Angels and Devils by M.C. Escher
"The line between good and evil is movable and permeable. Good people can be seduced through that line. Good and evil are the yin and yang of the world.
"Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, destroy them physically, and commit crimes against humanity." ~Philip Zimbardo
"So instead of asking who is responsible, Zimbardo asks what is responsible. Psychologists generally understand the transformation of human character as dispositional (inside the individual) or situational (external), but Zimbardo argues that it can also be systemic, and that's what happened at Abu Ghraib." ~excerpted from "How Ordinary People Become Monsters or Heroes" by Philip Zimbardo
Ordinary people? Or pathological?
Does the situation create the monster? Or does the situation unveil the monstrous?
Social psychology is another key unlocking the mystery of human behavior. Learning how humans react to particular situations offers clarity into why people do the things they do. This includes the victim’s response to an abusive relationship. But if we’re describing evil, radical evil, evil such as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, there is far more to consider than The Situation.
Genetics. Neurobiology. Character.
By diminishing the characterological component, we diffuse responsibility for individual choice and action. I’m sure any narcissist worth his or her diagnosis would be delighted for people to assume sane, moral and reasonable people would make similar choices, were they to be in similar situations. The assumption that human beings teeter on the cusp of intentional and malicious evil infers by default that the malicious are no different than anyone else.
Well, that’s a bald-faced lie. I don’t believe it for an instant.
It compares to excusing the narcissist’s misdeeds because s/he has a mental disorder and just can’t help themselves if someone offers a chance to abuse. But this time, instead of blaming-the-victim as culpable to their abuse, social psychology shifts towards blaming-the-situation.
In the video linked at the first of this post, Zimbardo describes the slippery slide towards evil, greased by seven social processes. By considering each of the steps Zimbardo has listed, we may be able to protect ourselves from ourselves. We can also use this list to protect ourselves from those who dehumanize others (step 2)---independent of the situation.
1-mindlessly taking the first small step
2-dehumanization of others
3-de-individualization of self (anonymity)
4-diffusion of personal responsibility
5-blind obedience to authority
6-uncritical conformity to group norms
7-passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference
Zimbardo attempts to warn people that each of us has the capacity to do things we’d never predict we were capable of doing. Most of us can reflect on a situation in which we behaved in ways that made us feel bad about ourselves, including passive inaction when we could have, should have, and probably would have spoken up had we not presumed someone else would assume responsibility. Life has lessons to teach and if we aren’t willing to stand up for others, we cannot expect others to stand up for us.
But what kind of ‘evil’ is Zimbardo describing? It's relevant to suggest that evil is a matter of degree. For the purpose of this essay, evil is on a continuum defined by malignancy of intention: internalized hatred fueling externalized aggression. This is what we’ve seen in Botero’s paintings when American soldiers went beyond typical and normal torture (as if there is such a thing as ‘normal’ torture) and applauded their sadistic power over vulnerable prisoners. The prison guards were smiling. Whether academics argue over the true meaning of a smile or not, I think it’s fair to say the perpetrators derived personal satisfaction from their brutal power.
Suggesting anyone would behave likewise defies reason. Why? Because we don’t. To admit we are influenced by the situation is true. To act outside ourselves because of the situation is true. That everyone has the capacity for ‘evil’ behavior is true though we also have the capacity to resist situational forces. That we are sometimes passive agents despite internal resistance is also true. “Why didn’t I speak up earlier?” our conscience demands afterwards. But why did the situation at Abu Ghraib escalate to a surrealistic reality, making it even more complex for conscientious people to take action when what they witnessed was dissonant with expectations?
Comparing the Stanford Prison Experience to Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo says, “Power without oversight is a prescription for abuse.”
Is it? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “Power without oversight of conscience is a prescription for abuse.”
Those of us on the receiving end of projected malice experienced a horrifying moment of awareness when ordinary evil escalated to extraordinary predation. Did the situation foster abuse because there were no witnesses? Or did the situation escalate beyond comprehension because the narcissist lacked conscience and enjoyed the perpetration of evil?
For most people, moral self-inquiry does not hinge on external authorities defining right from wrong--even when behavior is secreted from public scrutiny. But without an internal lord of ethical restraint, pathological aggression is limited only by consequences. Aggressors intent on proving their status, staunchly dare others to restrict their intention to harm, even kill, unfortunate victims (objects) of their hatred. In this vein of reasoning, external authorities may be the only means for countering pathological aggression. Someone must set the limits for them, because they will not limit themselves.
Contrary to what most of us experience in the presence of human suffering, current research on pathological narcissism suggests malignant aggression increases in the presence of vulnerability. A fragile victim does not trigger compassion, nor does vulnerability engage the screeching brakes of moral conscience. This is a reversal of what we assume to be humankind’s natural response to suffering.
Without conscience as an overseer however, vulnerability actively flames pathological hostility. There is no mistaking the limitless hatred fueling pathological aggression. But limiting aggression means limiting sadistic pleasure, which is why narcissists perceive vulnerability to be an opportunity. When people cannot defend themselves or are reduced to begging for mercy, the narcissist’s sadistic impulses flourish. If they can get away with subjugating others, they will. If sadistic behavior is encouraged by authority figures (absolved of responsibility themselves), we’ll witness what we’ve witnessed in the situation at Abu Ghraib: malicious torment, degradation, dehumanization, humiliation, all portrayed in photographic images of human trophies bearing measure of the tormenter’s use of power to brutalize others.
To accuse all human beings of a similar capacity for evil is a universal condemnation of human conscience. It’s an inaccurate assumption because it misses an integral component defining those who admire evil and the doing of it: those with characterological predispositions and an underdeveloped or even non-existent conscience.
The Times Higher. The Devil Inside by Barbara Oakley
New York Times. The Most Curious Thing by Errol Morris
Narcissistic Continuum. Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib