Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Roy Baumeister on the myth of pure evil

In his book Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty Roy Baumeister opens early with an observation that many people operate with what he calls the "myth of pure evil".  We know what he means without his even having to define the phrase but he defines it anyway, that this myth is predicated on the assumption that evil people know they're evil. They revel in their evil, cackle like supervillains and so on. But people who commit terrible acts very often are conflicted about their acts or find ways to justify their actions to make the decisions seem less terrible. In most cases these evils are not epic but pedestrian yet cause significant relational damage. 

If a man, for instance, hires a friend because of friendship and discovers the friend is not able to perform the work adequately the man may fire the friend. The friend may feel betrayed and the man who fired him feels guilty for having hired someone he realizes he should not have hired. Who is evil here?  The fired friend may feel the friend is evil for having dangled the false hope of steady employment. The man may feel guilty for having hired his friend without being fully aware of his friend's lack of competence for the job. In this case the man may have to defend his firing on the basis of poor job performance but he may have to decide his friend was less than honest about his competency in order to justify why he hired the friend to begin with.

The friend, meanwhile, may feel an emotional pull to consider the man dishonest for having hired and then fired, either dishonest wth the friend or dishonest with himself.  In both cases the men may be tempted by their desire to defend their own competence and good will by developing a narrative in which the fault mainly lays with the other.  Or both men could admit that the hiring decision was ill-advised and a bad fit and help each other come up with a better alternative.

Baumeister (in chapter 1) mentions that crucial to any evil act is a magnitude gap.  That is to say the magnitude of an act as perceived by the perpetrator and the victim is considerable.  The victim will perceive the act as heinous and possibly unforgivable while the perpetrator considers the decision or action, if not pleasurable, then difficult but necessary. A father who doesn't really know what's going on the lives of his children may keep up appearances of having a lot of open and honest communication in his family that outsiders might consider dishonest but for the father this is not deceit, it is putting faith in the good will that if he were actually home enough to converse with his children his children would want to talk with him. 

The children, by contrast, might feel that his being out and about all the time suggested either that he didn't want to speak with them or presumed to know what was going on already.  But to an outsider this could all come across as the whole family being dishonest or phony when it is not really the case.  Still, it is a small and convenient explanation of a magnitude gap that almost any of us can observe a few times in our lives.  Who hasn't concluded that a family of people wasn't fake and keeping up appearances? What seems like dishonesty to one person may be perceived as politesse and kindness within the social group.

Baumeister points out in chapter 1 that the myth of pure evil can be used to inspire utterly fraudulent stories that appeal to people because of that myth.  He cites the case of Susan Smith who falsely claimed her children were kidnapped by a strange black man who made off with them.  The child was eventually found dead and Smith admitted to having killed her children. In a sick irony a fabricated story appealing to the myth of a pure evil (the evil strange of a different race) was used as a way to distract from an actual evil, killing two children. A mythic narrative of evil has often been used to commit real evil.  You're going to Godwin this anyway so I'm skipping past that one since we all know it here on the internet.

What can happen within institutions is that scapegoats can become useful.  An institution may encourage abuse or misuse or the use of people. Rather than consider the institution itself to have systemic problems and weaknesses a few chosen scapegoats are permitted to embody evils that are considered bad and are disposed of.  So, an institution may have problems with competently handling some process.  Maybe the institution made the news for this problem, whether it was environmental effects of production processes or the discipline of employees or club members. The institution may decide that the best thing to do is mention that some people got retroactively canned for abusing authority even though the actual limits and guidelines of the use of authority may not have been defined to begin with.

To get archly political about it sometimes the trouble is not the deed, at least within a social setting, but the cover-up.  The history of journalism is full of stories where some company did something they considered to be just fine that outsiders considered evil and the response?  Fire whoever got in trouble by risking public exposure. Someone who may have been doing what was considered normal and acceptable within a social system may get punished not for having done anything that was considered legitimately wrong in the social unit at the time but simply for being caught or inadvertantly getting the attention of outsiders who wondered what was up.  Or as Caiaphas told the Sanhedrin in John's gospel, better that one man die than the whole nation be destroyed. 

Baumeister's observation that people who commit evil do not see their actions as being as significant as those harmed by the actions is an obvious point but, as a teacher of mine used to say, don't underestimate the obvious. In most cases people who say and do evil things are convinced they are doing the right thing. The reaction of many people to televangelists or megachurch pastors or politicians is to operate from within a myth of pure evil in which those other evil people are the people who roast babies for breakfast while we are the ones who save innocent children.

The reality is far more disconcerting and scary, that any of us is capable of immense evil but, in our daily lives, most of the evils we do we consider trivial things other people should just get over or things we nurse grudges about or just ignore.  The smaller the magnitude gap, ineffable as it generally is, the easier it is to overlook an offense.  Someone cut you off on the commute from work to home.  That's aggravating but you get over it, right? Someone kills your friend in a drunk-driving incident, you don't just overlook that, do you? In the myth of pure evil one is evil and the other is nothing but in the reality of life we may consider things to be a continuum on a scale.  Or, as Jesus put it, whoever is faithful with little will be faithful with much, and if you can't be trusted with things that belong to others who will entrust you with that which is your own? Evil, as well as good, is often found in the smallest places and acts.

The magnitude gap between an action and its perception is the gap within which we defend ourselves or attack others.  I may have said some tough stuff but you over-reacted.  I'm just passionately making my case for why I'm right and you're making things up that I didn't say.  I'm being attacked by people who take things I said out of context.  I'm being pilloried for being willing to decide what I want to do with my own time.  That I could have said something terrible and offensive; that I wasn't taken out of context; that I am receiving fair criticism for misrepresenting things in making my case; or that I'm being criticized for having priorities that dehumanize someone are things I may not want to concede. I might concede all these points if the relationship in which this flare up occurs is one I want to keep, with a friend or a family member.  But if it's someone "out there" you and I generally dismiss things, don't we?

Most of us, when we do things that offend others, realize that these things are on a much smaller scale than a Stalin or a Mao.  Yet a brother offended is harder to win over than a fortified city, isn't he?  And contention is like the barred gates of a citadel. Doesn't Proverbs 18:19 say that?  Why, yes it does. Consider for a moment that the bars and the gate of that citadel may often take the form of what Roy Baumeister has called the "magnitude gap". This is certainly where many real wrongs become apparent and I'm certainly not suggesting wrongs not be addressed but it is also a place in which the temptation emerges to indulge the idea that whomever has wronged you or people you like is pure evil. The trouble with this can be summed up both directly and obliquely by the Preacher:

Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
  no one who does what is right and never sins.
Do not pay attention to every word people say,
  or you may hear your servant cursing you—
  for you know in your heart
  that many times you yourself have cursed others.
Ecclesiastes 7:20-22

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