It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
When somebody does something bad, say killing a child, genocide or rape, people tend to call them a monster or “evil”.
It doesn’t explain anything; in fact it is used to shut down any effort at explaining such behaviour.
It’s as if giving them this label explains everything. The implication is that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the person that has committed this act.
I say calling someone evil is a cop out.
It implies they’re just made that way so they will never change and we should just do away with them. It’s saying that punishment and vengeance is the only way and there is no point in trying to understand and hence rehabilitate the person.
There’s a dangerous de-humanising element here. And this means it sets them apart from the rest of us.
There’s an issue with empathy: it’s not easy to understand why someone has done something that on face value seems heartless and goes against our deeply held moral codes. But why this fear? It requires a level of empathy that not everyone is willing to use.
To empathise is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to try to think what they thought, and to feel what they felt. To empathise is to consider yourself committing that act.
And this is the problem.
It’s a sign of maturity that a person can hold someone else’s point of view in their mind without agreeing with it.
To empathise also means to admit that you could commit the same act. To accept that we all have a side that we don’t like. The thing is, we are all capable of heinous acts. Study after study proves this to be true. People think “oh no, not me, I couldn’t possibly do something like that, I’m better than that”. Alas that’s just wishful thinking.
Psychologists Professor Philip Zimbardo and Doctor Stanley Milgram have clearly shown how “normal” people can be made to commit “evil” acts. If you find this difficult to accept, read about the infamous Stanford Prison experiment or the Milgram experiment.
If we accept that in some situations, with certain influences, we are all capable of very bad acts, then the question is what are those situations and what are those motivations, and how do we protect against them? To do otherwise is simply idiocy.
The good thing is that there’s a corollary to this conclusion. Zimbardo describes the ways in which people can be influenced to do “good” things against these forces, people he calls heroes. In fact, Zimbardo has set up a project in America and is doing some great work educating people “to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis” so they can “act heroically on behalf of those in need“.
More evil in the next post.