Here’s a question I often ponder–a conundrum for which I have no good answer.

I know literally hundreds of wonderful people. They will help their neighbors, pick up litter, donate to help the victims of hurricanes. They’ll take food to bereaved families, mow the lawn of an elderly neighbor. Actually, I know very few people who aren’t genuinely nice. Some are smarter than others, some are more obtuse or self-involved, but I really think most people are basically decent.

So why do those same people often behave so badly in groups? Why do people who would never intentionally injure a neighbor or co-worker support collective actions having no other purpose than to hurt a particular group of people? Why do people in crowds act in ways they wouldn’t individually?

The “good Germans” in WWII come to mind, although that’s an extreme example.

I’m not talking about injustice or suffering that happens at a far remove–there’s a limit to how many “causes” people can focus on or care about, and as Jon Stewart has put it, most of us “have shit to do.” I’m talking about the otherwise nice people who dismiss bullying at the local school with “boys will be boys,” who excuse brutality by the local police because “they” probably had it coming, ¬†who enthusiastically support draconian measures targeting immigrants, or who want to discontinue public welfare for poor people because “recipients are all lazy good-for-nothings.”

I guess I’m talking about people who are generally ready to help a fellow human–but who define “fellow human” to exclude a lot of people–people they would probably help if they lived next door.