How Good People Turn Evil

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 12 November 2016

How Good People Turn Evil

Understanding is not excusing. Though it may help to prevent wrong acts against humanity in the future (may it? ). The world was created with the potential of sin. Looking at the theological approach, Adam and Eve, when were put into the situation of seduction by the snake, started to be driven by evil inclination giving birth to the first sin. Why does it happen? Why do people go against normality and moral principals? Why do people do evil things? Psychologists-experimenters, philosophers, writers have been trying to answer this question.

There will always be good and evil in our world. However there is a fine line between good and evil, sometimes it is so vague, that without noticing we can find ourselves on the opposite side. Zimbardo in his Stanford experiment proves, that not only is the line blurred, but also movable and permeable. The Webster dictionary defines ‘good’ as ‘being positive or desirable in nature; not bad or poor’. ‘Bad’ is on the contrary ‘not achieving an adequate standard; poor; injurious in effect; detrimental’.

We must keep in mind that it is not right to think about these notions as only about global ones, but good and evil are found in every person and dominance of one or another depends on different factors. Good people can turn evil, as well as (thanks God) evil people can become good again. How does the transformation happen? After the abuses in Abu Ghraib the general wanted to know who is responsible for the inhuman treatment with the prisoners, who were those rotten apples ‘infecting’ others. However the question rather should be: ‘What is responsible?

’ At first we have to look at the situation in order to understand the behavior. In the fight between good people and vicious situation the situation has won. Some may argue that it is not right, as far as the guards who were taking part in the crime in Abu Ghraib (as well as the ‘guards’ of Stanford experiment) were intelligent, normal, mentally and physically healthy people, who should have been responsible for their terrible actions. But could just ‘bad apples’ go that far? The human transformation according to Zimbardo has several perspectives: ?

Dispositional – internal factors. The evil starts in the person oneself. These are the bad rotten apples. ? Situational – external factors. The situation is the one to blame, which influenced people and helped evil to gain the guards over. ? Systematic – the power that is in a system (political, economical, cultural, etc). Those are the bad barrel makers. ‘A country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak and a powerful one too powerful.

’ Primo Levi. Evil is the exercise of power. As soon as someone has the power to humiliate, do harm or destroy someone else physically or spiritually, the potential of evil may get to unreachable heights and it usually does (which was proved by the Milgram experiment). Starting the Stanford experiment, Zimbardo could not predict such a development of events, because the guards who were thoroughly chosen and tested to be normal people, in a couple of days turned into madmen, psychopaths and sadists.

The main driving force that provoked this metamorphosis was power. First it had to be used as a tool for control of disobedient prisoners, but later the guards started receiving pleasure out of it, feeling their privilege and dominance and the right to exercise their power in every possible way. Personally I observed the same phenomenon in sports, a gymnastics girl’s team. A couch may use the power of a superior for too much, abusing children morally and physically, excusing it as a training and forming of tenacity.

One more example can be found in the student dorms of LBS. One girl was chosen by the administration as a unit representative, the task of which was to coordinate girls living in the unit and make sure the community room and the corridor are kept clean. She also had to help girls with the home appliances lending them such things as vacuum cleaner, iron, etc, which belonged to the dorms. Only students who showed themselves to be responsible, tolerant, helpful could get this ‘position’ including some privileges.

As soon as the girl received this trivial power, she started humiliating girls, each time pointing out that they are dirty and disgusting and as a punishment depriving them of things that they could use freely before, like a fridge or hanger. In this case the person was changed, because she was put into another situation; and the situation in turn was endowed with power by the system. If we go back to the Stanford experiment, one of the important factors that influenced the transformation in people, both guards and prisoners, was the phenomena of deindividuation.

Humiliation and disgrace increase where personality is about to vanish. John Watson in his research proves that while starting a battle or a fight people who wear masks or costumes, which cover their faces or disguise them, are more likely to kill and to torture. Zimbardo’s guards were given a uniform and shades which somehow ‘protected’ them from the external world, as if nobody could see the horrors they were doing or as if it were not them, but some other people conducting that evil behavior. In other words this phenomenon can be called the power of anonymity.

It works for every one. We are much more likely to do something unusual for us and even immoral, when nobody can see us or recognize. However we should not forget that on the other side of the barricade were the prisoners or victims, who suffered from deindividuation, rather than gained of it. Prisoners were given numbers instead of names; their clothes reminded rather that of women, than men, their heads were covered with ridiculous hats. People stop perceive themselves as individuals and later as human-beings, when are found in such conditions.

Deindividuation was one of the strongest driving forces of holocaust, though it made its long detour to gas chambers in concentration camps. First Jews were not allowed to get high positions at work, than to sit on the same benches in a park as locals, come in to a shop (reading a sign that Jews and dogs are not allowed to enter), later every Jew had to wear a yellow star on one’s clothes, so every one could easily identify them in a crowd. Step by step the personality was diminished, so when Jews were told to move out from their homes and to settle in ghettoes quite few of them resisted.

One of the most striking things for me that actually quite few of them tried to resist, accepting the situation and believing in their individuality being erased. ‘We are Jewish, we should be quiet’. They were imposed the opinion that they were not part of the country, which many of them defended during the World War I and they did not belong to their home. Finding themselves in camps, people were usually totally disgraced having no power and desire to oppose whatsoever. It is hard to imagine a human-being sinking so deep, deeper than an animal, totally perverting one’s nature.

Hanna Arendt in her book ‘Eichman In Jerusalem. The Report On The Banality of Evil. ’ wrote that evil is always on the surface and as soon as we dig deeper it disappears. This means that often when people happen to be in some situation it becomes difficult for them to judge their actions, as soon as they become the prisoners of the situation. Being ‘inside’ makes one perceive the horror as normality. Going back to Milgram’s experiment, which proved that people can turn evil easily and very fast, by imposing power of control and blurring their responsibility for the crime.

The electroshock experiment showed that two thirds of people who were tested conformed and obeyed the experimenter blindly, suggesting an idea that they are not the ones to blame for the ‘death’ of other participants of the experiment. The evil is the readiness to follow the commands and fully comply. There are really quite few monsters in the world; the problem is in the whole majority of people who are ready to follow them and to conform to any orders without considering the consequents or the actions themselves.

People face uncritical conformity to the leader’s or group norms. Their personality and moral principals are simply switched off and the aggressiveness starts growing. However Zimbardo claims that evil is not only concluded in an action, but also in passive tolerance of what is going on. A new situation may breed both – rage and inaction – and both promote evil. Although on the other hand a new situation may provoke heroic imagination. For example during holocaust many non-Jewish families under the threat of death were hiding Jewish kids in their homes.

After the holocaust they were granted the title of the righteous among the nations though the righteous considered that what they did, everyone would do in the same situation. That is something that must be conveyed to our children. In every situation we can choose 3 ways: either give the green light to the hostile imagination and evil, stay aside or become heroes. Every one must be taught that humanity is our business. Bulgakov in his ‘Master & Margarita’ through his character Voland claims that in the last 3000 years society did not change. People will always stay the same and the evil and the good will always confront inside us.

We must always keep in mind humanity’s previous experiences and try to make the best out of them. The XXth century was a pure return of barbarism – holocaust, genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, Abu Ghraib, mass suicide persuaded by the pastor Reverend Jim Jones etc. The list is long. According to Judaism the evil and the good come from one and the same source, so that is the reason, why it is sometimes so difficult for us to differentiate between those two. Our task is to fight with our bad inclination (Hebrew- yatzir ha-ra), helping the good inclination (yatzir ha-tov) to develop.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 12 November 2016

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