Interpreting Evil (Opinion Post Rewrite)

*Revised on June 16, 2015
Original post: https://kbryant7537.commons.hwdsb.on.ca/2015/02/
(I apologise in advance, I realise that this is very weak; I did the best I could, I hope that shows)

Evil. Evil is a very complex idea. Even more complex is when we consider whether or not humans are evil. Many human things can be classified with our definition of good or evil; actions, decisions, words, but where does this “evil” come from?
What determines if a person or action is evil? People are not inherently good or evil; a single person can choose to sometimes do good and at other times do evil, and circumstances often play a role in this decision.

People’s actions cannot define who they are as a whole. “Good people could be seduced to cross [the line between good and evil], and in some circumstances, bad kids could recover.” (Philip Zimbardo, The Psychology of Evil) People who are considered good and pure in the world can do bad things, and evil people can change. Oskar Schindler, Nazi Germany. During World War II, Schindler goes out of his way, and puts himself in extreme danger to save over 1,200 Jewish people from death. Originally, Schindler joins the Nazi party because he feels as if it holds more opportunities for him; he needs this initially because he is unemployed at the time. He eventually becomes owner of a factory that makes weapons for the German army, using Jewish people as workers because they were cheaper. When the Nazis start deliberately seeking out Jewish people and killing them, Schindler starts to see his workers as “mothers, fathers, and children, exposed to ruthless slaughter.” (The Oskar Schindler Story) [1] Although it would be much easier for Schindler to give away his workers and hire new ones, he develops certain feelings of sympathy and obligation to do whatever he can to help these people. He keeps them from certain death, while also providing them with the best living conditions he can offer them, all without the Nazis finding out. Schindler’s behaviour goes against what would be the normal expectations for someone in his situation: he puts himself in harm’s way to save people he has no attachments to, out of the goodness of his heart and nothing more. Although this does not fit the expected circumstances, this does demonstrate how people are not their actions, and how people always have a choice. Schindler was originally a member of the Nazi party; he supported the Nazis, and he ran a business supporting the German army. However, after considering his workers in a new light, he completely changes his actions by choosing to help his employees from a party which he used to support. A person’s past does not determine their future, and just because they have behaved a certain way in the past doesn’t mean they can’t change. Oskar Schindler completely changed who he was in result of his compassion for his Jewish workers. The situation in Abu, Ghraib, Iraq, 2003, shares the idea that people are not their actions, but this is proved a lot more by circumstance.

In a prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, 2003, American soldiers working the night shift in the basement of the prison were caught physically and sexually abusing the inmates. Some prisoners are being humiliated, some being lead on leashes like animals, some being beaten to the point of extreme blood loss. “Evil is the exercise of power…to intentionally harm people psychologically, to hurt people physically, destroy people mortally…and to commit crimes against humanity.” (Philip Zimbardo, The Psychology of Evil) [2] Soldiers are considered by some to be very pure and heroic people because they left their lives and their families at home to go and serve the people of their country, yet, by definition, they were doing unimaginably evil things. If the circumstances of the situation had played out differently, the whole issue could have been averted.

[referring to the abuses being caused by other soldiers when she arrived at the prison] We were just like, “What the hell’s going on?” Y’know, we’d never seen this type of stuff before. We did question it and what we got in return was “Yeah, this needs to be done, yeah just do whatever [the soldiers that were already there] say.” (Lynndie England—Abu Ghraib Prison Guard, Abu Ghraib & Lynndie England Interview 1 of 2) 

England was told what she needed to do, so she follows the orders of her superiors. England and the other guards were given a situation with complete authority and, supposedly, no repercussions. Even though soldiers are seen as stereotypically upstanding and noble people, this does not excuse the fact that they engaged in villainous actions, and vice versa (i.e. their villainous actions do not excuse all of the heroic and noble things they have accomplished in the past). They made some very bad choices, but they are not strictly bad people because of them.

[in response to the statement, “You’re ashamed of the fact that you made the military look bad, but you’re not ashamed of what was actually going on, is that what you’re saying?”] It’s what we were supposed to be doing. We did what we were told to do. I don’t feel bad about that. (Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib & Lynndie England Interview 1 of 2) [3]


The horrific incident does not stand alone in good people doing bad things; many of the same conflict were paralleled in the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

 

In 1971, twenty-four healthy and mentally able male college students are chosen to participate in an experiment, some in the role of prisoners, and some as guards. They are put into a prison-like situation, and their behaviour is analyzed by social psychologists. The experiment is cut off after only six days because of how badly the prisoners are being mistreated. The “guards” are forcing the “inmates” to do physical labour like cleaning toilets with their bare hands. In addition, prisoners are often stripped and sexually humiliated [4]. “We didn’t do any of the stuff that you see in Abu Ghraib…but I certainly subjected them to all kinds of humiliation. I don’t know where I would have stopped myself.” (Dave Eshelman—Guard in the experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment) It isn’t taking very long for the behaviour of the guards to get to the prisoners; they start dropping out like flies after the second day.

 

We were told to chant something about how [prisoner 819] was a bad prisoner, and at the time I went along with it, I’m thinking, “What does this matter? We don’t believe this.” But we just go along and chant it. (Richard Yacco—Prisoner 1037, The Stanford Prison Experiment) [5]

 

Many of these young people, who had been chosen because they were psychologically healthy, have mental and emotional breakdowns within thirty-six hours. “[referring to prisoner 819] That night he had a breakdown. Everyday after that another prisoner broke down in a similar way.” (Philip Zimbardo, The Stanford Prison Experiment) The experiment is put to a stop. These people, the guards and the prisoners, were perfectly ordinary people when they entered the makeshift prison, but some of them executed some extraordinarily horrible things, and even if the roles were switched, it likely would not make a difference.


When we see someone doing bad things we assume they are bad people to begin with, but what we know in our study is there are a set of social psychological variables that can make ordinary people do things they never could have imagined doing. (Philip Zimbardo, The Stanford Prison Experiment)

There are a number of influences that can trigger evil. But people are not solely their choices; they have more substance to them than their perfections or inaccuracies. And decisions are set in time—they cannot be altered once they happen—but humans can change. They can rehabilitate, they can grow, they can develop, or they can retreat, compress, and repress themselves and their actions, and turn down roads they initially had no intention of exploring. Feelings of power or dominance can be brainwashing, so much so that it can also make the people “underneath” the power very obedient and blind in a way. There are so many people who just mindlessly obey whatever an authority tells them without question, whether that authority be in a school or work environment, or even at a municipal or federal level. Also, the fallout from one’s actions can have a large effect on one’s decision to act a certain way. If someone knows that there will be no repercussions to their behaviour, their actions will probably differ quite a bit from what they would do if there were limitations. Many humans things can be classified as evil, but humans themselves should not be one of them.

[1] “The Oskar Schindler Story.” The Oscar Schindler Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2015. <http://www.oskarschindler.com/>.
[2]
The Psychology of Evil. Perf. Philip Zimbardo. TED. TED Conference, LLC, Feb. 2008. Web. 25 February 2015. <http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_on_the_psychology_of_evil?language=en>.
[3] “Abu Ghraib & Lynndie England Interview 1 of 2.” Interview by Hillary Anderson. YouTube. YouTube, 8 Sept. 2009. Web. 14 June 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGjeavuAxAI>.
[4] Zimbardo, Philip G. “The : A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment.” Stanford Prison Experiment. Philip G. Zimbardo, n.d. Web. 26 February 2015. <http://www.prisonexp.org/>.
[5] The Stanford Prison Experiment. Dir. Philip Zimbardo. Perf. Philip Zimbardo. YouTube. YouTube, 20 Aug. 201. Web. 14 June 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZwfNs1pqG0>.


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