Friday, June 15, 2012

Human darkness and evil

The guys at lunch are an educated and experienced group of men.  Yesterday, the topic of "original sin" was brought up.  These days it is not unusual for the concept of innate badness to be criticized as unwise and unneeded.  Personally, I have reservations about the value of dropping the concept of human badness.  

There was an incident mentioned in several places where the Dalai Lama was told that the Westerners in a group meeting with him all carried a feeling of guilt.  He is reported to have been very surprised and to have asked each one present if they felt such a feeling habitually.  Each said he did.  I am interested in knowing more about the details of Eastern psychology to see if guilt and consciousness of the potential for misbehavior is part of that mind-set.

About 1980, I started a local Amnesty International group and attended a national convention and read some of their literature.  They focus on unfair or illegal imprisonment, especially incarceration for purely political reasons, as it occurs around the world (incarceration for having the wrong beliefs or convictions).  One of their emphases is that once people are imprisoned, they can be dehumanized and mistreated in various ways with various motivations or lack of consideration.

The famous Stanford University prison experiment has come up in several contexts lately.  The link provides a Google search result on Prof. Philip Zimbardo's simulation of a prison in which volunteers were assigned the role of guards or prisoners.  These were all Stanford students and I believe they were all male.  In a very short time, the "guards" began to abuse, genuinely and really abuse, the "prisoners" for what outside observers would consider no reason or for personal amusement.  Things got so bad the exercise had to be halted early.

I keep a mental note to myself that you and I and our friends might misbehave for all sorts of reasons in all sorts of situations.  I respect the religious impulse to stay alert to moral deterioration and I don't think it is misplaced or obsolete.  I remember hearing Jane Goodall explain her shock and horror when several chimpanzees she had lived with got into a lethal battle with another troop.  She described behavior that was appalling to someone like her who felt she knew these animals and how they would behave.

The book "Love and Will" by the psychiatrist Rollo May describes two approaches to life, the Apollonian and Dionysian, and explains that with or without alcohol or other drugs, humans may act out some pretty surprising and unpleasant moves.  Especially surprising if we believe we are made in the image of the Divine.  

There are many ways our perception of others can involve the hypothesis of some dark evil.  If the leader says our side will prosper if my crew destroys that village and if I get carried away murdering those who live there, the escapees may tell of witnessing human depravity while my fellows may nominate me for a medal.  I remember a sign in an Austrian museum quoting people from 500 years earlier explaining the depravity that could be expected from those enemy invaders living over there.
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