Julie Gillis grapples with three questions about good and evil and how to affect change in the wake of Steubenville.
This weekend, something odd happened, odd considering all the news about Steubenville. My own son came to me worried about something that he felt embarrassed about. He shared with me a (minor and non-sexual) situation with some friends that left him uncomfortable, but that he didn’t know how to get out of it. He didn’t want to lose his friend, he didn’t want to look…well, he didn’t know how or what to say.
That’s the thing. He wanted the situation to stop. He’s 12 and faced with the group pressure, cognitive dissonance and lack of skills, he froze. He asked me for help.
The young men accused of rape and sexual assault in the Steubenville case have been declared delinquent. Still questions remain such as:
How Could Good People Do Such Evil?
There has a been much talk about good and evil, there has been blame placed on the shoulders of the girl, death threats to her, and CNN’s shameful piece about how sad it is that these boys lives are ruined which I believe was an attempt to humanize the boys, but instead it seemed like a a white wash job, pity and media attention, like a tv reality show.
The question of “how does evil occur” is something I’ve struggled with, mostly because I’m like everyone else; I want to KNOW how evil happens, I want to be able to see it and recognize it and “other” it away from me. But I know that being human is more than being one or the other, it’s being both or having the capacity for both, sometimes, yes, at the same time. The realization can challenges the very sense of self. I know who I am! I’m good! I do good things! I’m not like THEM!
Our modern concepts of good and evil as a duality we fight between, trying to listen to our Angel selves, while denying the Devil, this is old stuff. We want to believe evil is a monster, that we can shun it and shame it and kill it and keep it from us. We don’t understand, or want to understand, how good people can do evil things.
Are these boys just rare sociopaths in a world of good people, influencing others to join in the badness? Is the entire system sociopathic with all it’s members somehow infected with a devaluation of women as human beings, mixed with a culture of hyper masculinity and shame, topped off with a high tolerance for violence?
I do personally think it’s the latter, an emotional field set up over time and with multi-layers of support, from our general culture to the arrogance of the town, but it’s bigger even then a town undergoing crisis. It’s all over.
The Why Evil Exists question is best answered, in my opinion, by Dr. Philip Zimbardo. He was the lead of the Stanford Prison Experiment in which ordinary people played roles of prisoner and officer, and the study broke down due to the abuse and distress of the prisoners.
I hope you’ll watch this whole Ted Talk video, which discusses what he calls The Lucifer Effect in which ordinary “good” people turn evil, though I will note there are very triggering images.
This work is tested, witnessed and seen. He gives great notes on exactly HOW the situations come about where people slide. It’s so hard to take in, though, because we cling to a morality that some are good and some are evil and that we can tell the difference and magically, mystically protect ourselves from that evil by shaming, shunning. We allow only so much empathy, blaming the evil on “others”. In doing so we continue a cycle of dehumanization and violence.
Another question is:
Why Didn’t Anyone Step In To Help?
This is in some ways a harder question to grapple with, but the simple answer is: because it’s hard and we only just started teaching people to do it.
In short, a few things have to be present in order to take action:
1) You have to notice the problem.
2) You have to interpret the situation.
3) You have to feel capable of action and responsibility.
All those things may or may not happen depending on levels of empathy, situational safety, fear of retribution or shunning in group membership, or support from authorities.
Children are no different than adults, and in order to intervene, they need to be capable of:
(a) noticing that something is wrong (b) interpreting a need for help (c) feeling empathy (d) processing the school’s moral frames – …(the definition of a good student, tribe caring, gender stereotypes, and social-hierarchy-dependent morality), (e) scanning for social status and relations, i.e., students were less likely to intervene if they didn’t define themselves as friends of the victim or belonging to the same significant social category as the victim, or if there were high-status students present or involved as aggressors – conversely, lower-status children were more likely to intervene if only a few other low-status children were around, (f) condensing motives for action and (g) acting, all of the above coalesced into a decision to intervene or not. It is striking how this was less an individual decision than the product of a set of interpersonal and institutional processes.
Not individual decisions, but a product of interpersonal, group and institutional norms.
Think about that when we call out again and again and again for more education on consent, more education on compassion and empathy, which it’s noted causes more people to intervene even when there “isn’t anything in it for them”, more education on intervening in bullying.
We have to teach everyone that ability to share, to ask for help, to know how to follow the instinct that something is wrong. More than that, we have to reward it on a large scale cultural level.
The final question has been:
How Do We Change Things?
You know my take.
We have to figure out a way to inoculate us all with more empathy, more ability and courage to stand up, and more public awareness on how this IS NOT OK, this hazing, this bullying, this violence of body and soul, this sexism which hurts both men and women, this use of sex as a weapon of dominance no matter who is utilizing it.
We have to start looking at this just like drunk driving. It’s a public health problem.
And though I’d like to take credit, that’s not my idea, that’s pure Zimbardo:
“It’s a paradigmn shift away from the medical model that focuses only on the individual, and the shift is towards a public health model that recognizes situational and systemic vectors of disease. Bullying is a disease, prejudice is a disease, violence is a disease. And since the Inquisition, we’ve been dealing with problems at the individual level and you know what, it doesn’t work.”
He also thinks that heroism is the antidote to evil, and as such started a non-profit to promote the heroic imagination.
And this is why, as I said above, it’s hard to do, even when you know you should do it.
But we have to do it, even if it’s hard. I’ll teach my son how to do step in, and I’ll keep learning myself.