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The Psychology of Evil

October 4, 2008
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I’ve been quite busy recently so I haven’t been too active in the blogsphere, but today I came across something that kind of played with my imagination and sense of morality.

I came across this video of a TED lecture by Philip Zimbardo the guy who did the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the 70s. He talks about what makes people go bad and he has truly traumatising images of the Abu Grade prison fiasco as an example; when so called American heroes turned into evil, sadistic torturers. Be prepared, although the pictures have been edited, they still make your stomach turn.

Watching that reminded me of two books I’ve recently read, A long way Gone by Ishmael Beah and Song for Night by Chris Abani. Both deal with the plight of a boy soldier and the things they are forced to do in the context of civil wars with rebel groups and the army both committing similar atrocities.

Basically, all these people ask really scarily relevant questions about how people go bad and how people are made capable of doing the worst things we could ever imagine including the things we can’t. I’m torn in two on this one; like most of you I have not been in a situation where the choices faced by the boy soldiers were presented to me; join us or die. Nor have I been in a situation where I have so much power over someone that I abuse it and degrade them in the worst way possible. So the question as to would I ever do such a thing, I would answer as no and I would have the same righteous indignation that such appalling things could occur…or simply put…”Aw hell no!”.

What Philip says in his talk though is that most of us are guilty of the evil of inaction, we stand by and let things happen because we’ve lost or have had no sense that we can be heroes, that real everyday people are called to be heroes at certain times. He argues that given the same set of circumstances where people become the worst of humanity, they can choose to become the best of it. It’s not just the Nelson Mandelas and the Ghandis of this world, but the Joes, Jacks and Lolas (?) who when presented with the opportunity should step up to be a hero rather than a perpetrator. Let’s put that into context of the reality of my world…..

So, in the news this week was the story of the CEO of Barclays Wealth who was killed last week when he tried to help out when a couple were being assaulted. He wasn’t the first, just the latest. We regularly hear stories where some of the kids who are shot or stabbed in the street have come to the aid of a friend who was in a fight or argument and who ended up dead. I have spent the last year telling my brother (a young black male) to stay away from fights and to forget he knows anybody if trouble flares up, the same advice my mother and any mother of a teenage child has been giving, but I’m pretty sure we would all be in uproar to hear that someone we knew had been killed or injured in plain sight and nobody did anything about it.

Again, I have no idea what the right answer is. I know I’m sick of being upset, traumatised and disgusted by what others do, but I don’t know if I’m prepared to be the one to stand up to it if I or a member of my family and friends found ourselves able to do so, especially when in the context of things that could mean death.

I blogged about apathy a while back and I truly meant the sentiment of people having lost the idea of standing up for a cause, but its a complicated issue. We should stand up for causes, but I don’t know if I’m prepared to put myself in the firing line, nor am I prepared to kill, maim or torture for any of the causes I believe in. If you agree with what Philip says though, like the soldiers running Abu Grade, it is possible for you to not be ‘responsible’ for what you’re doing if you’re following an order or just blindly being a product of ‘the system’.

Anyway, enough of my endless conflicts on the matter, watch for yourself, its 23 minutes long…

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