I am told that killing a human individual is more difficult than people anticipate, at least. It takes more effort than expected, the sounds and smells are worse, and the cleanup is far more involved, at least according to local officers who track down first-time murderers. But killing off a whole ethnic group might be even easier.
It seems like something that should be done in some old-fashioned manner, like the British with their Boer concentration camps, the open pit executions in Eastern Europe, or the Communists starving whole regions into submission. In reality, it is more like hacking a computer: you just have to hack minds and lead them, in pursuit of some illusion, over a cliff and to their deaths.
We can be hacked through mental viruses, or even just deceptive language, because humans have programmable minds that respond more intensely to symbolic data than to direction perception of their surroundings, mainly because the latter requires much effort:
Book One, first verse, of the Book of John in the New Testament says cryptically: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This has baffled Biblical scholars, but I interpret it as follows: Until there was speech, the human beast could have no religion, and consequently no God. In the beginning was the Word. Speech gave the beast its first ability to ask questions, and undoubtedly one of the first expressed his sudden but insatiable anxiety as to how he got here and what this agonizing struggle called life is all about. To this day, the beast needs, can’t live without, some explanation as the basis of whatever status he may think he possesses. For that reason, extraordinary individuals have been able to change history with their words alone, without the assistance of followers, money, or politicians.
This means that if you find a way to put into people’s heads that their demise is the right thing to do, or provides the best life possible for them, they will follow their doom as if it were their salvation. This reminds us of a great metaphor but also great hoax, the parable of the lemming, in which we were programmed to think ill of a species of small rodents purely by media manipulation:
So why is the myth of mass lemming suicide so widely believed? For one, it provides an irresistible metaphor for human behavior. Someone who blindly follows a crowd—maybe even toward catastrophe—is called a lemming. Over the past century, the myth has been invoked to express modern anxieties about how individuality could be submerged and destroyed by mass phenomena, such as political movements or consumer culture.
But the biggest reason the myth endures? Deliberate fraud. For the 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness, filmmakers eager for dramatic footage staged a lemming death plunge, pushing dozens of lemmings off a cliff while cameras were rolling. The images—shocking at the time for what they seemed to show about the cruelty of nature and shocking now for what they actually show about the cruelty of humans—convinced several generations of moviegoers that these little rodents do, in fact, possess a bizarre instinct to destroy themselves.
When you think about the news media or entertainment, most of what it shows us is people who are engaging in self-destructive behavior and having fun or at least seeming important for doing so. And there is no mention of the cliff, as if it did not exist at all.