I have never looked at pure evil in the eye. Fortunately my relatively sheltered existence kept me from the very real atrocities of crimes against humanity, from terrorism, from sadistic, crazy men on the streets. But the flakiness of human nature continually fascinates me: in Psych 101 I agreed to faint for a social experiment testing people's helping behavior. The punch line came when Tish, a friend, came in as one of the subjects. This time, in my role as the indifferent neighbor, I was more concerned about what she would think of me (I was to deliberately ignore the person who was to faint in the next few moments--to test whether Tish would do the right thing and report the incident to the examiner). I was so anxiously waiting for the debriefing so I could regain my self-image. Tish, gracious as always, said she simply assumed I had earphones on because she called me a couple of times and I pretended not to hear. She did not consider I would not do what she did (ah, friends). I wonder whether at the back of her mind she actually did think quite lowly of me while I sat there, answering a fake questionnaire, while a girl started to seize up beside us.
Instead of using what I know as a pulpit to cast judgment on people who acted on vacillating moral standards, I gave it the sort of understanding that allowed me to actually see through what appears to be a bad thing and know that it speaks nothing of whether a person is essentially good or bad. Making darkness visible is only meant to cull out the whys, not to put actions in their proper boxes. In fact, in my mind, there is no good and bad. There is only what happened and if there is any real joy to be derived from it. If there is none, then we move on to the next relevant and hopefully more delightful thing. And please, intermittent reader, do not try wasting your time teaching me how to think. I have never touched people's beliefs about the world on a standpoint of arrogance.
I bought Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect after I met up with college buds yesterday (two babies on the way, I snuck in an order of salmon risotto, we shopped for shoes, caught up on each other's love lives, domestic lives, work, etc.) and surprised myself with the not-so-merry thoughts in my mind during the eve. At work, we did talk about the Stanford Prison Experiment and the My Lai massacre (which I only learned from talking to them that night), excessively fascinated by the evils people were capable of doing against other people. I bought the book on impulse, studies on evil for something else I was working on, but was glad (er) to find that Zimbardo was in fact the very guy who initiated the now extensively analyzed Stanford Prison Experiment (which they had to end for the sake of the volunteers' mental health).
The thesis was simple: too many factors were at play to ever solidly determine the reason for why people do what they do. We cannot unequivocally label actions. (A few days ago I was reading Gladwell's Blink, where he says we give too little credit to our snap judgments, when in fact these are functions of higher intelligence meant to work towards our best interests--also that on the other hand we cannot entirely call out the goodness or badness of a person based on his snap judgments, whether he pulls the trigger or not, whether he flees or not, because again, too many factors are at play). So on the one hand the environment is to blame, on another the person is wholly at fault. It's a spectrum with ends that are too magnetic to resist. No judgments, again, but recently I'm beginning to feel that by standing where I stand (by saying most of the time we act against our better judgment because of the things happening around us: our parents, our schooling, TV, work, passive acceptance of unthought-out biases) I put such little value on our power to choose, on our inherent humanity, even, that instead of upholding what makes us human I am actually belittling it. By believing what I believe sometimes I feel even the most abominable crime is excusable.
But the thing is, time and again, in the face of very ugly things, while we feel disgust for those who act in severely immoral ways, there are people, regardless of number, who do otherwise. People who resist the strong situational forces, people who choose to do the right thing (like Tish standing up and helping the fainting girl despite the very palpable pressure to do nothing), people who choose to do the most loving thing. Zimbardo's book ends on a high note: in this world of evil, we each carry the capacity to turn things around. Each and every single one of us. No one is as powerless as we think we are (financial crisis? storms? calamities? broken families? rape? discrimination?--I can give you one story each of people who triumphed spectacularly against these odds).
This is supposed to be a happy yearend post, and I guess it still is. If there's something I realized quite fully this year, it is that our mind is our strongest ally. It is our only ally. The thoughts we feed it determine whether where we are is heaven or hell, and reality tends to follow our creative imagination. So here's to love, and joy, and all things warm and fuzzy. To friends, and frequent travels, to hugs, to books, to parents, to family, to office mates, to the Internet, to TV shows, to movies, to the endless stream of nice things that dazzled us this year. Smiiiile! Life is too short to keep pointing out what's wrong with your world. I love you!