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The Psychology of Evil

The Academy of Ideas

Death on a Pale Horse (John Hamilton Mortimer, 1784)

“Evil in the world today has become a visible Great Power.” ~ Carl Jung

It is well within the bounds of possibility for man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil. What happens with absolute evil is experienced? A psychic split, which ultimately shifts the inner landscape, occurs to protect the “self” and to ensure survival. The hidden part of this split becomes a true force to be reckoned with.

To begin with, what is evil? In its most simplistic definition, evil is that which opposes or destroys life. In its most extreme form, evil is killing that is unnecessary for reasons of biological survival. But evil is not restricted to destruction in the corporeal realm, rather is also that which kills spirit.

“There are various essential attributes of life – particularly human life – such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy and will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body.

~M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie

A person who takes an action that kills, or attempts to kill another, either in body or spirit, is committing an evil act. An individual who repeatedly commits acts of evil, is an evil person. The world of politics is fertile ground for evil personalities. Politicians need evil accomplices. They need partners (such as media powerhouses and dependent allies) to execute their evil plans. They need the public to support, or at least to stand passively by, as their evil spreads throughout a society. So, what are the conditions in which normal men and women will support, or participate in evil?

“…the majority of psychologically normal people are ‘sleepers’—that is, they are dispositionally inclined, when the situation is right, to aggression and destructiveness…Such ‘adequately provoking situations’ unfortunately, as we know, arise with great frequency and prevalence.”

~Stephen James Bartlett, Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health

The first condition for the emergence of evil on a mass scale is a moral crisis. When faced with a moral crisis, the ruling power in a society can react in a constructive or destructive manner. The constructive reaction is to identify the cause of the crisis, mitigate its effects and return order to a society. This optimal approach requires virtuous and courageous leadership. But if a society is too easily manipulated by a corrupt political class, it will be inclined to react to a crisis in a destructive manner. That is, the society will turn on a scapegoat and this scapegoating process has played out repeatedly, both cross-culturally and in all periods of history.

“. . .rather than blaming themselves, people inevitably blame either society as a whole, which costs them nothing, or other people who seem particularly harmful for easily identifiable reasons. . . Ultimately the persecutors always convince themselves that a small number of people, or even a single individual, despite his relative weakness, is extremely harmful to the whole of society.”

René Girard, The Scapegoat

The scapegoats, while not guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, nor the cause of the crisis, possess characteristics that define them as a social out-group. They may be a poorly integrated minority, taboo-breakers, or individuals unwilling to comply with certain social norms, and it is these differences that are the hooks on which the masses project their frustrations.

“The crowd tends toward the persecution [of a scapegoat] since the [real] cause of what troubles it . . . cannot interest it. The crowd, by definition, seeks action but cannot affect [the real] causes [of the crisis]. It therefore looks for an accessible cause that will appease its appetite for violence.”

René Girard, The Scapegoat

Once a scapegoat has been identified, the next step in provoking an evil reaction from normal men and women is to demonize the scapegoated group. In the modern day, this dehumanization process is accomplished with the use of propaganda. Typically, this propaganda is spread by those in positions of power who are looking to deflect blame for their inability to deal with the crisis, or for their role in causing the crisis. If the propaganda is effective, eventually even normal people will talk of the scapegoats in a manner which strips them of their humanity. One effective method to demonize the scapegoat is to find the worst members of the group, and to represent them as typical members of the group.

After dehumanizing the scapegoat, the next step that unleashes evil is to strip the scapegoats of their rights – for it is only logical, so the mind of the persecutor will reason, that if this group is not fully-human, why should they be treated as such? This discrimination, in conjunction with the dehumanization process, alters the relationship between the potential perpetrator of evil and the scapegoat. No longer viewed as human and lacking basic rights, the same rules that apply to others, do not apply to the scapegoat. Small acts of harm toward the scapegoat are soon viewed as permissible, or even encouraged:

“Once initiated, violence generates an evolution in perpetrators; the personality of individuals, social norms, institutions, and culture all change incrementally in ways that make greater violence easier and more likely. The usual moral principles that prohibit violence and protect people are replaced by ‘‘higher’’ values protecting purity, goodness, and well-being of the in-group, and creating a better society by destroying the [scapegoats].”

Donald Dutton, The Psychology of Genocide

Unless this process of scapegoating is halted it will devolve from small acts of harm, to imprisonment, and eventually the torture and killing, of the scapegoat. An important question thus arises: How can the perfect storm of evil be avoided if its clouds are already forming? The power to stop the process does not lie in the realm of politics, as politicians are often perpetrators of evil, rather it lies with the bystander. The bystander is the individual who has not been convinced of the guilt of the scapegoat. They are individuals, in other words, who are largely immune to the propaganda and who see a bit more clearly than the so-called normal members of society.

“Bystanders to the ongoing, usually progressively increasing mistreatment of a group of people have great potential power to influence events.”

Leonard Newman, Understanding Genocide

In countries where a mass atrocity occurs, most bystanders remain passive due to fear and cowardice. This passivity not only makes it easier for the perpetrators of evil to commit their crimes, but it also, over time, alters the psychology of the bystander:

“. . .passivity in the face of others’ suffering [changes the] bystanders. . .They come to accept the persecution and suffering of victims, and some even join the perpetrators.”

Leonard Newman, Understanding Genocide

If there is to be any chance of thwarting this process, the bystanders must act – and the earlier in the process this occurs the greater the chance of success.

“Could bystanders make a difference in halting or preventing mass killing and genocide? Some lines of research and the evidence of real events indicate bystanders’ potential to exert influence.”

Leonard Newman, Understanding Genocide

How do bystanders hold the power to prevent a mass atrocity? Each time a bystander speaks out and condemns the actions of those participating in the scapegoating process, this increases the chance that others will follow suit in resistance. The more people that speak out and condemn the perpetrators of evil, the harder it becomes for the perpetrators to commit their evil acts:

“By speaking out and taking action, bystanders can elevate values prohibiting violence, which over time perpetrators had come to ignore in their treatment of the victim group.”

Leonard Newman, Understanding Genocide

What is it that makes an individual immune to evil and willing to take a stance in defense of the scapegoat? This question is especially pertinent in the modern day as many Westerners are participating in the process of scapegoating. According to Carl Jung to be immune to evil we must accept the possibility of evil, both within ourselves and in society at large:

“Nobody is immune to a nationwide evil unless he is unshakably convinced of the danger of his own character being tainted by the same evil. But the immunity of the nation depends entirely upon the existence of a leading minority immune to the evil and capable of combating the powerful suggestive effect [of a manipulative political class].”

Carl Jung, The Symbolic Life


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