In the post-Shoah world that we inhabit that has documented and witnessed cases of genocide targeting countless members of different ethnicities, tribes, and religions, the subject of mass violence is implacable to moral reflection. Most accounts of twentieth-century political violence explain such unspeakable crimes in terms of an absence of human empathy as the principal culprit. The emergence of a modern techno-bureaucratic rationality that partitions public morality from a private one and separates means from ends belongs to the insidious background of these atrocities. Human beings become instruments stripped of any kernal of dignity. They are less than human, and therefore, disposable.
I am persuaded by much in this interpretation. Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century provides such a narrative. Even though his version of secular humanism is normatively thin, his diagnosis of the problem seems so right in many ways. When the Nazis shifted their anti-semitism from zealous hatred to a cool, calculated machinery of killing (e.g. “the night of broken glass”), we see the monstrous realization of an iron cage ethics.
When turning to the violent practices and institutions exported to the New World under Catholic Spain, however, such interpretations do not apply so well. The encomienda, for example, was an institution that forced Amerindians to work, often against their will, for the benefit of the Spaniards. But it also had the explicit aim under the Crown of protecting and instructing Amerindians in the faith. One observes a more paternalistic model of violent relations in this case that contrasts with a model of extermination as a final solution. There was, it seems, a distinctively “Christian” vice operative in the sixteenth century under the guise of love.
Surely, there were numerous cases of outbursts of violence against innocent natives. But these were radically inconsistent with public policy. Conversion to the faith requires one’s subjects to be living, not dead. The Spanish government established Audiencias or royal courts as a strategy for controlling the unchecked whims of conquistadores and encomenderos by protecting the claims of Indians who were, according to the Spanish King, his vassals.
The project of genocide so characteristic of modern social darwinisms should not be confused with the colonialist project aimed at paternal care of “meek, simple and unarmed” subjects. For lack of a better term, it seems more accurate to understand the Indians as puerilized (or imagined as children unable to govern themselves) rather than dehumanized in this process. Some historians and ethicists may argue that the two concepts are mutually reinforcing and virtually indistinguishable when it came to actual practices. I beg to differ, even though such dehumanizing rhetoric was both strong and did instigate violence in certain cases. There was something similar to this going on the Middle Ages toward the Jews and Muslims during the Crusades as well.
I think Russell Jacoby’s Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present (see an overview by author) might get at this point from another angle. Jacoby tries to disabuse his readers of the perception that violence throughout history has always been elicited by the encounter with the stranger. He focuses on the form of violence that results from people in close proximity who struggle over subtle but definitive aspects of identity. Based on reviews of the book, he seems to overstate his case. Nevertheless, the practice of paternalistic or fraternal violence should be highlighted as something distinct and painfully closer to home.
As moderns we seem to think it is the procedure of making less than human that makes us more prone to violence neglecting the fact that the oldest and most frequent form of violence has not been toward those deemed less than human, but those closest to us–our family. It is this phenomenon of domestic violence and physical abuse that helps us to understand the nature of medieval society, the early modern wars of religion in Europe, and Amerindian violence in the New World.
Domestic violence sometimes begins with an attempt to impose a kind of discipline that degenerates into harmful misconduct. That is what was at stake in the arguments of Las Casas, Soto, and Cano, and others at Salamanca. They needed to demonstrate that Amerindians not only had the right to their own lands and possessions (dominium rerum), but were also endowed with the right to govern themselves (dominium iurisdictionis). Whether they lived in less stratigraphic societies like the Tainos or highly-complex ones like the Incas, the natives were not children running around in William Golding-like fashion. Those who differed in their outlook, most especially Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, wanted to view the Indians as heretics like children gone astray and hence deserving of its form of punishment–enslavement and the dispossession of lands and goods.
Of course, Sepúlveda went so far as to call the Amerindians “homonculi” (or ‘sub-human’). The Catholic Kings never did; but they also never tried to repress such rhetoric or condemn it as heresy, as far as I know.