In Parts I, II, and III of his recent posts on the Situational Sources of Evil, Phil Zimbardo makes the case that we too readily attribute to an evil person or group what should be, at least in part, attributed to situation. This was a key lesson of Milgram’s obedience experiments as well as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. And that lesson, unfortunately, seems similarly evident in far too many real-world atrocities.
Think for a moment about the sort of evil that is so grotesquely apparent right now in The Sudan and Uganda, both of which are in the midst of civil wars–wars that have featured indescribably horrific acts, such as villages ravaged by soldiers who chop off limbs of children. Perhaps most harrowingly, the “evil-doers” are often children themselves, many of whom are kidnapped and then conscripted into bands of mutilating marauders.
Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army, for example, is comprised mainly of abducted children who roam northern Uganda, where “many families have lost a child through abduction, or their village . . . [have been] attacked and destroyed, families burned out and/or killed, and harvests destroyed by . . . . the Lord’s Resistance Army.”
The plight of Ochola John, pictured below, exemplifies an all-too-common story: his hands, lips, nose, and ears were cut off by members of the Lord Resistance Army. It is a difficult image to take in (note, we opted against many other more graphic photos).
Such atrocities have led many in Uganda to question how children could become evil incarnate:
We don’t understand how Kony could have a child soldier slash a fellow child abductee with a machete or make a group of children bite their agemate with their bare teeth till he bleeds to death.
In searching for answers, some have turned to situationist factors:
It is easy to assume that the person who commits such an atrocity is deranged or even inhuman. Sometimes it is the case. But not always. It is possible for a normal individual to commit an abnormal, sick act just because of the situation s/he finds him/herself in, and the training s/he is exposed to.
How could this happen? Zimbardo’s ten-factor list suggests some of situationist grease that no doubt lubricates the wheels of evil. Kony’s methods and ideology are extreme, to be sure, but they are familiar: saving his country from evil by building a theocracy.
In that way, dispositionism can give way to a weak form of situationism, but only up to a point — a tendency that has elsewhere been called selective situationism or naive situationism. Kony’s evil disposition is the “situation” influencing the impressionable young boys. In the end, we place evil almost exclusively in one or a small number of actors — usually human, but sometimes supernatural. No doubt, Kony is immensely blameworthy, so much so that we, the authors, can scarcely bring ourselves even to suggest that the horrors might have multiple origins, beyond the gruesome actions of the most salient actors involved.
By locating evil ultimately in a person or group, we avoid a disconcerting possibility that there is more to the situation beyond the bad individuals. When evil comes packaged within a few human bodies, it is rendered more tractable, identifiable, and perhaps, in a way, less threatening — very “them,” and very “other.” Such a conception undermines the unsettling possibility that, because of the situation, there may be more “evil actors” behind those that we currently face. Get rid of the bad apples, we imagine, and the rest of the batch will be fine. Perhaps more important, it permits us to ignore the possibility that the barrel may be contaminating. We need not confront any apprehensions that our systems are unjust, the groups we identify with are contributing to or benefitting from that injustice, or that we individually play some causal role in it.
Is there any line at which we non-salient bystanders of the world, including Americans, begin to bear some share of responsibility for suffering such as that endured by Ochola John? Maybe the answer is “no,” as most of us apparetly presume. But maybe it is “yes,” and maybe that line has already been crossed.
We are not making a foreign policy recommendation here. We are simply highlighting a form of blindness that we suspect influences all policy. That is, dispositionism (and motivated attributions generally) helps us push that line of responsibility toward, if not all the way to, the vanishing point — even if it does little to reduce the atrocities themselves. Dispositionism helps us to see the apple, or perhaps the tree, and to miss the orchard and the forest and, perhaps, ourselves.
There are other examples of that tendency of allowing our attributions toward salient (and often despicable) individuals to eclipse any possibility of a more complex, far-reaching causal story. Our criminal justice system is partially built upon it. Consider, also, the widespread response to Susan Sontag’s infamous New Yorker essay, in which she described the of 9/11 terrorism not as
a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions. . . . And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.
Regardless of the veracity of Sontag’s claims, many Americans did not want to hear such a non-affirming interpretation in the wake of the terror. She not only implicated American policies but suggested that perhaps the attackers were not as “beneath us” as many had portrayed.
As one of us summarized in another article (with Situationist contributors Adam Benforado and David Yosifon), many conservative commentators responded to Sontag and her claims with predictable rage and disgust (while most moderates and liberals took cover in the safety of silence).
Charles Krauthammer called Sontag “morally obtuse,” while Andrew Sullivan labeled her “deranged.” John Podhoretz claimed that she exemplified the “hate-America crowd,” that out-group of Americans who are “dripping with contempt for the nation’s politics, its leaders, its economic system and for their foolish fellow citizens.” And Rod Dreher really drove home the point saying that he wanted “to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman’s apartment, grab her by the neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters.”
We see ourselves as “just,” and don’t like being “implicated” by clear injustice, a discomfort that is often assuaged by looking for the Evil Actor. But when evil continues, even after the evil individuals have been stopped, perhaps we glimpse one reason why, as George Santayana famously put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”