The Situationist

Looking for the Evil Actor

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on March 7, 2007

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.

Lords Resistance ArmyThere are numerous reasons, some of which those earlier posts highlighted, why the situationist lesson is an unpopular one. This post suggests another.

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 toOchola John 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.

Joseph Kony is said to have abducted 20,000 kids in the last 20Joseph Kony years. But he has done so with minimal resistance from Uganda’s government, and with virtually no intervention from foreign powers.

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 liberty-trade-centers-911.jpgforest 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.”

7 Responses to “Looking for the Evil Actor”

  1. […] has been a question in my mind over the last year, and it is a question latent in the next great post over at Harvard Law’s The Situationist. Excerpts […]

  2. […] of the more common situational sources and mechanisms of inter-group conflict (see, for example, “Looking for the Evil Actor,” “The Situation of a Volunteer Army,” “March Madness,” and “Hoyas, Hos, & […]

  3. […] and III of Phil Zimbardo’s series on “The Situational Sources of Evil” and “Looking for the Evil Actor” by Jon Hanson & Michael […]

  4. […] of The LRA and Joseph Kony on innocent people! How can our governments allow such things!!!!!!!!!! LRA Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Pure Evil: Joseph KonyWrap it UpLooking for the […]

  5. To: Joseph Kony and his followers,

    Only you know…..what fuels your minds,and your actions….and for what purpose.
    I examine myself, before i write these words…man to man…but NOT…mind to mind.
    We all make decisions… from need,or desire.
    Our physical body…can be well,and satisfied….with a surprising small amount.
    Our minds…are totally different,than our body.
    I put geography,culture,religions,need,hunger,hopelessness,power,and purpose…in front of this message…..and behind our actions.
    Freedom and peace,…maybe only be a world dream…but every breath on this planet,breaths this in hope.
    We can adapt…with little physical needs~food, water and shelter.Its our minds,that we ALL…..battle with….the rich,the poor,…the powerless, the powerful.
    From a point of view of experience,i have had it all.
    We go through life…accepting,challenging….or changing it.Its a strange thing,perceiving things we dont have…and what is the value and cost of our efforts to gain….and where does it truly…satisfy.
    Material possessions,and physical desires….are NEVER satisfied,thats WHY,we ALWAYS…want more.
    I was caught up…with wanting more,getting more…wanting and getting, for many years. I realized what i have become…on the INSIDE ~ and only i, knew.
    All that i had….was worthless,inside.
    All that i had outside,was extra…and someone else…wanting it…ready to take it.Its a circle of DECEIT,false reality.
    I am truly more satisfied,with less. Less material worth,and more love.
    Power and possession…feeds greed and deceit…
    Freedom and peace….feeds love….and contentment.
    We have to step out of ourselves,examine our individual minds,…
    to realize what is the end result.
    What is power….if its without love?
    Your not alone Sir…with the battle,in your mind.Your heart,has grown cold.
    That 18 inches…between your mind and heart,Sir…
    is your purpose in life…just like mine.
    When was the last time,you separated your self from everything.I mean really,just you and yourself.We think the world needs us….we think we cant stop….whatever is occupying out time,or purpose. Well, our world,and purpose… will wait.
    I urge you Sir,separate yourself for 24 hrs…put your next man in charge.
    Have your personal guards within distance if you must….but not to fellowship,or see them.
    Go to a favorite place….feed yourself,be yourself…be alone.Clear your mind.
    This is for you… one else.
    Let your mind be free…from all that you normally fill it with…this is your time….fill it with any…good memories of your youth…what did you have back then….what ever brought freedom and peace…at that time.Feel it,remember it?
    Whatever personal freedom, and personal peace, your youth had…it is real.
    Perhaps family or friends…places of comfort?
    A hardened heart…still feels.Remember love….?
    While there is still breath in a man….we CAN cling to what is good.How many mistakes have i made..? MANY Sir.
    My personal cold heart,showed me…the end result….i would never be satisfied.
    I realized…in my quiet time,alone…what and who i became….it was ugly…and i was going to die ugly,in it.
    Was i, not worth more than this? Was life, not worth more than that?
    It took more than 24 hrs…but the seed of hope, was planted.I knew then,it would grow or die…..with me in it.
    My mind battled with “stuck” or “change”….to retreat to my old way of thinking…or to renew my mind….and be set free.
    The lack of my possessions…was a matter of comfort.
    The lack of my power….was a matter of love.
    It was not easy…my head voices~ challenged every good thought, and every good action….but personal peace, is my fuel.
    When my mind, came back to love…and good choices for ALL….my entire world was alive again.I viewed my fellow man as my equal….not as a puppet,because of my wealth and power….
    I did not care what others thought….as long as i gained…by them or any other means…it took me six yrs to change…from seed to blossom.Some forgave me,some not….but at least….i am set free now…and aware of the damage i brought to others,no longer…damaging more. To be forgiven by some…..if far greater than none.
    Call it anything you like…going soft…loving again…and my fellow man.
    This is why Sir….i address this to us.To measure our wrongs….the world will always measure…
    To measure or wrights….the world will,remember our choice of changes.
    Let the past be the past…and those who want to “stay stuck” in it…century after century….
    I see a man….Sir….who can change.
    To die with new change, forgiveness and love….
    nothing…..can compare.
    The world is watching you Sir….we ALL can change….REGARDLESS,of our the past.

  6. фильмы онлайн…

    […]Looking for the Evil Actor « The Situationist[…]…

  7. […] Most Visited Posts Guilt and Racial PrejudiceThe Moon and Your EmotionsSmile If You Love Your Future Relationships Only-Child Syndrome or Advantage?Looking for the Evil Actor […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: