Posted on February 28th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Leadership, News, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology
Tagged with America, Belief, community, consumer culture, Creation, ethics, Faith, God, identity, Judaism, morality, politics, questioning, Questions, Religion, seminary, tolerance, transformation, Violence, war
Are there human beings who are essentially evil?
This is the question we grappled with this past week in the Prison Ministry class I am taking at Boston College Theological School. After weeks of learning about the development of the current prison system in this country, we examined the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this now-famous psychological experiment, healthy, educated young men were selected and randomly assigned to be guards and prisoners for what was to be a two-week project. After only six days participants and staff—including Dr. Philip Zimbardo who was the lead researcher—had gotten so into their roles that the experiment had to be terminated. Guards were verbally and psychologically abusing prisoners and prisoners were submitting blindly to guards. The mindset of the prison had so overtaken people that former identities felt vague and prison became their only reality.
In preparation for class we read Zimbardo’s article “A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators.” In it, Zimbardo asserts the “under-recognized power of social situations to alter the mental representations and behavior of individuals, groups, and nations.” Having read this article, watched the documentary on the Stanford Prison Experiment A Quiet Rage, and reflected on our own lives, it seemed obvious to conclude that human beings are not essentially evil, but rather are shaped, in large part, by the social contexts in which we live.
If this is true, why does our current prison system exist? Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo and Craig Haney reflect on the changes in the criminal justice system in “The Past and Future of the U.S. Prison Policy,” published in American Psychologist. They conclude that since 1971 a “counterrevolution in crime and punishment” has taken place. We are now living in what they call the “mean season” of corrections where the goal is to make the guilty suffer.
We have become a country that no longer supports the rehabilitation of prisoners. Programs designed to reform and educate prisoners lack funding and institutional support. We have moved to determinate sentencing models such as the 3-strikes legislation currently on the table in Boston. Our politicians vie to be known as “toughest on crime,” so that even while crime has been declining, the number of people in prison continues to rise at alarming rates. Due in large part to the War on Drugs, the prison system has become extremely racialized. As Michelle Alexander points out in her recent book The New Jim Crow, about 1/3 of African American men are currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
So, why does our current prison system exist? Why do we continue to support a punitive approach that blames the individual rather than putting the bulk of our resources into rehabilitation and reform? Do we sit complacent because, ultimately, the current system allows for our own sense of privilege? Have we been programmed by the media to see certain people as violent and needing to be put behind bars? Is it just too overwhelming and difficult to try to change?
Perhaps what underlies our criminal justice system is our desire to believe that we are essentially different from “evil doers.” If only we could weed out those bad apples, we think, society could run smoothly and safely. While I don’t believe that any human being is essentially evil, I do believe that we are all susceptible to being influenced by societal factors: sexism, racism, abuse, and poverty, to name a few. As Miller and Zimbardo write, “…locating evil within selected individuals or groups always has the ‘social virtue’ of taking society ‘off the hook’ as blameworthy.”
Perhaps if each of us was willing to acknowledge the infinite potential—encompassing both “good” and “evil”—within ourselves, we would not see ourselves as so separate from those we label “criminals.”
In Judaism we often talk about being b’tzelem Elokhim, made in the image of Gd. The Gd we find in the Torah is not one of pure goodness or benevolence, but rather one who can also be angry, jealous, vengeful, wrathful, and destructive. The same Gd who sustains us in the desert and saves us from slavery unleashes a flood so powerful that it destroys all living beings in its wake and who tasks us with utterly destroying neighboring populations in our quest for the promised land. If we are, indeed, made in Gd’s image, we must take an honest look at that image and an honest look at ourselves.
Gd possesses infinite possibilities, and so do each of us. Not one of us is essentially good or essentially bad. To honor this truth we should invest in infrastructure that supports each of us in accessing the most life-affirming aspects of ourselves rather than in a system that attempts, in vain, to weed out those “evil” among us.
Image: Catherine Munro via Wikimedia Commons