"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Anatomies of Evil and Heroism

"The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
-- Alexandre Solzenitsyn --
"Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, to hurt people physically, to destroy people (or ideas) mortally, and to commit crimes against humanity," says renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, an expert defense witness for soldiers accused in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Abu Ghraib was classically explained away by the upper echelons of the U.S. military and administration as a "few bad apples spoiling the barrel." However, in seeking to explain how individuals become transformed into monsters, Zimbardo looks at three factors: the dispositional (that which is inside of the individual which makes him or her "a bad apple"), the situational (the situation external to the individual which may be deemed "a bad barrel"), and the systemic (broad political, economic and legal influences put in place by "bad barrel-makers"). There is, Zimbardo posits, a broad interplay between all three factors. And, that which makes some of us monsters, may make others heroes . . . dependent on the circumstances and the action (or inaction) of the individual in the face of evil.

Zimbardo, who was a principal researcher in the now-infamous Stanford Prison Experiment study notes that there are seven social processes that "grease the slippery slope of evil," those being:
  • Mindlessly taking the first small step
  • The dehumanization of "others"
  • The de-individuation (or anonymity) of self
  • The diffusion of personal responsibility
  • Blind obedience to authority
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms, and
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction, or indifference.
In contrast, Zimbardo, who is working to develop a "psychology of heroism" to inoculate children against just such a "slippery slope," notes that "heroes are ordinary people whose social action is extraordinary, who act when others are passive, and who give up ego-centrism for socio-centerism."

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