Friday, January 22, 2021

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At the heart of it… Good versus evil, and the hero breaks the mold

Fixed, versus permeable lines, is a debate that tends to fill the discussions around change.

When I think about the quiet moments of my life, I think of times when routine took over, arguments and tragedies were minimal or nonexistent.

These times were fraught with what I thought were problems at the time, but when more pressing matters challenged my life’s path, I realized how smooth things were then.

In our lives, I think we strive for the “normal” that we once had, and sometimes, when we find it, we hang on to it for dear life.

We judge everything around us on the moments we think are peaceful, when things made sense and dire issues were just stories on the news.

Very few people in this world get to live in that bubble and keep the rest of the world out.

When the world’s fragility and injustice breaks in, we scream and cry to have those walls built and fortified so that our peace can be fixed in space and time.

Much like the walls around refugees in the TV series The Walking Dead, and other stories, those walls will never protect us from ourselves.

We are inevitably the source of our own destruction — whether that be the bad apple in the group, the minority or majority stronghold, or the ruler and his/her sheeple, we are often the cause of our own misery.

What then, is wrong with humans? How can we be both good and evil? Do evil acts make us bad people? Can good people do evil acts, and regret them? Can we forgive evil acts?

Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University, presents a TedTalk called the “Psychology of Evil” and posts an interesting explanation for humanity’s propensity for evil, and a solution for that propensity.

Zimbardo became known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment in which college students were given roles as either prisoners or prison guards.

The results of the experiment exposed good people capable of abusing their powers and becoming both verbally and physically abusive.

Zimbardo came to the conclusion that true evil stems from the unchecked exercise of power — “the power to intentionally harm (psychologically), hurt (physically), and/or destroy (mortally)” and thus commit crimes against humanity.

The transformation of a good person to an evil one is explained by psychologists as going from dispositional, to situational, to systemic.

Dispositional refers to the inside of an individual, the one “bad apple” of the group who ruins it for everyone else.

Situational is external influence, in which the situation causes the evil to occur, what Zimbardo calls the “bad barrel.

Finally, there is the systemic, which is from the political, economic and legal makers, or what Zimbardo calls the “bad barrel makers.”

Here is where Zimbardo refers to the Milgram Experiment.

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.

In this experiment, the scientist/authority figure, worked with a “teacher” and a “learner.”

The learner was an actor, but the teacher did not know this fact. The teacher would shock the learner, who was set up to receive an electrical shock for each time he answered a question incorrectly.

With each incorrect response, the voltage increased. When the learner pleaded that the experiment be stopped, the scientist would respond in one of four ways:

• Prod 1: Please continue.

• Prod 2: The experiment

   requires you to continue.

• Prod 3: It is absolutely

     essential that you continue.

• Prod 4: You have no other    

     choice but to continue.

Results of the experiment showed that 65 percent of the teacher participants carried out the experiment to 450 volts. One hundred percent of the participants carried the experiment up to 300 volts.

From this and several other repeat experiments, Milgram’s Theory was generated.

Milgram wrote in 1974, people are capable of two states:

• The autonomous state – people direct their own actions, and they take responsibility for the results of those actions.

• The agentic state – people allow others to direct their actions and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will.

According to Zimbardo, the slippery slope to agentic evil begins with mindlessly taking the first small step in following what seems like a harmless directive from an authority figure.

This proceeds into the dehumanization of others, de-individualizing oneself (having the appearance of anonymity in a group), diffusing personal responsibility, blindly following authority, uncritically conforming to group norms, and passively tolerating evil through inaction or indifference.

Power without oversight can easily send a whole nation down this slope, the most prominent example is Hitler’s Nazi regime.

When people mind their own business, others are open to abuse their power, and perpetrate evil by exercising their power to in some way harm others.

Zimbardo explains that in our individual-centered society, there are ways of thinking that do not help people choose good over evil.

Pre-emptive behaviors are motivated by thinking that centers on fear of punishment.

In our community, that is present in the banishment policy: if you are convicted of dealing meth, then you are banished from the reservation, even if you are a tribal member. If this is not severe enough, or if it is not adhered to and enforced, then it loses credibility and will not act as a deterrent for the behavior.

The widespread sentiment that life is cheap is another causality to evil. If people do not value life, and consider it too short to enjoy anyway, then punitive consequences will not deter behavior, and people will act with reckless abandon, not valuing their own lives or the lives of others.

Psychologist Robert Wright presents the idea of the nonzero sum game, which Zimbardo describes as people valuing others’ lives for selfish reasons.

In Eagle Butte, that may be exemplified in the relationship between the tribe and the government, in that the tribe relies on the government promise of fulfilling its treaty obligation to fund education.

The tribe has not refused that federal money even though it could, and therefore must adhere to federal regulations and obligations within the schools receiving federal funds.

The situation is a win-win of sorts, even though both parties do not get exactly what they want, both parties benefit from the arrangement, making it a nonzero sum grame.

Finally, Zimbardo says Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, introduced the Expanding Circle, in which people are born with the ability to empathize with others and see the interests of others as their own.

In Lakota culture, this is Mitakuye Oyasin, and it manifests in our community through the many efforts to care for the homeless, and the numerous community feeds that occur throughout the year sponsored by a wide number of organizations in the community, from the Cheyenne River Youth Project, to the State Bank of Eagle Butte, to the various CRST programs.

Zimbardo argues that the best paradigm to inspire good and deter evil is to expand our circles.

Many people I know brag about keeping their circle small because expanding that circle will lead to suffering in some way. Few people can be trusted.

I don’t think the avoidance of suffering is the reward of small circles. Rather, the smaller your circle, the more likely you will be alone in the end or when in need.

The issue with larger circles revolves more around the kinds of expectations we have of one another, and the levels of compassion and empathy we are willing to allow in our relationships with others.

The most common interaction we seem to have with one another is that of the pre-emptive behaviors.

People want to hurt before being hurt, assume the worst-case scenario in preparation for and leading to the worst outcomes.

When we are hurt, the first reaction we take is to fight or run, and in many cases it is to blame.

Maybe we have so many people blaming because we want people in power to take responsibility for their actions, and are unwilling to accept our own roles of inaction as part of the problem.

What if we took action ourselves by beginning to speak differently about and to one another, helping each other, clarifying rather than accusing and becoming defensive, walking away from one another when we are angry, and coming back to work things out after we have calmed down.

Maybe we should develop a consistent system for holding leadership accountable rather than waiting until things go wrong, and then pointing fingers.

I think it is time for us to broaden the circle rather than caring only for our own people, and only for our own interests.

Bad parents are not going to become good parents just because we refuse to feed their kids after school.

People are not going to stop murdering just because jail awaits them if they get caught.

Leaders are not going to follow the rules if no one holds them accountable for their actions.

We must be able to question authority. We must be able to question ourselves.

We must accept that accountability is necessary, but hate, blame and violence do not have to be in the equation.

If I hurt one of us, I hurt all of us.

If we are only as strong as our weakest link, we should figure out ways to strengthen that link, not eliminate it. 

Enacting all of these paradigm shifts is like walking on a wire across the Grand Canyon.

This thinking means I have to think about what authority figures tell me to do beyond the immediate moment, and ask myself, will this benefit more than just me? Will it harm anyone?

I have to make a conscious decision to follow or ignore a directive.

It means I have to challenge questionable directives; I have to manage my emotions; I have to ask for help when I am unsure; I have to accept responsibility for my actions; I have to pay attention to my needs and the needs of others; I have to admit when I am wrong, and change my behavior as a result.

It means I am a leader no matter who I am — someone who is called to do something out of the ordinary, and at personal risk and sacrifice, to make the world a better place.

To be mindful, to balance personal needs with community needs, to shake hands with your perceived enemy for the common good is not what we see as normal in our society, and it is what I think Zimardo may qualify as the answer to evil — heroism.

The more ordinary people who take steps into this uncertain territory of heroism without retreating from it, then the more good will triumph over evil.

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