Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers

Our rabbi said something that struck a chord with me a little while ago, and I've been mulling it over.

He said that the problem with liberals is that they don't believe in evil.

He was speaking, if I remember correctly, in reference to the recent opening of communication between the United States and Iran, but I will focus on the general question of evil for right now.

Certainly, there are evil individuals; psychopaths and pedophiles who prey on innocent children. And I think there is certainly a difference between a legitimately insane individual and one who knows right from wrong and doesn't care.

Also, I would say that there are evil philosophies and regimes; the Nazis being the best recent example, and I would argue that a lot of very evil individuals rose through the ranks very quickly until the whole system was top-heavy with psychopathy.

But to write off the Nazi chapter in human history as "those evil people" is a cop-out for the rest of humanity.

What about all the Nazis who were not psychopaths? The sheep, the onlookers, the bystanders, the ones who were "just following orders." These people made the psychopaths' world a reality; without the willing masses, the Third Reich could never have happened. And those people, all those people, were no different from you or me.

And the most important thing we have to remember is that, psychopaths aside, the Nazis thought they were the good guys. In their reality, the people who opposed them were "evil" and needed to be destroyed so that they, the good guys, could survive.

Proof that the Holocaust could have happened anywhere under the right circumstances is the Milgram experiments. (Frankly, it's a shame that Milgram's experiments aren't part of standard middle school curriculum, because this bit of psychology needs to be common knowledge.)

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychiatrist, designed an experiment to test how far individuals could be pushed to act against their own moral conscience under the direction of perceived authority figures. The test consisted of three participants: a scientist who was conducting the experiment (the authority figure), a volunteer who was designated the "teacher," and a "student," whom the "teacher" thought was another volunteer but was actually faking the role of "student." The volunteers thought they were participating in an experiment about memory and learning. When the student answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to push a button that would shock the student, with subsequent wrong answers requiring higher voltage shocks, the highest being 450 volts. With each successive shock, the students reacted as if they were in more and more pain, at some points pleading not to be shocked, screaming, or becoming unresponsive.

When the teacher hesitated or objected, the scientist would urge him or her to continue with four pre-scripted phrases in order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
The experiment ended after the teacher still refused to shock the student after the fourth prompt, or pushed the maximum 450 volt button three times.

It's important to note the teachers in this experiment were so stressed by the circumstances, that many have argued that the experiment was emotionally abusive and should never have been performed. The teachers sweated, stuttered, trembled, and dug their fingernails into their own skin.

The shocking results, which have remained consistent throughout several variations of the test administered around the globe: 65% of participants continued to the bitter end, pressing the maximum voltage button three times.

Why?

Because a perceived authority figure told them to.

Because they perceived the men in white lab coats to be "the good guys."

Because they reasoned that the authority figure was the person responsible for the pushing of the button; therefore they themselves were not responsible.

What's so important about this experiment is that the volunteers acted in a way that they knew in their gut was wrong, not because they were evil, but because they were human beings.

You see, while it's true that the Nazi regime could never have existed without the compliance of the masses; neither could Judaism, or Israel, or the Renaissance, or the United States of America. 

If every individual was a visionary leader, their visions would be for naught without large groups of people doing the work to turn vision into reality.

My argument is that it is factually inaccurate to write off an entire people (country or religion) as evil; and because the people themselves are not evil, it is morally wrong to maim or kill them if a viable alternative is possible. Moreover, if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that an entire group of people is evil and must be destroyed, then we are just as guilty of being mindless sheep as they are, and can no longer refer to ourselves as "the good guys." After all, while it is in our nature to follow authority, we do have a moral compass and we are responsible for our own actions.

I don't claim to know where the lines should be drawn when dealing with countries like Iran or Syria, or the Palestinians. I'm only saying that we must recognize that the people with whom we are fighting are exactly like us, even when they do not.