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Interfaith Dialogue ( 13 Oct 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Nature of Evil

By Dr Tariq Rahman

October 11, 2011

Almost every other day, one hears of heinous crimes against humanity. In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Hutus systematically slaughtered the Tutsis by the thousands — the UN estimate is 800,000, but this number is certainly an underestimation. In 2004, ordinary American soldiers were seen humiliating and torturing Iraqi captives in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. And from earlier times, there is the ‘Rape of Nanking’— the rape and murder of a number of Chinese people by invading Japanese soldiers on the eve of World War II.

And it was in this war the sickening horror of the murder of Jews by the Nazi regime was carried out. The precision with which it was done is still evident for all who care to see the evidence in files, records, documents and the concentration camps themselves. And we in South Asia have seen such terrible killings, like in 1947, 1971 and during the long war in Sri Lanka. The question is whether evil is dispositional, genetic or is it something which circumstances and roles can create.

One answer to this question is by Philip Zimbardo whose book The Lucifer Effect (2007) is subtitled Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Zimbardo is a world-famous psychologist, a professor at the Stanford University and the creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This experiment was performed in August 1971 at the Stanford University. Zimbardo asked students to volunteer for the experiment for a reasonable pay. Later, some were allotted the roles of prisoners and others of guards. The guards were in a position of authority in the mock-prison but soon got so fully immersed in that role that they started abusing the prisoners. Some guards, however, were fair and some were even kind but none actually stopped the abuse. The prisoners, too, got immersed in their roles and, though some broke down, and some tried to rebel at times nobody asked for the experiment to be terminated even though they were ready to relinquish their pay. Zimbardo himself actually defended the system — as people in authority always do — as he was the superintendent of the prison. It finally took Christina Maslach (later Zimbardo’s wife) to point out that the prisoners had been dehumanised and abused. And, on the fifth day rather than the fourteenth, the experiment was terminated suddenly.

As a number of other experiments confirm that people tend to obey authority. They, therefore, acquiesce in evil because they cannot defy authority. Moreover, they want to be in the ‘in-group’ which again means that they will not oppose ‘group-thinking’. So, if your group tends to hate some other group, you will also do the same unthinkingly. John Steiner, a sociologist, interviewed hundreds of Nazi SS men. These were people who had actively participated in the murder of millions of Jews. He found that they were authoritarian. If they had not got a chance to take on such a diabolical role, they would have simply bullied wives and children. But Hitler provided them with a philosophy of hatred which made them do a lot of evil. However, according to Steiner, they were “sleepers”— people with traits, which would not become manifest unless the chance arose.

If a nation wants to avoid its citizens from becoming frenzied killers, it has to ensure that there are no unsupervised roles of power and dominance over others. Thus, the police and the intelligence agencies should not be allowed to hold people incommunicado. They must be supervised by the judiciary, human rights groups and the media. Similarly, women should not be at the mercy of men. There should be courts which should send armed men to arrest their husbands or brothers for abuse or even the threat of honour killing. In the schools, the teachers should be subjected to judicial intervention if a pupil is physically beaten. In short, whenever there is a potential prisoner-guard situation, there should be humane oversight.

As for aggression against other groups — other nations, religions, sects, linguistic and ethnic groups, socio-economic classes — these should be guarded against by not allowing their dehumanisation. Any propaganda which portrays the other group as sub-human distorts the very humanity of people, who are essentially like us. It is the basis of all genocides and hate murders. Thus, the American soldiers wiped out the Vietnamese, calling them “gooks”; the Hutus killed the Tutsis calling them “cockroaches” and “insects”; the Arabs were called “towel-heads” in the Iraq war; the Americans are called “infidel” and “crusaders” by the al Qaeda. This is to say, a whole group — and not just its decision-makers — are painted black and people rise up to kill the whole group by switching off their humanity. This would not happen they realise that the others are essentially like them too, and that ordinary people are not responsible for the decisions of their leaders.

In Pakistan the first thing we must do is to rewrite all textbooks which creates hatred for Indians. In India, too, all movies which portray Pakistanis in a bad light must be taken off the screen. We have dwelt on the killings in 1947 on both sides. We should now celebrate the heroes, again on both sides, who helped each other across the border, often by risking their lives. Such people also exist even if they are not many. Perhaps “sleepers” may be present among both the devils and the saints. But, above all, we must guard against creating the situation which makes such abominable evil possible. That is why people must create lasting peace so that war — the mother of all evils — does not start again.

The writer is HEC distinguished national professor and presently Dean, School of Education, Beacon house National University.

Source: The Express Tribune, Lahore