Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wired online has a set of horrifying new images from Abu Ghraib prison, and has a fascinating article exploring scientific research and anecdotal study of why and when good people commit evil. It seems pretty clear from reading it that the researcher is confronted frequently with people who are critical, and implicitly or explicitly accuse him of excusing the evil conduct by looking to its genesis.

But Philip Zimbardo, the author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, explains:

Understanding the reason for someone's behavior is not the same as excusing it. Understanding why somebody did something -- where that why has to do with situational influences -- leads to a totally different way of dealing with evil. It leads to developing prevention strategies to change those evil-generating situations, rather than the current strategy, which is to change the person.
Reading this, it occurred to me that I would advocate a similar thinking in discussing politics. The personalization of wrongs, and the assumption of evil -- even where the assumption is borne out! -- isn't going to be helped nearly as much just by saying

"change the guard! elect [your candidate's name here]! Throw the bums out!"

as it will by studying and examining what forces led to the stupid or evil act complained of.

I spend a lot of time arguing with friends when I urge them to be circumspect in their accusations, or to urge them to argue the obvious and known fuckups and evil [e.g. the conduct of the war in Iraq] rather than presumed and quite-likely-but-not-patent "Bigger" fuckups and evil [e.g. Dick Cheney smirking and ordering his staff to "get" Valerie Plame and her husband by outing her from her covert CIA job]. I also spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the "bad guys" are doing their bad things, and trying to look behind the easy headline. But that doesn't get me where I'd like to go.

This guy's thinking reminds me that figuring out why these guys do what they do [without just presuming they've been lying, evil sacks-of-shit since childhood] might some day help us get a system where we can make it easier for them not to be bastards.

No comments: