as a physiological defect or manifestation of existing on a lower hierarchical order,” Glass explained. Racial epithets were thrown at slaves to reduce their presence to animals.
Slaves had capital value and were not regarded as humans, but as property. Glass told the short story of a man transporting slaves who killed a slave when her foot was injured because “the old woman transformed into a thing that could no longer work.” Glass explained, “It’s easy to kick, burn and brutalize these bits and pieces because they feel nothing.”
Suffering was invisible. This is key.
When asked how one begins to dehumanize a population of people to not feel trauma, Glass said beginnings appear over time. In Germany, right wing eugenics developed in universities, was accepted by medicine and even introduced in elementary schools with such activities as separating black and white peas as good or bad.
Additionally, “medicine was the providence of the white man in the south.”
These social facts create an “ideation that infuses generations at a time,” and many times we’re unaware of these facts governing our behavior.
Glass exemplified this truth in our own society: “we see a homeless person struggling, and we look the other way … All of these perceptions of such persons are part of our social facts and how we organize our experience of the other.”
While it is rightfully easy to point a finger at the atrocities of societies like Nazi Germany and the Antebellum South, we should use our knowledge of what broadly creates such social constructs to be self-aware of the degrading ideals normalized in our own society, of which many we disregard because we are simply unaware.
Featured Photo Credit: Featured photo courtesy of Flickr user NiCo Padilla.
Racquel Royer is a freshman journalism major and may be reached at Royer.firstname.lastname@example.org.