Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On the Alleged Banality of Evil and Heroism

Take your pick of mass murderer. What do we often hear quoted in the press? “He was such a nice boy, a quiet boy who sang in the Church choir. I just don’t understand!”

Or consider the good Samaritan who runs into a burning house to save ten children. The response? “I never would have expected such ‘unselfish’ and courageous behavior from that person.”

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things—whether extraordinary evil or extraordinary heroism—is the conventional understanding of such phrases as the “banality of evil” and “banality of heroism.”

What do the professionals say? “Those people who become perpetrators of evil deeds,” says psychologist Philip Zimbardo. “and those who become perpetrators of heroic deeds are basically alike in being just ordinary, average people.”

It’s all (or largely) situational, which means Zimbardo endorses environmental determinism.*

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1, 2, 3) coined the phrase “banality of evil” to explain the behavior of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, the so-called desk murderer who orchestrated the deaths of millions of Jews during World War II.

Arendt seems to have claimed—I have not read her—that Eichmann’s “terrifyingly normal” behavior derived from his inborn inability to “think very deeply about what he was doing,” namely to recognize the consequences of his orders or to empathize with his victims.

Eichmann did testify at his trial that he was just another bureaucrat following the rules, taking orders from his superiors. And he supposedly was even a “nice boy” who played the violin as a child!

However, a review of this recent book reveals that Eichmann was neither nice, nor ordinary, nor innocent: “If 10.3 million of these enemies [Jews] had been killed,” said Eichmann, “then we would have fulfilled our duty.”

Arendt was aware of Eichmann’s anti-semitism and that he was not a nice person. She was trying to explain his appearance of ordinariness.

The problem is that genes or environment, with no mention of free will, too often becomes the stock explanation of apparent ordinariness.

Neither the perpetrator of evil deeds nor the doer of heroic acts is unoriginal, obvious, or boring, as dictionaries define the word “banal.”

It is a commonplace, or should be, that we cannot tell what another person is like by looking at his or her photograph. Nor can we discern much by observing someone in a video (as in video dating, for example). At a cocktail party we may approach a guest who looks interesting to talk to only to discover quickly that that is not the case, and, on the flip side of that coin, the uninteresting-looking and supposedly unattractive person may eventually become one’s spouse.

Two “nice, quiet,” and even “banal” persons may look similar and act in a similar manner, but one commits mass murder, the other runs into a burning building.

The difference is in their heads, their psychologies, that is, their accumulated knowledge and experiences, their thoughts, evaluations, emotions, images and imaginings, fantasies, and daydreams—much of which has been programmed to become subconscious habits.

Pre-judging based on superficialities admits a screaming ignorance of psychology. Sixteen hours a day, since at least toddlerhood, our minds take in data from the environment and process it. How we process it determines our character and personality, and it is we who control the processing.

Cognitive regulation—which includes a deliberate programming of the subconscious—is the meaning of free will.

Deliberate thinking errors and willful evasions in the processing of our environment produces criminal personalities, as amply documented in Yochelson and Samenow’s seminal three-volume masterpiece. Thinking accuracy and willful commitment to reason and facts produces heroic personalities.**

Criminals are con artists, who lie as a way of life and enjoy getting away with the forbidden. They are experts at hiding their true personalities, which is why they often seek cover of family, work—and ideology, such as National Socialism or radical Islam. Samenow has written much about the criminal attraction to ideology (1, 2).

Heroic personalities from an early age develop strong personal identities, committed to truth and doing what is right, which means a conviction that “I am worthy of happiness and competent to achieve my values.” This produces self-esteem, integrity, and courage, plus a certain amount of modesty.

Heroes do not brag about their talents or accomplishments, but modesty does not stop them from acting when their values are attacked.

Thus, a quiet, unassuming boy may in no uncertain terms tell a bully to back off when the bully is hitting on his girlfriend—much to the shock of the bully. Or an “unheroic-looking” young woman may run into a burning building to save her children.

Heroes have a subconscious mind that has been programmed from an early age to achieve and protect their values. Think Sully Sullenberger who worked forty-two years preparing himself for the day he had to land a commercial airliner on the Hudson River without a single loss of life.

Unfortunately, criminals also have a subconscious mind that has been programmed from an early age to cheat and harm others.

Appearances do not define criminality or heroism. Or who might be a terrorist.

The whole point of getting to know other people is to find out what is in their heads, to find out who they are and what makes them tick. We do “profile” people we do not know, all the time, which means we judge them based on our own values, hunches, and preferences.

What we cannot and should not do is talk about them based on those judgments and certainly not act until we have more knowledge of who they really are.

This means, news editors, please don’t run any more of those sappy stories about “nice, quiet boys next door who sang in the Church choir.” Try asking your reporters to do a little more homework to uncover and understand the psychology of the person.



* See my comment on Zimbardo’s book about the 1971 Stanford prison experiment that supposedly demonstrated the significance of situational causes of extraordinary behavior by ordinary people.

** Innocent mistakes in thinking, lack of knowledge, and unusually harsh environments can lead to psychological problems and inhibitions, such as repression and other defense mechanisms. The result is a less than heroic personality, at least in the areas of our lives in which the inhibitions operate.


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