Could you torture innocent people? Could you take part in deliberate humiliation of others to a stage where you are doing deep psychological harm? Could you subscribe to deceitful and fraudulent practices in the organisation for which you work? If you reply in the negative, then you are almost certainly one of those at danger. But if you feel that, under given circumstances, you could do so, then join the human race and be on your guard.
You might argue that your great age and experience would protect you. No it wouldn’t. You might argue that your high level of education would protect you. No it wouldn’t. You might argue that being a faithful child of the Church would protect you. Sorry, not even that.
Philip Zimbardo is one of the most distinguished social scientists of our age. His book was triggered by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American guards in Abu Ghraib prison. You will have seen, and been disgusted by, the photographs. But he has devoted most of his professional life to examining the situations and circumstances in which “good people turn evil”. He emphasises that circumstances do not excuse individual responsibility but he demonstrates that plenty of circumstances exist within which evil is almost inevitable. Before you look at the bad apples, he says, you must look at the bad barrel.
His founding point is his Stanford prison experiment (1971) in which a group of college graduates, monitored for their normality, were randomly assigned to the roles of guards or prisoners in a mock prison. The experiment had to end after one week because of the increasing brutality of the guards, and the patent psychological damage being done to the prisoners. You may well know the experiment but I have never read it described in such meticulous detail.
He follows this up by accounts of many other experiments and observations which demonstrate the potential for evil in normal people. And he concludes with the Abu Ghraib prison incident (very far from isolated) which became public in 2004. Reality was acting out, but with far greater harshness, the lessons which had been learnt at Stanford three decades before. Yet the brunt of culpability was laid on the guards, the bad apples, and virtually none on those who had set up and supervised the situation, the bad barrel – even though the outcome was predictable.
I am not going to describe Zimbardo’s accounts because, if you have any interest in the nature of evil, you will read this book. Indeed without doing so you will find it hard to credit his conclusions. If you do, you will, like me, suffer a number of sleep-disturbed nights. I will just whet your appetite by mentioning the account of the teacher who told her class that she had discovered that blue-eyed children were naturally superior to brown eyed; and then, the next day, told them she had made a mistake and the facts were exactly the other way round. You can laugh or cry at the outcomes.
Zimbardo is not merely recording academic accounts, he is specifically challenging us to look at our behaviour, and in what ways we are affected by the different barrels in which we live. So let me muse, without blaming Zimbardo for any implications I may make.
I start at the comfortable historical distance of the Inquisition and the Marian persecutions. How could we, with the gospels at our side, have tortured and brutally killed those who sincerely disagreed with us? It was the context, the assumptions of the system within which we lived, and our rationalisation that made this seem virtuous. We were only doing our duty. Shades of Eichmann?
Let’s take a broader span of history. Anti-Semitism has historically been a feature of the Church, and in pockets it still exists. Here the traditional rationalisation was deicide. And of course the failure of the Jews to accept the true Messiah was evidence of their inferiority as human beings. De-humanising other groups has always made their persecution easier – just as de-humanising negroes made the slave trade possible, and indeed acceptable in many parts of the Church. (In another part of the woods, de-humanising babies in the womb has served its utilitarian purposes.)
Let’s get nearer the bone. The original excuse for not taking imperative action against paedophile clergy, but simply rapping their knuckles and moving them on, was excused by our ignorance, and rationalised by fear of scandal. Arguably it was our closed system which allowed the authorities to be naive about the nature of paedophilia, and imprudently optimistic about personal reform. Who would put a known fraudster in charge of the treasury? And the fear of scandal (protecting the group) is so often the stimulus for wishful thinking. Where was our vaunted wisdom of 2000 years?
Religion is particularly prone, and ironically so because its different forms so often emerge from the best intentions. But those who share these best intentions tend to form a group, large or small, which creates its own norms. The temptation to become exclusive and to look at those outside the group as inferior is strong. Think for instance of the Puritans or, within Catholicism, the Jansenists. It is not unknown for smaller, exclusive, groups to form within a larger community – a sort of church within the Church, if you like. Often their very exclusiveness and rigour attract devotees who are low on personal autonomy and high on need for the identity given by membership. Their own moral sense is replaced by the norms of the group. Despite their worthy inspiration, group members can become as those who have enough faith to move mountains but have not love, and are therefore nothing.
As I write, a survey comes in which tells me that less than half of American troops in Iraq believe that non combatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and that a substantial proportion support torture as a means of getting information. Bad apples? Bad barrel?
But there are far less dramatic instances. Anyone reading Zimbardo is likely to be spurred into considering what aspects of our belief and our behaviour emerge from the several groupings, including the purely secular, to which each of us belong. And then to judge, as individuals with independent consciences, whether we sincerely reject or confirm them.
Having both written and broadcast on this subject for many years I find myself still getting caught out. But I find it helps to admit my own vulnerability. And every day I try to commit at least one, perhaps mild, act of disobedience to the norm to keep the muscles of my autonomy in good trim.
I note that The Lucifer Effect can be found at http://www.amazon.co.uk, prices from £ 5- £7 (free postage). You can look at selected pages on Amazon.