Giving a spin to the worn-out adage, you don’t take a knife to a gunfight, I’d change it to, you don’t talk morality to the immoral. It’s not as catchy but it sums up the great divide in our political love languages today.
An example of this division was extremist, Marjorie Taylor Green, (recently booted from the ultra-conservative so-called, Freedom Caucus) sarcastically criticizing President Joe Biden for addressing issues of poverty, healthcare, and education. According to MTG, these are bad things? For her and those who share her value system, yes.
While scholars argue that values are relative (to culture, era, etc.) some actions are just plain evil. Colleague Jim Moore gives us chapter and verse on abhorrent behavior in his article, Death and Texas. In it, he talks about unimaginable cruelty from the hands of Governor Greg Abbott whose treatment of immigrant children and their parents seeking asylum often results in their deception or death.
Jim writes.” The U.S. is undergoing another great moral crisis much like the Civil Rights movement, and it is unfolding on the Texas border…. Anyone paying even cursory attention to the controversy over razor wire and floating buoys, and children reportedly pushed back into the river, knows that people are dying in their attempt to overcome barriers and heat.”
Governor Abbott has used asylum seekers as political pawns with no regard for their safety or lives. You have to wonder why and how someone so devoid of human decency is able to hold public office. People I respect consider Abbott and those like him, the worst of the human species or the bottom of the human barrel. However, in other circles, they are supported and celebrated.
Can we ever truly share a state or a country when we don’t share similar basic values?
People who believe it’s okay to force women to have babies, to cheat fellow humans out of jobs, homes, and opportunities, or to shove children into cages or to their deaths in bodies of water, evidently operate from a belief system that people who look like them are valuable and those who don’t are not. They can be mistreated or killed.
I can only liken it to the people who fed African American babies to alligators during slavery. Or viewed lynchings as events like Sunday picnics. Look back further and we see beheadings, cannibalism, and women burned alive. In my view, the conductors of these acts were and are evil beyond comprehension. But are they also insane? Are evil and cruelty the marks of psychological deficiency? I decided (as I do with most things), to look it up. My search words: Why the f*ck are some people so damn evil?
Here are my results:
David Robson, writer/contributor to the BBC, wrote about a man who studies dark personalities. He quotes psychology researcher and professor, Delroy Paulhus as wanting to answer a question we all have; “why do some people take pleasure in cruelty? Not just psychopaths and murderers – but school bullies, internet trolls and even apparently upstanding members of society such as politicians and policemen.”
The short answer: it’s complicated. To summarize it, Paulhus labels menacing characteristics as the different flavors of everyday evil.
Narcissists, the incredibly selfish and vain, may lash out to protect their own sense of self-worth. Machiavellianism is coolly manipulative, and Psychopathy manifests as callous insensitivity and immunity to the feelings of others. The three traits are independent but can overlap to form a “Dark Triad.”
2. Born nasty
Studies found a large genetic component for narcissism and psychopathy by comparing identical and fraternal twins. Machiavellianism was attributed more to environment.
3. Dark corners
Your everyday sadist. Paulhus’ study team found people who find pleasure in inflicting pain on others.
What if you’re just evil-adjacent, a follower?
In an experiment that began in 1961, (the year of the trial of Holocaust organizer, Adolf Eichmann), Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram tested whether ordinary people would commit evil, atrocious acts if ordered to do so by a perceived authoritative figure. An examination of obedience versus personal conscience.
Milgram and team used fake electric shocks with actors as participants. But those being tested didn’t know the shocks were not real. They were told the shocks were increasingly painful.
His conclusion was that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure … even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us from the way we are brought up. Milgram summed it up in his article “The Perils of Obedience, writing: “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.”
Here are key reasons from Psychology Today:
- Dictators (authoritarian figures) appear to be strong and effective, however, they are arrogant and narcissistic.
- The inner circle of followers (“henchmen”) share in the power.
- All too often, we value leader effectiveness without considering how the leader succeeds.
- And fear. Tyrants are punitive.
Short of a string of garlic and a cross; how do we ward off evil?
It’s called axiological science, the study of values and value judgments. By understanding the values between nice and nasty, right and wrong, and good and evil, you give yourself a cognitive chest of tools to look into the mind and brain of evil. This understanding is your best defense.
The late Dr. Leon Pomeroy who studied this brand of science, said “Through the eyes of evil, there is a devaluation of others, contempt, depersonalization, and dehumanization. There is an absence of empathy.” We can recognize these attitudes and behaviors.
Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister believes factors that drive people to do bad things are more complex while the notion of evil is a simplistic one. He says that a disproportionate amount of violence and crime in ordinary societies is perpetrated by a minority of people with antisocial personality traits. And an even smaller percentage are psychopaths, they are at the extreme end of the spectrum of antisocial traits and most likely to commit sadistic acts of violence. He reminds us that people rationalize their actions as on the side of good, or their definition of good; the way Hitler villainized the Jewish people and the Abbotts of the world villainize nearly everyone who’s not them.
Although my research offers useful insight, my takeaway is that the evil among us and the not-evil will never see things in the same way.
So how do we share a country, a state, a classroom, or neighborhood with those who feel they have a right to cause harm? I’m not sure of the psychological answer, but I wonder what would happen if Abbott had to change places with those children, dunked into a river to struggle for his life. Or what if he had to stand in line for four hours in the hot sun to cast a vote? Better yet, what if he were a ten-year-old girl forced to give birth adding excruciating pain to her marred life?
Can empathy come via an eye-for-an-eye? If not, maybe we will one day develop a mechanism for identifying and weeding out the terminally evil. At the very least, maybe we’ll figure out a way to keep them out of political office and positions of influence.