In juxtaposing Kristallnacht, the epitome of evil and Veteran’s Day, the celebration of those who served in the US Armed Forces, we encounter a prime example of a clash between evil and goodness, the latter in form of human heroism and ultimate sacrifice in an effort to defeat evil.
Why the existence of evil? A perennial question, asked from the very beginning of civilization.
In my search for an explanation for the existence and persistence of evil three books helped me immensely toward an understanding of this phenomenon. Needless to say, my present comprehension is far from completely satisfying given the complexity of the problem.
Here are the titles of these helpful books in my quest to understand: James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide, Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler.
Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk and poet, labeling the Nazi killers as insane, allows us to believe that normal people, people like you and I, could never commit crimes like the Nazis did. Merton’s way of thinking might make us feel comfortable because it puts distance between those murderers and us. It suggests that you and I could never sink as low as the Nazi German murderers did.
But couldn’t we really? Aren’t also we vulnerable to thinking and doing evil? Is not our DNA the same as that of those Nazi antisemitic war criminals? A frightening thought indeed… So where does evil come from?
Let us begin with a brief look at the Hebrew Bible. In Isaiah 45:7 we read:
“I form light and create darkness, I make shalom (peace/wholeness) and I create ra (evil). I am the LORD, who do all these things.”
Theologians have done mental somersaults to make this statement defensible and acceptable. I have never considered their effort sufficiently persuasive. When one realizes, however, that ancient Israel’s prophets radically departed from the multiple Middle Eastern religions’ dualistic theologies to come up with and follow monotheism, it became necessary to give credence to the existence of a single god only rather than to two or more competitive gods, and thus to the belief that this single god had created the universe and all that it contains, and so also the realities of good and evil. This explains Isaiah’s statement concerning the origins of good and evil.
The talmudic sages, in their post-biblical teaching, suggest that in each baby born there exists an equal amount of yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, an equal inclination toward good and toward evil. These sages knew that good and evil are not just acquired through life experiences but that we humans have an INNATE capacity for the good and for the bad. They taught that while the inclinations are in balance at birth, each person during her/his life must choose between nourishing or suppressing one or the other.
Both the rabbinic and the Christian church teachings, the latter explaining the existence of evil as original sin inherited via genetic continuity from Adam and Eve and their alleged first sinful act in the Garden of Eden, a teaching categorically rejected by Judaism, do have in common the belief that there is, in fact, a dark side to our human psyche.
Experiments at Yale University’s so-called Baby Lab, dealing with the phenomena of early childhood predispositions have demonstrated that babies not yet able to verbalize recognized and reached for a puppet showing kind behavior over a puppet exhibiting mean behavior. Experiments with older children suggested that when a wholesome socialization process had taken place, the children developed a healthy sense of altruism.
The good news is that our attitudes and dispositions are influenceable. We are not fatalistically determined. We are able to reorient ourselves depending on the quality of the influences we are exposed to. Let us reiterate here that inclination or predisposition must not be confused with irreversible fate. All that we have learned is that we all are capable of being good or becoming perpetrators of evil.
Primo Levi, brilliant author, keen observer of concentration camp life and survivor of Auschwitz writes:
“They (the guards) were made of the same cloth as we, they were average human beings averagely intelligent, averagely wicked. Save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces.”
Having been there myself, I have no choice but to agree with Primo Levi.
We all, human beings that we are, are capable of doing evil things. This our capacity is an inherited one from the drive for survival of our ancestors – so-called hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene period (about 250,000 years ago) of development of homo sapiens.
Waller, one of the authors I mentioned above, sends the reader to the recently developed discipline of Evolutionary Psychology. He explains: Universal “reasoning circuits” drive our human behavior. These were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our ancestors. These circuits designed themselves in response to problems our ancestors faced, like detection of predators, decision making what is safe to eat, alliances for self-and tribal defense, selection of mates, etc. The development of these circuits took place gradually and experientially over very large periods of time. Waller suggests we think about this development as an unconscious process, something like a self-learning computer. This is not “intelligent design” that functions toward a predetermined goal and is driven in that direction by an intelligent mind or, say a deity.”
We should think of our brains as wired to deal with competition such as for instance competition for obtaining scarce resources like food. Competition of this kind led to conflict between individuals and groups. Collective defense became necessary.
This brings us to our human dark sides. We prefer kin to non-kin. Helping our kin by hurting our non-kin competitors can be advantageous. We all have needs and desires and so, to attain these, WE get into conflict with “them.”. It is “we” against “them.”
This is not to say that people are evil. This is merely to point out that we have acquired psychological mechanisms that make us CAPABLE of evil. When our reasoning circuits are activated by certain cultural, psychological and social triggers we can become evil.
What are some of these triggers?
Much depends on the society within which we live and that society’s world view. Societies hold world views which include presuppositions, intentions, meanings, rules, norms, values, principles, practices, etc. Societies hold core values which include judgments as to what is good and moral, evil, a-moral or immoral. Different societies provide us with a lens through which we look at our life and the lives that surround us. This lens enables us to make decisions for good or evil.
It is important to remember that cultural models do not dictate our human thought and behavior but can and do influence them.
Simplifying, it can be said that our American society values personal independence, freedom of choice, personal uniqueness and personal achievement. German Nazi society, on the other hand, focused on the group. In Fascism and Nazism the emphasis is on obedience, conformity, tradition, law and order. Here the group shapes the individual. Human identity is based on the group which defines itself as race, ethnicity, tribe, religion and nationality. Conflict arises when the self-definition of various groups produces in-groups which stand in tension with or oppose out-groups. It is again “we” against “them”.
The Nazis identified the Jews as the out-group that needed to be annihilated. The Jews’ cause was evil; the Nazis’ cause was sacred. Nazi Germany’s survival, Germans were taught, was dependent on the destruction of the Jewish race.
A rabbinic saying comes to mind: mitzvah goreret mitzvah ve-averah goreret averah – “A good deed leads to another good deed and a transgression leads to another transgression.”
When hatred of “the other,” i.e., the members of the out-group, is taught relentlessly from early age, lying and the doing of evil become what Hannah Arend in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem called “the banality of evil.” Lies and hatred become something that anchor themselves deep in the human psyche until brutality and murder become common activities. They become the “daily normal.” Euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing, evacuation, resettlement, final solution” and others become part of daily conversation and nothing evil is imputed to these terms which, in reality, are facades for murder.
The descent into the hell of evil is gradual. But once arrived there it is very hard to escape. The process of dehumanization as witnessed in history and also by myself in the Holocaust, and how such dehumanizing of perfectly normal innocent human beings can be achieved by means of psychological manipulation and coercion, has been demonstrated experimentally by the “Milgram’s Experiment” at Yale University and the “Stanford Prison Experiment” and others.
James Waller makes the point that evil persons are very often not the product of WHO they are but of WHERE they are. They come gradually under the influence of evil social forces and are pulled into their vortex. By participating in evil, evil embeds itself in their very being and takes over.
This recognition does not excuse the doing of extraordinary evil. Perpetrators cannot be absolved by the notion that others under similar conditions have done or would be doing the same. It has been documented that there were men and women during the Holocaust who refused to be killers and stopped participating in their units’ murderous activities. Perpetrators retain full moral and legal responsibility for the atrocities they commit.
How can we, as individuals and as a society, cultivate the sensibilities that will counteract the forces that lead to the commission of brutalities, dehumanizing, genocide and mass killings?
I believe that honest education has humanizing effects. When proper education is internalized and applied, such education can be a powerful antidote to personal and collective inhumanity. Without being able to go into the details of what such an education entails, let me suggest that helping young people think critically is the most important element of such an education. Encouraging students to ask “why” is, in my opinion, the first step toward endowing them with the ability to distinguish truths from half-truths and downright lies, the latter being something we are being subjected to on a daily basis, these days.
In my opinion, the only way toward eliminating evil thought and evil actions depends on a serious rethinking of our educational process with emphasis on the absolute necessity of ethical behavior.