April 01, 2011

Going bad

I've been blogging lately about Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as a work of social realism that has a lot to say about working for social justice. This is installment #5.

In Philip Zimbardo's fascinating book on human evil, The Lucifer Effect, the author examines the many different ways otherwise good people can be induced to cross a line that is hard to see at first. In chapter 12 of that work, he quotes C.S. Lewis about the human desire to be part of the in crowd, the powerful set:
I believe that in all men's lives at certain periods, and in many men's lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside...Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

Zimbardo writes that
a powerful force in transforming human behavior, pushing people across the boundary between good and evil, comes from the basic desire to be "in" and not "out." If we think of social power as arrayed in a set of concentric circles from the most powerful central or inner ring moving outward to the least socially significant outer ring, we can appreciate his focus on the centripetal pull of that central circle.

In LOTR, we see this happening in the case of the wizard Saruman, who started out as leader of the Wise but is drawn to the power of Sauron the Dark Lord. Saruman tells Gandalf
A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor. This then is the one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in means.

In other words, he wants to be one of the big dogs at the center of things. Sure, he may not go along with all of it, but he might have a chance here or there to make some things happen, all the while telling himself he isn't really changing. It sounds like an ambitious person today going to work for a powerful politician or a major CEO.

That's a well-trod path, unfortunately.

ZOMBIE ECONOMICS is alive and well.

BASEBALL SEASON just started. Here's economist Dean Baker going to bat for Social Security.

ANOTHER MEASURE. What does it really take to be (fairly) economically self-sufficient?

FRESH FIGS. Here is the latest edition of the Rev. Jim Lewis' Notes from Under the Fig Tree.

IRAQ. It isn't even safe to breathe there.


1 comment:

Elizabeth Gaucher said...

Brilliant, Rick. Really well done. I always enjoy your allegory work but this is top shelf. Thank you....