Monday, October 22, 2007

Time to Study Evil

My studying will take the form of reading Roy F. Baumeister's Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.

Even though it sounds kind of cool to say it, I'm not entirely looking forward to studying evil. Baumeister makes a point, in his preface, of saying that he has taken on the job of "converting" the reader, so they could understand evil, then having to, at the right moment, pull the reader out of the conversion to evil. He will make the reader understand evil then remind the reader the importance of morality.

I'm scared, but it's important to my intellectual curiosity, my need for intellectual coherence and also for the bachelors project. If it is in our biological programming to feel compassion and desire connections with other human beings, I need to understand how people can reach the point of evil. How can a person reach the point of Hitler? How can a person reach the point of Stalin? How can a person reach the point of Hussein? How can a person reach the point of bin Laden? How can a person reach the point of the Hutus of Darfur?

I don't know, but I guess I'll find out by going through some heinous darkness.

In other project news, I'm fairly overwhelmed by information and inspiration to really do much but research more. . .ugh.


Dawn said...

I don't actually think it would be that difficult to imagine hitting the point of a Hitler, strange as that may sound. One doesn't transform from Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader overnight (even though the movie didn't capture that very well--or at all, ahem). One doesn't turn from Michael into the Godfather overnight. I think the transformation usually starts with good intentions or in order to avoid some adverse consequence, and after a series of small choices, somewhere along the line turns into evil of the magnitude that most of us can't fathom either because we become callous or because more evil is required in order to cover up the original sin. I'd be surprised if even bin Laden didn't believe he was doing something "good," because most of us have to rationalize the actions we take and don't want to think of ourselves as "bad" people.

CS Lewis talks about how the habitual choice to do good shapes our character into something good, and how the converse is also true. Someone who habitual makes evil choices will have a more difficult time making a good choice than someone who habitually makes a good choice. Here he talks about the transformation in followers of Christ: the measure of just how transformed a person is now by that relationship (or in anything) is more properly seen in what that person would have been without the slow process of transformation into good, than just looking at what he is now. (For someone who has never felt the urge to get drunk, abusing alcohol is not much of an issue. For an alcoholic, it is a victory to stay away from the bottle. The latter requires a kind of transformation, whereas the former is easy.) In this way, I do think that Christianity has a sophisticated understanding of good and evil and how lines may be crossed between the two (it should be noted that this isn't to say that other religions or belief systems may not have similarly sophisticated understandings--but my point of reference is Christianity since it is what I am most familiar with).

Dawn said...

Wow, just reread that (should have done that before posting the comment)--pardon the typos.

The_Lex said...

Dawn, I think I'll excuse your bad grammar. You're probably the most consistent and stimulating member of my audience. The Lextopia needs more of you. . .mind if we clone you?

In regards to evil, you bring up some really good points, but it just scratches the surface of this book. One thing I really like about Roy Baumeister is that he isn't scared to stand up for the unsympathetic side. . .not because he necessarily believes that side is right; rather, because he wants to provide a more colorful picture and increase understanding.

In the book of his that first attracted me, Breaking Hearts, a emphasized the viewpoint of the rejector in a relationship of unrequited love over that of the rejected. He did it because, as he says, our society has "scripts" for the rejected but no guidance for the rejector, so they're left hanging with no good way to deal with their admirer.

In Evil, so far, he has talked a lot about how evil and cruelty originate a lot from anger, from feeling wronged by some general force or the other person. Look at the difficult race relations between blacks and whites or the tensions involved in a domestic relationship with abuse. These things don't necessarily come from some weird deviant, but from escalating tensions in a relationship or an escalating relationship that someone has with some abstract force.

These escalating forces and anger issues create situations where the evil, violent perpetrator can often argue that they're the victim. Apparently, Nazi war criminals feel like they're victims while they're children feel massive guilt on their shoulders that they try to compensate for by going against everything their parents did and proactively interacting with Jews and trying to redeem their genetic lineage. And we're all familiar with people arguing that they don't have full responsibility for their actions because they were temporarily insane, they were abused as children, etc. etc.

Especially after reading some stuff about the Puritans and Calvinism, part of me wants to get into a conversation regarding Christianity. That's not really a good place for me to go. Even though I have grown up in a society and religious very much influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, my intuition and sense of intellectual coherency balks at a lot of the outspoken morality out there.

Nonetheless, I think exposing myself to the gray shades of humanity (through books like this and other aspects that I'm not familiar with) help me to build coherency of the world while keeping me humbled to the lengths of pride humanity will go. That, in itself, I guess is somewhat prideful, especially considering that Puritans would go to lengths believing that good works essentially mean nothing because they didn't want to get too prideful.

The CS Lewis aspect got me thinking about the humbleness side of things. He provides some pretty good advice that feels a little akin to Buddhism. The 4 "and" 8 principles very much act as suggestions of good behavior and habits that will help hold back from doing evil. Or was that my martial arts teacher back in college who taught me about practicing habits and moves to ready myself for a tight spot?

But one last point: Of all people, I'm one of those people that somehow needs this kind of book to understand a psychological state. I've done some things that I'm not proud of, I've dissuaded someone not to fight me back in 7th grade, I've even got excited about thoughts of violence and not so good things that get the adrenaline rushing. I wouldn't consider myself innocent or Data android rational, but there's something about my brain that can't just accept the surface of things. . .I need that introspective cohesive understanding to be able to use the information. This book, so far, has done a very good job at providing me with a more coherent perspective on evil, and it has helped immensely.

Crap. To think. . .I originally planned on writing another entry. I think this comment is enough for tonight.