April 12, 2006


Photo: The face of evil. This man has gone over to the Dark Side. There's no hope for him. He's all bad. He's a devil now.

To return to a theme from one of last week's postings, it's hard to get a handle on evil (see April 6 "Prisoners of Zarathustra"). Sometimes we don't take it seriously enough. More often, we oversimplify it by seeing ourselves or our side as all good and the Other as all evil.

One of the best efforts to make sense of it is found in social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister's 1997 study, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.

According to Baumeister, "Evil requires the deliberate actions of one person, the suffering of another, and the perception or judgment of either the second person or an observer. Very few people see their own actions as evil..."

Since evil is largely in the eye of the beholder, victims and perpetrators have vastly different perspectives on the acts in question. For the latter, it's usually "not that big a deal," while to the victim it is a very big deal. Baumeister calls this difference in perspective the "magnitude gap," and it is one reason why acts of revenge are often out of proportion to the original offence.

One thing that keeps us from understanding evil and dealing with it is what he calls "the myth of pure evil," which most of us pick up from sources such as myths, comic books, action movies, etc.

According to the myth, evil involves the intentional infliction of harm for the pleasure of doing it. Victims are all innocent and good and perpetrators are all evil. Evil is always "the other, the enemy, the outsider, the out-group." It has always been around and always will be; it is the enemy of order, peace and stability.

One problem with seeing the world in this way is that in any given war or serious conflict, both sides see each other in terms of the myth. Perpetrators usually see themselves as victims.

Although the book was written before 9/11, it helps shed light on subsequent events. "Even terrorists, who would seem to be the most obvious example of a group that attacks and kills innocent people, conform to this pattern. Terrorists see themselves as victims. One scholar observed how striking it is that despite the great diversity of causes that terrorists represent, their rhetoric has broad similarities. They all tend to speak as if they were engaged in a battle against the forces of evil, who have somehow amassed great power and numbers on their side."

Similarly, the torturers of the Inquisition and the witch burners were convinced that they were defending the faith and protecting society from people who were totally evil. And so on. People are really good at justifying their own injustice and groups are much better at it than individuals.

According to Baumeister, "the myth of pure evil conceals the reciprocal causality of violence. By doing so, it probably increases the violence. The myth of pure evil depicts innocent victims fighting against gratuitously wicked, sadistic enemies. The myth encourages people to believe that they are good and will remain good no matter what, even if they perpetrate severe harm on their opponents. Thus, the myth of pure evil confers a kind of moral immunity on people who believe in it...belief in the myth is itself one recipe for evil, because it allows people to justify violent and oppressive actions. It allows evil to masquerade as good."

This is pretty good theology too. As the First Epistle of John put it, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."


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