05 October 2008

Evil is Real

Here is a TED talk by Philip Zimbardo that really provides a strong model for how to approach the problem of evil. He's a remarkable authority on the subject because in this video he talks about his own complicity in creating a situation that drove young men to commit evil acts.

The model takes off from the "bad apple" metaphor and adds two more layers. The first basic layer is the idea that some people are, by disposition evil. Authorities, like the Bush administration in the case of the Abu Gharib abuse case, always trot out the "bad apple" excuse. They are not responsible because they did their best to not have bad apples, but what can you do?

Zimbardo says that we also have to look at the possibility of having "bad barrels." The situation that occurred at Abu Gharib, or in the Stanford Prison Experiment that he ran, is a set-up for bringing out the evil tendencies of otherwise good, upstanding people to participate in terrible acts against the well-being of others. In the Stanford Prison Experiment he was careful to get perfectly normal college students and randomly assigned them to the roles of guards and inmates. The only factor that can account for the evil the "guards" inflicted on the "inmates" is the situational factors created by Zimbardo the experimenter.

That leads to the third level of possible explanations, what if there are "bad barrel makers." The Stanford Prison Experiment was ended after five or six days, but the institutional, political, economic and other forces that created Abu Gharib are still in place. The fact is that the government policies that allow water boarding are directly responsible for acts of evil. Those policies are forcing good young soldiers of the United States Military to commit acts of evil. There are some very bad barrel designs in our government policies.

This is the essence of what I claim is wrong with schools. Perfectly good people are being put into situations that are systematically anti-educational. Teachers and students are subjected to policies that systematically re-create situations in which the worst aspects of their humanity are brought out. Good people in bad situations can commit acts that they would never dream of doing under normal conditions.

In this recent essay I discuss how we can honor the State's interest in learning without creating bad situations. The essay takes off from the fact that some parents who took the responsibility for educating their own children into their own hands lead to criminal charges. I think the good people who were acting on behalf of the State were put into the kind of situation in which they had their worst characteristics drawn out. They acted with cruelty that caused harm to every family involved.

We can do better.

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