Philip Zimbardo on Evil

Every so often I’m asked my major areas of study in college. That I was an English major is obvious–writers should (although they do not always) study the work of those who have come before them. That I also majored in Religion…frequently gets a frown.

Why study a topic about which the most important questions are unanswered, answered insufficiently, unanswerable or left to a phenomenon similar to trust, but far more risky, called “faith”? Why venture backward to hectoring clergy and self-righteous theologians whose “knowledge” has been steadily eroded, since the 17th Century “enlightenment,” as superstitious, irrational or just plain wrong?

Or, in terms of my own Jewish religion, why look into writings, doctrines, customs and rituals about a God who, if the primary text is to be believed, rescued a bunch of ignorant, ancient nomads and petty warlords from every calamity you can imagine, but, during World War Two let an evil nation murder the majority of his European-born “chosen” people during World War Two?

I had three motivations, one big, the other small, the other enjoyable.

The small compulsion was the fact that I had grown bored writing English papers and talking about great books and great writers.  The myths that inspired some writers, as well as most of the world’s religions promised to take me closer to the stories that we can’t stop retelling. Before my father and I loaded the souvenirs of my teenage existence into his Cadillac piled up the souvenirs of my and drove eight hours over monotonous interstate highways to tiny hamlet called Oberlin, Ohio, I had adored the “new wave” of science fiction writers, who blended experimental narrative styles with a renewed interest in myths and folktales. Like every budding revisionist, I wanted to go back to the “real stuff.”

The enjoyable motivation were the religion department’s eclectic mix of professors. Most were bombastic lecturers and terrific storytellers.

The big reason was a big question: how is it possible that the greatest harm throughout human history has been done in the name of God? As with any big question, you never find an adequate answer, but in asking the question, you discover worthwhile things about yourself and the situation you’re in. Among those discoveries was the philosophical subgenre theodicy. Named by Gottfried Leibniz, it asks why is there evil in the world?

I wallowed in that for several years. My numerously unsatisfactory answers included
1. God created evil so we could choose good. This worked for some theologians, but I never liked this it, because, in many moral issues, there is no clear choice. Also, choice is brutally manipulated by demagogues and so-called men of God who tend not to be punished for the sins they inspire the faithful to commit.

2. Evil is incomplete good. Christians like this, because it fits in with their ideals of redemption and salvation. We are all sinners until….  So how can you justify the horrible things that evil people do on their way to redemption? The victims get a nice condo in the afterlife? Nope.

3. Evil consumes itself. The good propagates more good. I’ve seen this in some Eastern faiths, and, like the second reason, it falls short when you consider how unfair it is that evil consumers drag so many innocent people down with them. That, and we’ve seen how evil propagates itself in the revenge melodramas of the Old Testament. One bad thing leads to another, despite the intercession of God.

4. Evil is a”dark force” that balances the light. This “manichean” idea, that there are two armies (or an angel and a demon sitting on your shoulder), and one gets points when you choose one way, also doesn’t make sense when you look at the consequences of such personifications. Blaming the Devil for your actions presumes that the second most powerful being in the universe has nothing better to do than make you eat another chocolate chip cookie. Any personification of evil, from Satan to the  Evil Emperor of Star Wars is just an attempt to remove the responsibility for the act from the perpetrator, and hang it on a supernatural presence.

5. God has a plan and who are you to object? This is the lesson of Job, and it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It’s also a common argument some Jews use to justify the “hardening of the heart” of Pharoah in the Exodus story, as well as the founding of the State of Israel: we can’t know the result of our suffering–we just have to submit to providence.

6. Evil is a form of suffering born from the self’s attachment to the material world. Give up the attachment and evil disappears.  This Buddhist understanding is great if you’re by yourself and meditating about that chocolate chip cookie, but it fails if you’re the victim of someone else’s malevolence. What should you give up then? Your life?

Finally, there was the one that worked for me most of the time: “ethnocentrism,” a social dynamic that puts those inside a group above or below outsiders. Those outsiders who are below are occasionally considered infidels, unclean, or, as in the case of the Nazi’s ideology, “the source of all our problems.” This has also been called “the problem of the Other.”

I found a better explanation from Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a famous Stamford University social psychologist whose “prison experiment,” building on the work of Zimbardo’s high school chum, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, showed the small steps that transform ordinary, decent college kids into sadistic monsters. It’s not that there are bad people, Zimbardo says (gently avoiding a discussion of the mentally ill), there are bad social situations that bring out the evil that exists in every one of us.  Evil–which Zimbardo defines simply as an intention to harm, humiliate, destroy and victimize another–happens when an individuals are sent down a “slippery slope.”

We start to slide when we

  1. take what appears to be a small, inconsequential step. We cheat on an exam. We steal something when no one is looking.
  2. Dehumanize others. Here comes the “other” situation. We’re told (or led to believe) that another person is below us socially, or we’ve been told that this person’s situation is his fault, or that this person is not even human, but a lower form of life
  3. De-individuation of self (anonymity). We put on a uniform, wear a warpaint or a mask, find ourselves (like Adolph Eichmann) in an office cubicle far away from the evil that we’re about to do.
  4. Diffusion of personal responsibility. We join a club, a tribe, an army, a political protest movement, a cult. We’re told that all of us are on the same page. We’re all doing this for a good reason, or because we’re the best, or those other people did us wrong and have to be shown who is right.
  5. Blind obedience to authority. It’s not just that we’re only following orders. It’s that we’re in a social hierarchy in which the person above us really depends on us to follow instructions. Sometimes the person in authority is somehow “above” us. He’s rich, charismatic, wearing great clothes, able to say and do things that we can’t.
  6. Uncritical conformity to group norms. We stop questioning what we’re asked to do, and we just see ourselves as doing what anyone else would do in our situation. We like the awful music the leader likes. We wear our uniform with others so we can blend in with the crowd. We hide behind the assumption that we’re just one small part of a much larger movement.
  7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference. This isn’t just watching a person on the street being beaten up and doing nothing. It’s also when we are threatened but can’t think of an exit strategy. We’re at a party, or with people we assume are friends, and we don’t want to make a fuss. So we just go along with this horrible thing, and, when it’s done, we can’t believe we did it.

But we did.

As I said above, in the sources I saw (a series of youtube lectures in which Zimbardo promoted his books and other activities), Dr. Zimbardo did not address the mentally ill people who “hear voices” that lead them to do horrible things. In suggesting that we all have the capacity for evil (in one lecture, he mentioned William Goldman’s Lord of the Flies), we can only presume that we have a capacity for good. Where does this good come from? Is it inherent? Is it learned?Is it, as some developmental psychologists feel, an evolutionary determined attribute?

And, while these steps can explain evil as a social phenomenon, they don’t show us the “dark night of the soul” that leads some people to question what they are about to do and…not do it.

But, if you want to understand how decent, educated people in Europe could live peacefully in villages so close to the concentration camps to smell the stench of burning bodies, or explain the terrifying racial, ethnic and religious hatred burning through social media and the greater American political landscape, Dr. Zimbardo’s explanations are powerfully convincing.

The good news is that, having plotted how good people can go wrong, Zimbardo also studied how good people can become heroes. Both behaviors, he says, are exceptional, in that things have to happen before we save the day.

The best news of all is that we can make those things happen.

All to the good.




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