July 19, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Dear mother, dear mother, the church is cold,
But the ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm;
Besides I can tell where I am used well,
Such usage in Heaven will never do well.

But if at the church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the church to stray.

Then the parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel. --William Blake


July 18, 2008


Beelzebub, "Lord of the Flies," from Beelzebub as depicted in Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is what the social sciences can tell us about human cruelty and violence. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

As mentioned yesterday, social psychologist Albert Bandura's research indicates that most people have a sense of morality that includes not doing bad things to others and helping them out when they need it. To repeat, that's the good news. The bad news is that we're pretty good at shutting morality down under certain conditions. He called this "moral disengagement."

Two ways of doing this that were discussed yesterday were redefining the situation and using euphemisms. But there are other ways as well. They include:

*advantageous comparison. "We didn't do bad stuff and if we did, it wasn't as bad as what the other guys do."

*displacement of responsibility. "...and besides, we were just carrying out the orders of our superiors."

*diffusion of responsibility. "I didn't kill anybody directly--I just put them on the train/pushed a button/etc." Modern atrocities, it should be noted, often have a complicated division of labor. If everyone just does one small part of the operation, it's easy for people to think they really weren't responsible.

*disregard or distortion of consequences. "It wasn't that bad."

*dehumanization. "And besides, they were just a bunch of [fill in the blank]."

*attribution of blame. "They had it coming anyway."

Here's a final thought. According to Bandura, moral disengagement usually doesn't happen all at once. It usually starts small and escalates over time as people get used to it. El Cabrero is reminded of a quote from Dostoevsky that I've used here more than once:

Man gets used to anything, the scoundrel.

ECONOMY AND AGING. Here's more on the longevity gap between rich and poor and the nation's retirement woes.

RIDING OUT THE RECESSION. Economist Paul Krugman predicts a slow recovery.

MORALITY AND WAR. A new study suggests that war effects the moral development of children, especially on how they think about revenge.

THREE WORDS THAT DON'T USUALLY GO TOGETHER are mountaintop removal and tourism.


July 17, 2008


St. Anthony tormented by demons, by way of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is understanding human evil, along with links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Most normal people have internalized moral norms about how other people should be treated. However, under certain conditions, these moral restraints can be shut off. The result is what psychologist Albert Bandura called "moral disengagement" and it is often a key feature in acts of violence and cruelty. Here's a link to an essay of his on the subject.

This is the abbreviated Goat Rope version:

Under normal conditions, people have both inhibitive and proactive moral tendencies. Inhibitive means we understand it's not nice to hit little Tommy with a sledge hammer. Proactive means that if little Susy falls into a pit of boiling sludge we should pull her out. That's the good news. The bad news is that people all too often have ways of tossing both out the window.

Here are a two ways that can happen:

*Reconstruing the situation or coming up with moral justifications to treat people badly. Labeling them as the enemy usually works pretty good here. So does ideology. As Voltaire once said,

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

*Using euphemisms. Orwell was all over this one:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

We don't blow away villages; instead, we use surgical strikes. We don't torture, we just use rough interrogation. We don't kill innocent civilians, although collateral damage happens.

There are other ways of kicking off the switch, about which more tomorrow.

THE WIDENING GAP between rich and poor isn't just about money; it's about life expectancy, as the latest snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute suggests.

OH GOOD. Inflation may be the order of the day. That's all we need during a recession...

HEALTH CARE. A new report from the Commonwealth Fund found that

the United States spends more than twice as much on each person for health care as most other industrialized countries. But it has fallen to last place among those countries in preventing deaths through use of timely and effective medical care...

A TOUGH TEA LEAF TO READ. The US is finally sending a high level official to talk with the Iranian government. With a normal administration, I'd say that was a good sign, but I trust this one about as far as I could throw it. A worst-case scenario would involve the Bush administration prematurely declaring diplomacy to be a failure in order to try to justify yet another war.

ON A SIMILAR NOTE, many Americans oppose a rush to war with Iran, if anybody is listening.

MEGAN WILLIAMS CASE. Bobby Brewster pleaded guilty to charges related to the kidnapping and torture of Megan Williams and faces up to 40 years in prison.

MINE SAFETY. Federal investigators are winding up a criminal investigation related to the fire at Massey Energy's Aracoma mine that killed two workers in Jan. 2006.



July 16, 2008


Don't kill the mockingbird. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

A pivotal scene in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird involves a mob about to lynch an African American accused of raping a white woman. Just as they are about to storm the jail, disaster is averted when the young girl Scout strikes up a personal conversation with someone in the mob. That little intervention brought the man back to himself.

While that's obviously a work of fiction, it does highlight some important truths about human behavior. People are more likely to engage in acts of violence and aggression when they part of a group, are caught up in a role they are playing, and/or are in a state of anonymity..

The psychological term for this is deindividuation. Together with the dehumanization of the victim or enemy group, it is one of the most powerful vectors of evil.

Often, a state of deindividuation is accompanied by a change in how one looks. This is particularly true in the case of warfare. As Philip Zimbardo wrote in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,

Cultural wisdom dictates that a key ingredient in transforming ordinarily nonaggressive young men into warriors who can kill on command is first to change their external appearance. Most wars are about old men persuading young men to harm and kill other young men like themselves. For the young men, it becomes easier to do so if they first change their appearance, altering their usual external facade by putting on military uniforms or masks or painting their faces. With the anonymity thus provided in place, out go their usual internal compassion and concern for others.

Deindividuation isn't always about personal appearance. It can happen in environments where people feel that no one knows who they are. Factors such as conformity, obedience to authority, groupthink, etc. all can contribute to deindividuation.

According to Zimbardo, there are two effective ways for bringing about this moral transformation. One is to "reduce the cues of social accountability of the actor (no one knows who I am or cares to)..." The other is to "reduce concern for self-evaluation by the actor," for example by the use of alcohol or drugs, emotional arousal, or by projecting responsibility outward onto others. A classical example of the latter is the belief that "I was just following orders."

THE YOUNG AND THE INSURANCE-LESS. Young adults are among those most at risk of lacking health coverage. Here's a link with more information and some policy suggestions.

THE SPORTING LIFE. And now for something completely different, the new sport of chess-boxing has gained national attention. El Cabrero is holding out for mah-jong ju jitsu.

THIS MIGHT EXPLAIN THAT UFO ABDUCTION. Loss of sleep can produce false memories, according to a recent study. But caffeine can help restore it.


July 15, 2008


World War I recruiting poster.

The theme at Goat Rope lately has been human evil and the kinds of things that make it thrive and grow (or not). If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

In George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, a typical workday includes an official two minute "hate session" aimed at enemies of the state. An image of an enemy appears on a screen and the faithful are expected to snarl, hiss, yell, jump up and down and otherwise to dutifully express their hatred.

You know, kinda like Fox News...

One of the most effective ways to create a climate in which evil flourishes is to label and dehumanize certain groups. This is usually an important step that governments and political movements use to pave the way to war, genocide, torture, and other atrocities.

For a good overview, click here.

As Philip Zimbardo wrote in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,

The powerful don't usually do the dirtiest work themselves, just as Mafia dons leave the "whackings" to underlings. Systems create hierarchies of dominance with the influence and communication going down--rarely up--the line. When a power elite wants to destroy an enemy nation, it turns to propaganda experts to fashion a program of hate. What does it take for the citizens of one society to hate the citizens of another society to the degree that they want to segregate them, torture, them even kill them? It requires a "hostile imagination," a psychological construction embedded deeply in the minds by propaganda that transforms those others into "The Enemy." That image is a soldier's most powerful motive, one that loads his rifle with the ammunition of hate and fear. The image of a dreaded enemy threatening one's personal well-being and the society's national security emboldens mothers and fathers to send sons to war and empowers governments to rearrange priorities to turn plowshares into swords of destruction.

Good thing that never happens anymore, huh?

100 YEARS? Majorities in the US and Iraq want a withdrawal of American troops.

NO MORE BLANK CHECKS. Here's Scott Ritter talking sense on Iran.

TOUGH DAYS FOR THE MARKET GOD. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne argues we're witnessing the shipwreck of market fundamentalism. The news hasn't reached everybody in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia yet.

THIS IS YOUR PET on drugs.

LOOK TO THE ANT, THOU SLUGGARD. That's what evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson does.


July 14, 2008


In his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, psychologist Philip Zimbardo comes up with a good working definition of evil:

Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others--or using one's authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.

People have a strong tendency to believe that human actions are guided by why Zimbardo calls inner determinants (motivations). This can cause us to neglect the force of outer determinants. This leads in turn to a kind of moral dualism in which we see some people (like us) as inherently good and others as inherently evil.

Zimbardo suggests that

The idea that an unbridgeable chasm separates good people from bad people is a source of comfort for at least two reasons. First, it creates a binary logic, in which Evil is essentialized. Most of us perceive Evil as an entity, a quality that is inherent in some people and not in others. Bad seeds ultimately produce bad fruits as their destinies unfold. ...

There are problems with this simplistic view. The idea of a Good/Evil dichotomy

takes "good people" off the responsibility hook. They are freed from even considering their possible role in creating, sustaining, or conceding to the conditions that contribute to delinquency, crime, vandalism, teasing, bullying, rape, torture, terror and violence. "It's the way of the world, and there's not much that can be done to change it, certainly not by me."

He suggests instead that we should think of evil in incrementalist terms, i.e. as something we are all capable of, depending on the situation. This view is more conductive to helping people take steps to prevent its spread.

WILL THEY OR WON'T THEY? Here's another look at Iran, the Bush administration, Israel and likely scenarios.

ANIMALS AND RIGHTS. As mentioned last week, the Spanish parliament is considering granting some quasi-"human" rights to great apes.

IMPERMANENCE. The NY Times reports that Buddhism may be dying out in Japan. Too bad--the world could use more of it.