07 Apr Similar and Different: Good and Evil
The last post in this series had highlighted the emergence of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan and religious nationalism in India. I took the position that there was near consensus on the cause of the phenomenon in Pakistan while it was much more difficult to provide a convincing explanation in the case of India. The plan was to make an attempt at an explanation in this post.
Comments from Vinod have altered the plan and forced a step back. There is a legacy of communal prejudice that needs an explanation in its own right before we can move on to more recent phenomena. So this post will engage with the question posed by Vinod: Where does this prejudice come from?
My position on this issue is that human beings who are essentially good often act in ways that are not good. We need to explain how such an eventuality can occur. It so happens that this is the theme of a book (The Lucifer Effect) by Philip Zimbardo, considered amongst the leading social psychologists of our time. The book is based on the author’s attempts to provide an explanation for what happened at Abu Gharaib and I will borrow his words to make my point more effectively than I could myself.
Zimbardo titles the book The Lucifer Effect (TLE) to refer to the cosmic transformation of God’s favorite angel, Lucifer, into Satan. This
sets the context for my investigations into lesser human transformations of good, ordinary people, not angels, into perpetrators of evil in response to the corrosive influence of powerful situational forces. Those forces that exist in many common behavioral contexts are more likely to distort our usual good nature by pushing us toward engaging in deviant, destructive, or evil behavior when settings are new and unfamiliar. When embedded in them, our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting no longer function to sustain the moral compass that has guided us reliably in the past.
I challenge the traditional focus on the individual’s inner nature, dispositions, personality traits, and character as the primary and often the sole target in understanding human failings. Instead, I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can be readily seduced into engaging in what would normally qualify as ego-alien deeds, as antisocial, as destructive of others. That seduction or initiation into evil can be understood by recognizing that most actors are not solitary figures improvising soliloquies on the empty stage of life. Rather, they are often in an ensemble of different players, on a stage with various props and changing costumes, scripts, and stage directions from producers and directors. Together, they compromise situational features we must come to appreciate as influencing how behavior can be dramatically modified. By recognizing the impact of any given play, we implicate systemic features into our analysis. Thus TLE is a call for a three-part analysis of human action by trying to understand what individual actors bring into any setting, what situational forces bring out of those actors, and how system forces create and maintain situations.
Zimbardo rejects the approach that looks for causes of evil in the nature of human beings. Instead he focuses our attention on the system that gives rise to situations that lead good people to act in evil ways.
This perspective is in keeping with the argument that we have been advancing on this blog. In a number of earlier posts we have identified the systemic cause of tensions in the subcontinent as the introduction by the British of electoral politics based on separate electorates. This eventually gave rise to the situation of the Partition, which, in turn, shaped the actions of individuals spurred on by many producers and directors.
In the Preface to the book Zimbardo states that it was painful for him to undertake this journey into the ‘heart of darkness’ but he did so because he believed that the very same situation that can inflame the hostile imagination and evil in some of us can inspire the heroic imagination in others.
My new mission is promoting this conception of teaching people, especially our children, to think of themselves as “heroes-in-waiting,” ready to take a heroic action in a particular situation that may occur only once in their lifetime.
These are inspiring words and they give us hope that we can build a better future in South Asia by understanding what has led us astray in the past.