Wednesday, 7 December 2011

An ode to evil

this blogpost is inspired by something Myra MacDonald said about evil, optimism and Bonn

Go and get a word of advice from Satan.' So Moses  went to visit the devil and when he came to him asked him for a word of advice.'never say,''I'', So that you never may become like me.''

I was listening to 'Radio 4's a point of view: An ode to tyrants ' where Mary Beard reflects on the
similarities between modern tyrants and the tyrants of ancient Rome.(article here )

Mary makes the observation about how we like to see things simplistically, good people and bad people. Was Qaddafi truly evil? Is the narrative of the evil dictator or tyrant overly simplistic? After all she observes Qaddafi supported anti apartheid activists at a time when they were branded terrorists by the west. Does the fact that he has done some good make his actions redeemable (unlikely ) but it might make us look at him in less absolute terms.

She ends her commentry by pointing out that this argument is not new :
Cornelius Tacitus, the sharpest Roman historian of them all, who hit the nail on the head. In the introduction to his book that would include an account of the reign of Domitian (the notorious fly-stabber), Tacitus reflected on how best to analyse tyranny. It's problematic, he wrote, because it's very hard to find out the truth.
The temptation is to go one of two ways - total adulation for the tyrant's achievements or blanket vilification of his crimes. Readers, he went on, distrust adulation. It looks like flattery. They tend to trust vilification, as criticism appears more objective. But that doesn't mean, he warns, that it is necessarily right.

The crux of all this is that people can be different things at different times, so what turns someone like Qaddafi and his close followers into cruel torturers and murderers ? Are those traits innate to all of us or are some of us just basically evil.

This brings us to the next question, what makes  people do good or evil. When I look at myself I don't consider myself someone who could commit 'evil' , while I know people who are unpleasant I cannot imagine them totturing or killing other human beings.

This in turn reminded me of this Tedx talk by Philip Zimbardo (author of the Lucifer effect), where he asks the question Are we all capable of evil acts given the right situation?

In brief he says any person, nice or not nice can commit acts of 'evil' given the right opportunity. What distinguishes one from the other though? Perhaps it is like Abraham Lincoln says 'Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.'

I wounder if in the end our dividing lines between right and wrong and good and evil stem from a certain hope and a hidden fear. The hope that by dividing good and bad we 'know that the people with us are good. The hidden fear is the scary part, the fear that we are all in fact capable of good and evil, and nearly anyone is capable of anything.

1 comment:

Rabia said...

brilliant post. I never quite thought of it like this but it makes perfect sense.