In this post I'd like to look at a psychological issue that I think is quite astonishing for the fact that it is rarely, if ever, discussed, but which I think has a profound effect on the way that all of us act, think and relate to our world. I am not a psychologist, and I am not drawing on any particular study or survey, just a wealth of personal observations and reflections that I believe build a convincing case for the statement I intend to make and defend. I think that this fundamental fact of psychology explains why many, many actions taken by other people who differ ideologically from ourselves can seem, at first glance so utterly inexplicable, yet these actions are undertaken by that person with the utmost conviction, purpose and lack of remorse. I don't believe that what I have to say is particularly profound, or revolutionary, but I do feel that this fact is rarely given the attention it deserves in understanding the actions of others.
What I am arguing is this: No one wants to be evil, or perceived as such.* (I asterisk that because I believe there are very, very rare exceptions, but I won't get into that here.) At first glance, this seems obvious, even mundane, but take a minute to think about it. Think of all the acts that you would qualify as evil, and the people that committed them. I am not talking about a metaphysical, universal, coming-from-the-devil evil, but actions that most people would agree are completely outside the bounds of a respectful, peaceful, civilized existence- genocides, holocausts, serial murders, torture, terrorism, kidnappings and rape, etc. When most of us hear about these things, the first thought that crosses our mind, the first question we ask, is: How could someone do such a thing? To the vast majority of us, committing any of these acts is unthinkable, yet people commit them, with frightening regularity, and many of these people, despite your first instinct to think so, are not “evil” people at their core.
It wasn't Hitler who pushed hundreds of thousands of living, breathing people into brick ovens. That was done by normal German soldiers, men with wives and families, pets, dreams of vacations and retirement. They didn't all grow up torturing stray cats and being sexually abused by their uncles. The genocides in Rwanda, Congo, and Sudan were not committed exclusively by drugged-out soldiers hardened by battle and trained to kill, they were committed by farmers who bought machetes at their local hardware store. The soldiers at Abu Ghraib? American men and women who went to our schools, shopped at Walmart, go to church on a Sunday. How does a normal person commit such atrocities? How does one go from being a normal, law-abiding citizen who has never seriously hurt or injured anyone else to a participant in genocide, holocaust, torture?
Before we go further, it is important to understand what we cannot do. We cannot blithely dismiss these people as simply being evil, imagine that we lack the same capacity, and move on. It is tempting to do so, and the opiate of culture pushes this on us. I am as a big a fan as anyone else of WWII FPS games (that's World War II, first-person shooter games for the ignorant), and I have no problem with their content. However, they raise an interesting point. Besides certain factors of military history that make WWII more interesting than say, trench warfare, or Vietnam, WWII is popular with game makers because no one has moral qualms about shooting Nazis. In one of the all-time great quasi- WWII shooters, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, you are up against legions of undead, occult demons, and of course, Nazis, and the point of the game is to gleefully blaze your way through all of them, which the player does, and never once do you stop and think, “Oh wait, there are some Nazis mixed in there with all those skeletons and demons, maybe I shouldn't just melt all of their faces with my Tesla Gun.” No, you nuke them all with equal abandon, human beings and monsters, and never look back.
How did a certain generation of a certain culture, a culture that produced Goethe and Gutenberg, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and Handel, Hegel, Heidegger, Kant and Leibniz, Kepler, Copernicus, Heisenberg, and Einstein, (to name but a few) become people that we have no problem slaughtering in droves in video games and movies? Because they were part of a series of actions that were some of the most horrific in history. We can see in this our two issues. The first, the question; how do normal people come to commit unspeakable acts of horror and brutality? The second, the false way out; They are simply evil, I am not, I don't have to worry about it, just stay away from them. The problem with this, as I hope I have made clear by now, is that it simply isn't true. Most evil acts are committed by otherwise good people. It is this seeming disparity that needs answering.
It is also easy to dismiss these actions as an anomaly of the “mob-mentality” gone too far. The mob-mentality is a way to justify individual choices because “everyone else was doing it.” Yes, they were, and while this does make individual choices more difficult, it does not make poor choices any more acceptable. But how does the mob mentality work? It works by making otherwise good people look around them and say, “I know these people and they are all decent people, and they are all doing this, so it can't be that bad. And the people we are harming deserve it.” (I'll return to this last part in a bit.) The psychology of the mob mentality is not, “Bill just cut that guy's arm off with a machete, and Chuck, Fred and Sam are gang-raping that woman from the 7-11. It must be Evil Day! Woohoo!” It works by convincing us that we are, despite our evil actions, still good people.
The above examples focus on large groups engaged in massive acts of evil. And we can see, that through the mob-mentality, people can come to be convinced that something they would otherwise never participate in isn't as bad as all that, but more importantly, they are not as bad as all that. But how about smaller groups, or individuals, where psychological factor of the overt mob mentality is less of a factor? How did nineteen men get on planes and crash into buildings to murder thousands of people they didn't know? By believing that it was the will of Allah, which made it the right thing to do, which made them “good” people for doing it. How did women branded “witches” in America and Europe get burned alive and crushed to death by stones by their neighbors and relatives? Because they were companions of the devil, and eliminating them was an act of purification, rendering those who participated in the murder “good” people. For the majority of serial killers, from Jack the Ripper to the Craigslist killer, who has always been the victim of choice? Prostitutes. “Degenerate” women who “deserve” to murdered, making the killer a “good” person for “cleaning the world up.” Recent political events; the Oklahoma City bombing, the mass-murder in Arizona- these atrocities were perceived by their executioners as necessary actions in the face of an evil and unjust political system, making themselves “good” people, in the right, and even if they recognize that the whole world wouldn't necessarily see them that way, other people who recognize the same problems would.
Rarely, very rarely, is an act that most of us would consider an exemplar of evil committed by a person who believes they are doing something evil. Equally, these acts are rarely committed by someone who does not desire, on some level, to be seen as good, even if it is only by a select group of people. Two recent news stories really drove this point home for me. One, from a couple of months ago, was about the Westboro Baptist Church, that group of colossal pricks who protest soldier's funerals because they serve a country that doesn't murder every gay person within it. (They were also planning to protest the funeral of the nine year-old girl killed in Tucson, but for once, backed down.) One of the good christian members of the church said to the reporter (my paraphrase), “Oh, I don't hate gays, personally. God hates gays. We're just spreading his message.” Besides the obvious inanity of worshiping a deity whom you acknowledge to have a lower tolerance and sense of equality than you do, we can see here precisely what I am talking about. This woman is trying to say, “Oh no, no. I'm not a hateful bigot. I'm a good person. I'm just doing what the big guy asked me to do.” Obviously, within the church, there is a psychological reinforcement of, “We are good, we are doing god's will in a sinful world.” But here, this member wants the rest of us to understand the same thing, “Please don't think of us as evil. We're not.”
The other story is one that just hit the cycle yesterday, that conservative congressmen (dumbos and asses both) want to push through a bill that would redefine rape, for the purpose of determining whether federal dollars can be used for abortion in cases where the victim becomes pregnant (remember that is what we are talking about here, a perp and a victim) to only include instances of “forcible” rape, which is not defined anywhere in federal law, nor is it elaborated on in this bill. This means that cases of statutory rape, incest, and basically any instance where the woman wasn't beaten to the precipice of unconsciousness or didn't have a gun to her head, aren't “real” rape. Or, if the victim was under the influence of anything, a couple of drinks, it is no longer “forcible.” It pretty much takes a horrible human being to say to 70% of rape victims, “Well, that wasn't real rape. I mean, you said, 'no' over and over, but it's not like he tied you down and used a broom handle! Besides, you'd had a few beers, too, so, that pretty much makes it your fault.” These are people that “we” elected and appointed to make laws to govern our lives. But why are they doing this? Because they believe, deeply and sincerely, that abortion is so evil, that it must be stopped by any means necessary, and that doing so makes you a “good” person.
Okay, so what? We all know that people use all sorts of lame-ass psychological tricks to justify their less-than-great actions. Why does this matter? There are two reasons. The first is that because we live in a world that is reluctant to define what is good, we allow the emphasis of our morality to be on persecuting the perceived evils of others. Religion has, for millenia, been happy to tell us what is evil, wrong and wicked. Thou shalt not this, Thou shalt not that. But it only rarely bothered to tell us what was good. Yes, yes, Blessed are these and Blessed are those, but has that ever, honestly, been more important to the religulous than condemning people who put their sex organs in the wrong holes? If you think it has, you haven't been paying much attention. We love to point out when others are evil. The jews stole our jobs and ruined our economy; put them in those ovens! America has pornography and supports Israel's existence; kill everyone in that building! That guy died defending a country that allows queers; let's make his family miserable while they mourn! Seriously? How on earth do these things equate? The problem is, in our collective failure to define what is good, we allow those who see evil in the actions of others to then commit evil in turn. Psychologically, people are able to justify acts of cruelty, indifference and violence by convincing themselves that the victims of these acts “deserve” them due to their own acts of evil, laziness or immorality.
The second reason that identifying this psychological quirk of humanity is important is that it reveals why faiths, even moderate versions of them, perpetuate the existence of cruelty, violence and indifference to the suffering of others. When a suicide bomber straps several pounds of C4 to his or her chest, he or she isn't thinking, “Ah, haha! I am so EVIL!! Watch me ruin these innocent lives!” No, they're thinking, “Billions of people share this faith with me. I am just one of the bravest and most righteous. They all know, deep down, the infidels must be destroyed.” When Henderson and McKinney tied Matthew Shepard to a fence post and beat him to death, they weren't thinking, “Boy, everyone's gonna hate us know! We're so evil!” They thought, “This fag needs to die.” And the root of that belief is based on a single line (Leviticus 18:22) in a supposedly magical book, and because over a billion other people accept the validity of that book as magical and containing “truth,” and thus tacitly accept that line as “truth,” they felt, on some level, that they weren’t some sick, twisted minority, but rather were just doing what everyone else knew needed to be done, but were too scared to do.
Changing the way we think, and talk, about good and evil is not going to make people stop doing horrible things to each other. However, I do believe we can do things that help. The first is by defining, individually and in the public arena, what is good, as opposed to what is simply wrong. (The excellent book The Political Mind, by George Lakoff covers this topic at length.) It is good to make sure children have enough to eat- this is more important than punishing their mother for her heroin addiction. It is good to let people who love each other get married, and receive all of the vital benefits that go with that- this is more important than enforcing your Bronze Age laws on people who don’t care about them. It is good to give women who have been raped the care and treatment they need- this is more important than punishing them for going to the wrong party and having a few glasses of wine. It is good to make sure our children have a future filled with as much, or more, freedom and opportunity than we had- this is way, way more important than playing politics with serious social, environmental and economic issues.
We also need to recognize that what we believe, overtly or tacitly, does impact the beliefs of others, and more importantly, it can impact their actions. When a person who is less psychologically balanced than the rest of us does something horrific, everyone who shares that belief must accept that they share a degree of culpability. If you are sitting there thinking, “Well, I know that god doesn’t approve of homosexuality, but I would never kill someone over it” well, you kinda did. Your existence as a normal, law-abiding, well-adjusted citizen gives those who are not those things precisely the justification they need to take your tacit disapproval of someone else’s life and do something about it. If you think it is okay to talk about “Second Amendment Solutions” and pick out targets with cross-hairs for your anger, you are to blame for the Tucson tragedy. We do not control the actions of others, but our actions and beliefs do give others the psychological justification they need to commit actions we would never dream of ourselves.