The Psychology of Evil, Part 1: The Myth of Pure Evil

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hannibal Lecter, Freddie Krueger, Dracula, Darth Vader, Cruella de Vil. We are all familiar with the myth of pure evil in Hollywood movies. It's a myth both because it serves as a literary device for the stories that shape how we see our world, and also because it is not true. It represents a naive cartoon understanding of what evil actually is.

Don't get me wrong, evil is real. People do really horrible, unspeakable, awful things to other people. If we can understand what leads a person to do that, then we can also discover how to move in the opposite direction, how we can grow and develop morally and socially--collectively and individually--towards being move loving, more just.

One of the key tenets of the myth of pure evil is other-izing, de-humanizing. When we refer to a person as a "monster" it is implied that they do not need to be treated as human. That allows us to treat them inhumanly, and then we ourselves commit evil actions, while thinking that we had no other choice, and perhaps telling ourselves that what we are doing is good and just. So we see our enemies as monsters and do horrible things to them, and they see us do that and think we are monsters, and thus feel justified in doing horrible things to us.

The problem with this cartoon depiction of evil is that it does not help us to break out of these cycles, and in fact contributes to keeping us locked in them. It's a fairy-tale world where we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. That's the opposite of being introspective and self-aware. What I hope to do instead is take a realistic and deep look at the reality of human evil that is a part of all of us, in the hopes of finding how we can move towards being good in a realistic and deep way.

Based on the work of psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature identifies five roots of evil: predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. In the first part of this series I will discuss the last two of these, sadism and ideology. When you think of ideology, think Isis. When you think sadism, think Charles Manson. Hollywood and the news media are obsessed with these stories of terrorists and psychopaths. I suspect they do this because it reflects our own obsession. These are the things of our real life nightmares. This is the kind of evil that leaves us baffled, perplexed and horrified. The problem is that the media tells us this story with very little reflection or insight because it’s an easy headline to write. “If it bleeds it leads” they say. This stokes our fear, rather than helping us to gain insight.

Let's begin with taking a look at sadism. Despite its frequent depiction in movie villains, sadism—taking pleasure in hurting and killing others--is actually quite rare. Baumeister explains that sadism is something that one develops into, much like drug addition. Studies have found that, of those actively engaged in violence, only around 5% become sadists. What keeps 95% of people from sadism, Baumeister says, is our sense of guilt.

Whether that sense of guilt is in-built, the product of culture, or a mix of both is not entirely clear. What we do know is that, as mentioned above, only a very small percentage of those participating in violence come to enjoy it. We also know that in the past it was common for people to do sadistic things as a culture. One example is the torture of animals for entertainment. Pinker gives several accounts of how animals, dogs and cats in particular, were brutally tortured as a means of public entertainment in Medieval times. This might indicate that where cultural taboos are absent, more people can develop sadistic tendencies unhindered by guilt.

The idea of someone taking pleasure in hurting others seems to represent what our cliché of pure evil looks like. Think of the Disney villain with his classic mwa-ha-ha-ha! maniacal laugh, and we have the cartoon version of sadism. The “thriller” movie version is only slightly more complex, sometimes it is even less complex. As mentioned previously, this cliché reflects our need to make sense of what seems "monstrous" to us. We watch these “monster movies” to try to process our fears. Unfortunately these movies typically re-enforce our ignorance. To be fair, many Disney movies (for example Zootopia) have actively moved away from that, addressing issues of racism and prejudice in a cartoon. I can’t say the same for action movies.

So what do we do with sadism? First we need to realize that even when the media give us the impression that it’s everywhere – every second headline seems to be about this. We know that it is actually very very rare. It’s also important to note that Baumeister concludes that sadism is not so much a root cause of evil, but rather a byproduct, entering the picture after evil (that is, actively torturing and killing others) is already in progress. It is something that a very small percentage of people have the potential for, perhaps we might even see it as a perversion of sorts. But it is not a root cause, it is not where evil starts. So if we are seeking to find the root causes of evil, the root that it grows from, we will need to look further.

This brings us to the second category: Ideology. Ideology and its connection to violence is something I have discussed at length in Disarming Scripture, and often on this blog. I refer to this as the way of “unquestioning obedience” and have often warned of its potential to lead to violence. As Pascal says, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

One might say that ideology acts as an antidote to moral conscience. It gets us to turn off our brains and hearts, to shut off our compassion and common sense, thinking that we are doing this “for God.” This can lead parents to harm the children they love, thinking that they are doing God's will or being true to the Bible. It has, as a matter of history, led many pious and idealistic people to commit horrific atrocities in the name of their god or political ideology.

It’s easy to look at groups like Isis and think that we would never be like that. However, studies like the infamous Milgram experiment reveal that the average person is disturbingly capable of hurting others in order to conform to authority. Most of us just go with the crowd -- whether that's in the halls of our high school, at our fundamentalist church, or somewhere else where the stakes are higher.

That's why it's so important to learn to think for yourself, to question, and perhaps most of all, to develop moral courage. If we don’t stand up in the little things, will we stand up for the big things? It’s easy to spot the evil of fanatical extremist ideology in another religion or another nation, and I certainly do not want to deny that this truly is evil. The true test however is whether we are able to stand up to authoritarianism and demagoguery when it wraps itself in our flag and claims our religion.

People often ask me how to deal with things like Muslim extremism. I have focused mainly on Christianity because that is my own faith. So I begin with looking at myself and my own tribe. But the answer to how to deal with Muslim extremism is the same as how we deal with Christian extremism. Fundamentalism is the same is any religion. The antidote to this non-thinking non-empathetic ideology is of course to learn how to have a thinking faith, how to be introspective and reflective, how to grow in empathy and moral maturity.

In understanding ideology as one of the roots from which evil grows, the key takeaway is to recognize that it is therefore not something that we only find in those monstrous bad guys “over there.” It is something that we all, as humans, are susceptible to. Put in the right circumstances we might find ourselves doing the same thing that the people in the Milgram experiment found themselves doing. Denying this does not make us immune. On the contrary, to the extent that we are unreflected about this potential in us, we are all the more susceptible to it. Only by facing these tendencies in us head-on, and actively deciding to move in the opposite direction, can we counter it. In the case of ideology that means, among other things, actively questioning authority and learning to think morally for ourselves. We need to practice it in the little things—among our peers, at school or work or church—if we hope to have the civil courage to take a stand for bigger things.

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Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Beyond Prohibition or Justfication

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Language matters, and in fact the vocabulary we use can shape a conversation, defining what we talk about. I see this happening among those of my fellow evangelicals who advocate for nonviolence, both in how we understand faithfulness to the way of Jesus and the character and way of God revealed in Christ. While I share this commitment to nonviolence as an essential part of Christian discipleship, I would like to propose that the term “nonviolence” itself is restricting the pursuit of this goal and causing us to get stuck. I want to propose instead that we need to learn to speak of peacemaking.

For many evangelicals, when they speak of their commitment to nonviolence as well as their understanding of God’s nonviolence, this is understood primarily in terms of something you abstain from; it is a commitment to not do something; it is a prohibition. Some examples of this would be Greg Boyd, Preston Sprinkle, and perhaps to a lesser extent my buddy Brian Zahnd.

This is a position that has a lot of weight behind it. The early followers of Jesus (for the first few centuries, pre-Constantine) were in fact known for refusing to defend their lives with violence, and associated this with faithfulness to Jesus. That’s the whole idea of being a martyr for Jesus.

Now, does that mean that we as Christians today should not defend ourselves when our lives are in danger? Some would say yes. They would understand Jesus’ teachings as forbidding the use of violence. Nonviolence here is primarily about what you are not permitted to do, similar perhaps to saying “no sex outside of marriage.”

Let me be clear that I do not disagree with this commitment, and in fact share this commitment to abstaining from violence personally. I also fully appreciate the merits of the position, both in terms of the New Testament witness and the witness of the martyrs. In fact, my intent is not to critique or disagree with this position, but rather my aim is to help it. I observe that this particular approach -- which is a position which I have often found myself seeking to defend -- has unwittingly resulted in getting us stuck, and I’d like to propose a way to get us unstuck. To do that, I’d like to change the conversation from a focus on saying what we will not do, and move towards saying what we will do. If we say that we will not use violence as a means to bring about justice, then how do we propose that justice should be brought about? If we will not use violence as a means to bring about peace and safety, then how do we propose to do that?

Simply focusing on what we abstain from does not address these important questions. So I want to propose that instead of speaking about non-violence (in terms of a non action, a prohibition, a thing we don’t do) we instead speak of peace-making which implies concrete action, making peace.

To state this differently, the question we should be asking is not “is violence justified?” but “how can we reduce violence?” Think about all the what-if scenarios those who endorse non-violence always find themselves needing to justify: What if you were police during a mass shooting? Would violence be justified then? Those who take the stance of a total commitment to non-violence find themselves presented with these very emotional hypothetical scenarios, with the implication being that “of course surely then you would see violence as justified, wouldn’t you?!”

A corollary to this are the endless biblical debates as to whether or not Jesus and/or the New Testament ever endorses violence. What about those two swords? What about that one thing Jesus said? Notice again that the focus is again on whether violence is ever justified.

The dynamic I see happening here is that there is a concern that if a person committed to non-violence admits that in these extreme cases violence would be justified, or admits that Jesus just might endorse violence in some cases, this will lead to a slippery slope where more and more violence is justified, until eventually just about any violence is justified. Unfortunately, I think this concern is well founded. There is a strong narrative, particularly in the USA, that lethal violence is not a last resort but more and more it is the first and only resort. We not only see violence being justified, both in movies as well as from conservative preachers, we see it being glorified by them. Violence is portrayed as holy, noble, patriotic, heroic... to the point that it is beyond question.

The slippery slope fear is real. So in reaction people will double-down in a teetotalling sort of way, insisting that violence is never justified. Often here an authoritarian appeal is made to Scripture. Jesus clearly forbids it, it is argued, so it doesn’t matter whether nonviolence is an effective means of bringing about good or not, violence is just forbidden, period.

So we have this dynamic where each side gets more and more extreme. I think the way to get out of it is to change the question. Instead of asking “is violence ever justified?” we should instead ask “what can we do here to reduce violence?” Consider that if I myself refuse to commit violence, that does not in itself do anything to reduce violence in my community or world. So if I want to have less domestic violence, less mass shootings, less terrorism, and so on, what can we do to move towards that? That’s the question we need to be asking.

In regards to the question of whether violence is ever justified, I will take the middle ground and say yes, it is in some cases. I think for instance that the police officer who shoots an active shooter on a rampage is doing the best thing in that situation. In fact, I’m frankly glad they do it, and I do not feel any moral conflict for saying so. Saying that however does not in any way stop me from wanting to find ways to reduce violence in my country and world, including working to reform the systemic problems that lead to police shooting unarmed people of color. I’m glad we have police to protect us in situations like mass shootings, but those police officers are just fallible humans like me, and are just as susceptible to bias as any of us are. They therefore need to be educated in tools of conflict resolution and trained how to deescalate dangerous situations. They need to work to develop positive relationships of mutual trust and respect with the communities they serve. Because of this lack of training we not only have people not wanting to call 911 for a domestic dispute for fear that their spouse will be shot, we also have police officers in more danger because they only know how to escalate, rather than deescalate dangerous situations. So I want to get away from this hero bravado and recognize that these are just humans with a difficult job, which I am grateful for. They need to be provided with the training and tools to do that job the best way possible.

Notice that the position I am advocating is messy and imperfect. That's hard to take for those of us who come from the evangelical focus on being "100% sold out for Jesus" and who yearn for perfection and purity in our lives. It is not the story of "before I was bad, but now I've seen the light and am completely healed and free!" I'm sure the idealistic teen version of myself would not have liked this. I would have seen it as compromising, selling out. I love my teen self, but I'd hope that he would learn as he grows and matures that if we insist on perfection or nothing, we usually end up getting nothing. That does not mean as an adult that I have given up on the goal, but it does mean that I recognize that it takes lots of little imperfect steps to get closer to that goal. So I hope I can act to make a world that is a little less violent today than it was yesterday, and continue working to make it even less violent tomorrow. It's a slow march towards justice and love.

I think we can find a useful parallel to the issue of violence in looking at divorce. One could easily take Jesus’ words to say that divorce is categorically forbidden. On a low moral level we ask questions of permission and prohibition. So the question here becomes, “Am I allowed to get a divorce or not?” But the deeper and more important question to ask is “What do we need to do to have a good and healthy marriage?” and more specifically “How can we break out of our patterns of hurt and conflict, and restore trust, and the joy, surprise, and closeness in our relationship again?” After all, I think we can also all agree that no one likes divorce. It’s a painful and tragic experience. So the goal is to see if it is possible to help marriages to be restored. This is an approach that is not naive or idealistic, but very aware that our human experience is one of imperfection and struggle. It begins right in the middle of that and seeks to move us towards love.

I know a thing or two about this specific issue because my wife is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in marriage counseling. As a couples counselor she would agree that in some situations divorce is the best option. However, part of her job is to help people to heal their marriages, getting past wounds and hurts, in order to avoid divorce whenever possible. That doesn’t mean staying in an unhealthy marriage, it means working to make the marriage healthy and loving. Similarly with violence, if the question is “can it ever be justified” I will answer: Yes, it can. So can divorce. So we can stop with all those hypothetical what-if scenarios, and we can stop with all the unproductive biblical arguments about Jesus and swords. Let’s move beyond that, and instead all agree that even if divorce and violence can both be justified, we’d all nevertheless like to live in a world with less divorce and with less violence. Not only that, we’d all like to live in a world with happy loving marriages, and with people living in security and freedom. In order to get to that, the kinds of questions we need to be asking are therefore: How can we work to mend broken relationships? How can we work to resolve conflict? How can we work to bring about social justice? How can we promote safety? How can we reduce harm? How can we become ministers of reconciliation and peacemakers in the world?

I think changing the question from “is violence ever justified?” to “how can we reduce harm and work for good?” offers us a way to break out of these spirals of biblical debates and hypothetical scenarios, as well as to avoid painting ourselves into a corner of an extreme position of teetotalling nonviolence backed by authoritarian appeals to Scripture. Instead of going in circles or getting stuck we can move towards working for peace and justice and love—working to reduce harm by promoting the way of Jesus and the four “R”s of the gospel: reconciliation, redemption, reform, restoration.

At the same time, it allows those on the edge to be able to take steps towards this way without feeling that they need to forsake their love of family and desire to protect them from harm. It may be for many of us that we can only get to asking how we can work to resolve conflict and reduce violence after we first allow ourselves to say that violence in the case of things like self defense is a justifiable and understandable response. In regards to self-defense, I totally understand why a person would want to defend themselves or their loved ones. So would I. You will get no condemnation from me there. But what I do want us to try to do is think together about what we might be able to do to promote peace and resolve conflict. How can we work towards that, while of course caring for the safety and well-being of everyone involved? So perhaps we need to say to each other, “I can’t condemn you for resorting to violence in self-defense. I might do the same if I were in that situation. But let’s work together to see if we can find a better way. Let’s find out how we can actively work to lessen violence, resolve conflict, and restore relationships. Let’s learn how to work for justice and peace.”

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