Maybe everyone else already knew, but I “discovered” a treasure trove of addresses on YouTube, a series of archived Google Talks. Almost as much fun as TED. I mentioned the work of Philip Zimbardo (Or “Dr. Z”) a couple of months back, discussing The Lucifer Effect: Why Good People do Evil, which is pretty much the title of his new book. Yesterday, I referred to bad apples being the creation of bad barrels as a metaphor for the way in which bad systems can corrupt good leaders, resulting in the abuse of the people within those systems. The metaphor comes from Dr. Z’s talk at Google.
What follows below along with the embedded 77-minute video are my notes jotted down as I listened to it last week. My own thoughts, comments, and associations are italicized. I don’t provide much for external links in the notes, but most of them are contained in the previously mentioned post on Zimbardo’s work. A lot of this is just “thinking out loud” rather than formed thoughts or convictions, so have at it in the comments.
In general, I find Zimbardo’s thoughts on how good people do evil deeds very helpful in sorting out and making sense of the topic of spiritual abuse. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that spiritual abuse is on par with the goings-on at Abu-Ghraib, but the general principle of a system corrupting anotherwise good or noble person is definitely applicable not only to what happens to child soldiers, but also to church leaders brought up or into a flawed or corrupt system. When I left my spiritually-abusive CLB, one of the most difficult things for me was the realization of what I had perpetrated in what I described even then as an environment of systemic abuse. While the observations and explanations from Dr. Zimbardo do not and are not intended to excuse culpability, the explanation itself is helpful, and as noted yesterday, very instructive toward the development of systems which are not prone to creating a culture of abuse.
- Abu-Ghraib prison not the result of a few bad apples as claimed, but the result of good apples in a bad barrel.
Illustrates the mistakenness of the Bush Administration’s explanation for these happenings. In fact, the same things have all been seen before in the Stanford Experiment, which substantively explains Abu-Ghraib. Notable: in the Q&A at the end, Dr. Z gives his assessment of what he would do differently and his own error in the Stanford experiment.
- Lucifer cannot directly work on individuals, so he works through witches to inflict evil. Witch hunts were undertaken in an effort to break the link between Lucifer and evil upon humanity by killing the witches: kill all the witches, and there would be no more evil. Most witches were women, and it is surmised by some that this is the root of violence against women, of men in church and state identifying women as “the enemy.”
Theology of the devil that gave rise to the witch trials. Interesting to see the logic behind it all; not certain about this as the root of violence against women, but certainly plausible… for men, women are in some ways a mystery that cannot be explained or understood, and in the extreme the actions against them could share this commonality, the inability to deal with the unexplained. Not sure about that one! What does seem to make a more direct connection is in the church — the
charismaniaccharismatic churches that like to talk about the “Spirit of Jezebel” and the “Spirit of Control” or anything “Jezebelic” often reveals an extreme discomfort with strong or outspoken women as well as a fear of losing any degree of control. Lots in here for further thought/discussion.
- The extreme cosmic transformation of Lucifer into Satan sets the context for investigating lesser character transformations of ordinary good people into perpetrators of evil — corrupted by powerful situational forces at some times, in some behavioral contexts.
Lucifer’s is the archetypcial fall — and the position from which he fell indicates that nobody is immune from such corruption. Beware of situations that increase this risk.
- Evil defined: the exercise of power to intentionally harm (psychologically), hurt (physically), and/or destroy (mortally or spiritually). Or simply, knowing better and doing worse.
Simple definition — the brief restatement puts evil within everyone’s daily grasp. Uncomfortable, but we probably can’t call it untrue.
- “exercise of power” is key [in this definition].
What I keep referring to as a “power imbalance” in relationships. Wherever one person has more power and particularly where they take steps of any kind to maintain this power, abuse is not only possible, but in some capacity, likely. How many notable sayings and proverbs are there about “power” and its abuse or its corrupting quality.
- our fascination with evil is fueled by the element of power.
Makes sense. This is the essence of many “black arts” and the pursuit of esoteric knowledge. People want power over others, and where they see a potential means, there’s perhaps a fascination.
- How do psychologists understand the psychological dynamics of such transformations of human character?
* Dispositional: personal pathologies of guilty actors, character defects, sadistic personalities. “The Bad Apples”
* Situational: good men and women corrupted by the behavioral context, by powerful situational forces. “The Bad Barrel”
* Systemic: barrel of prison within the barrel of war — broader extrinsic influences: political, strategic, economic, cultural, and the legal context created and maintained by higher authorities — The “Bad Barrel-Makers”
How do we apply this to transformational plans for spiritual formation? If we’re saying we don’t have enough disposition, we need to create a system of positive situations to help form, guide, or change our disposition?
- dispositional error: we tend to overestimate the contribution of personality and underestimate the contribution of situations
This is most helpful — not to excuse individual culpability, but most importantly, when a leader fails, we should not be so quick to assume the problem stops with the leader… we need to re-examine the system in which they fell and see what can be changed in order to prevent further failings. This was actually the impetus for what became the shepherding movement, but they in fact created an abusive system to alleviate what was seen as a dangerous situation… so in that case, the cure was worse than the disease. I wonder if we overestimate personality because of our high opinions of ourselves… “Oh, *I* would never do *that*!” Oh, really? Easy to say when you’re not in the situation.
- (shock experiments) // Milgram Experiment
Instructive to illustrate that people are willing to do what they say they’ll never do, provided there’s someone in authority who gives instructions and claims to “take responsibility” for the outcome. Suggests we’ll do almost anything if we can blame someone else. Hmm, reminds me of the account of original sin.
- “In the long and gloomy history of mankind, more crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than in the name of disobedience.” — C.P. Snow
Wow. This observation explains so much of war, including religious war. Questioning the instruction or its understanding doesn’t take place in these circumstances. The phrase, I think, is “blind obedience.”
- Schlesinger Report: Social Psychology’s Value — “The potential for abusive treatment of detainees during the Global War on Terrorism was entirely predictable based on a fundamental understanding of the principles of social psychology coupled with an awareness of numerous known environmental risk factors … Findings from the field of social psychology suggest that the conditions of war and the dynamics of detainee operations carry inherent risks for human mistreatment, and therefore must be approached with great caution and careful planning and training.”
This is stunning — it was *predictable* based on environmental factors, a.k.a., “the system.” Perhaps the treatment of detainees or POWs would need to be a distinct military discipline that includes psychological instruction as well as military training, paired with an extremely high degree of oversight. The latter would be best monitored by organizations such as the Red Cross and Amnesty International. But nobody asked my opinion, of course.
- Heroes — ordinary people who do an extraordinary deeds.
If we’re going to define evil, we need to say something about the flip-side. This definition attempts to put heroism within everyone’s daily grasp, just like evil is.
- Joe Darby (whistle-blower on Abu Ghraib) had to be put into protective custody for three years, along with his family. They were receiving death threats not only from those with connections to the military, but civilians as well.
This is somewhat shocking, actually… not so much that those who were invested would be outraged, but that those who are not invested (civilians) would be as well. Is “the evil that lurks in the hearts of men”? (Ask The Shadow.) Darby only did “what was right”, but it took incredible courage to buck the system.
- Psychology of Heroism:
* Encourage children, families, everyone to develop the heroic imagination; to think of one’s self as a hero-in-waiting for some situation to provide the catalyst for action on behalf of others, or for defending an ideal — a moral principle.
* Heroes are ordinary people whose social action is extra-ordinary / who act when others are passive, who give up ego-centrism for socio-centrism
I really like the application that Zimbardo makes from his study of evil… basically says, “Okay, that’s so much understood about evil — how do we use that to promote exceptional *goodness*?” I like these ideas of “developing a heroic imagination.” If we do this with our children, they will inherently challenge us and make us uncomfortable — which is an exceptionally good result. Be on the lookout for instances where a moral principle needs defending. The enemy of this kind of heroism isn’t necessarily evil, but passivity. Evil is a whole ‘nother thing.
- We don’t have many truly *new* situations — we stick to what we know; don’t assume we know what we’ll do in a new situation.
The fact that most of us are so rarely placed in *truly* new or unique situations means we can’t actually predict with certainty how we’ll react. This is why we need so much positive conditioning beforehand.
- One day you will be in a new situation with 3 paths: you become a perpetrator of evil, you become guilty of passive inaction, you go straight ahead and become a hero. (an ordinary hero, waiting for the right situation to put our heroic imagination into action.)
Again, all in our daily grasp. Which road to choose?
- How do we develop a curriculum that teaches children to be ordinary heroes?
Excellent question, doesn’t get much more practical. Probably lots of talking about it, but history lessons with examples of such actions would be a great way, and provides good discussion points. I’m interested to know who might be placed on people’s lists of such heroes to review with children of whatever age.
- End note: oppose injustice, immorality, incompetence, entitlement, and personal power of fascist governments — at home and abroad.
That statement stands alone.
Well? Have at it in the comments!
Many MANY great insights here – thanks for sharing the ideas and your notes, Bro.
One riff for now: the idea of cultivating the heroic imagination. This is not mere utopianism; it rolls into one such practices as functional communitarianism, discerning and pursuing “preferable” futures, human rights, etc. It is goodness that is accessible to all, reflects the Source of all goodness, and hopefully draws people toward the Source for their eventual direct connection with Jesus Christ and transformation into Christlikeness.
I wonder if this is why so many people love Lord of the Rings and similar kinds of epic literature where the smallest person can affect the course of the future. The bookends for LOTR are Hobbits – from the very outset, Tolkien says it is a story about Hobbits, and at the end we see Samwise truly at home again in Hobbiton. When we see a social evil, like spiritual abuse in churches and ministries, who will “take the ring” to see if the evil can be confronted and sent back to whence it came?
Is it possible that evil systems require people as lynchpins to keep it going, but that any one potentially can become the lynchpin to stop the machine (or at least attempt to confront/stop it), if they choose to do so?
Anyway, lots of food for thought in your post – thanks!