This op-ed of mine ran in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail:
I’ve become fascinated with what might be called the science of evil, or what research tells us about violence, cruelty and conflict.
I’m not personally into all that myself (most days anyway), but I think the more we learn about such things, the better will be our chances for reducing them. After all, medicine wouldn’t have gotten very far if it didn’t study diseases and injuries.
It turns out that the science of evil has a lot to teach us. Psychologists like Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo have shown how normal people can be induced to do things they otherwise wouldn’t through pressures of conformity, obedience to authority, and social situations and systems.
I’ve been particularly struck by the research of Roy Baumeister, whose book “Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty” I discovered in the wake of 9/11.
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 ... ”
Victims and perpetrators generally have vastly different perspectives on the acts in question. For perpetrators, the actions in question usually aren’t a big deal, while to the victims they are a very big deal indeed. In fact, perpetrators, even very violent ones, often see themselves as victims and see their victims as perpetrators. Evil, Baumeister maintains, is in the eye of the beholder.
Baumeister calls this difference in perspective between victims and perpetrators the “magnitude gap,” and it is one reason why acts of revenge are often out of proportion to the original offence. This is why violence often doesn’t cycle — it spirals.
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. We’re all good; the “enemy” is all bad.
One problem with seeing the world in this way is that in any serious conflict, both sides see each other in terms of the myth, which makes it harder to de-escalate a potentially violent situation.
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.”
As Bob Dylan sang, “You don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.”
To use a fairly recent real life example of the danger of the myth of pure evil in action, shortly after 9/11, then President George Bush promised to “rid the world of evil-doers.”
That didn’t happen, as you may have noticed.
Instead, he led the country to an unnecessary war in Iraq (which had nothing to do with 9/11) that cost nearly 4,500 American fatalities and over 30,000 non-fatal U.S. casualties in addition to an Iraqi death toll somewhere in the hundreds of thousands, depending on the estimate. Not to mention a trillion or so in wasted money that could better have been spent or invested elsewhere.
I hope we can avoid that kind of outcome in the case of Iran. True, the U.S. and that country have glared at each other since the Iranian revolution of 1979, each seeing evil in the other.
Many in the U.S. see in Iran a repressive regime which seized American hostages, supports terrorism, pursues nuclear weapons, and threatens our allies. Many Iranians see the U.S. as an imperial nuclear power that helped overthrow their democratically elected government in 1953, installed the Shah’s repressive regime, aided Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and invades Muslim countries on flimsy pretexts.
That kind of mirror-imaging could be a recipe for international disaster. Fortunately, the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany have reached a deal with Iran that would prevent that country from developing nuclear weapons; shrink its nuclear program; allow for inspections; and reduce the likelihood of another disastrous war in the Middle East. Without a deal, the inspections and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program go out the window.
No deal is perfect and this one doesn’t resolve all the issues or differences between the U.S. and Iran. It probably won’t bring about the Peaceable Kingdom right away. But it is a step in the right direction.
Congress has to vote on the measure in September. Bluster and tough talk are cheap and plentiful these days, but I hope some — or at least one — of West Virginia’s leaders will have the courage — and common sense — to support diplomacy and avert another avoidable disaster.