For Goodness' Sake

Philip G Zimbardo, USA

Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University, California.

Crossroads after a night of rain

(Submitted by The Art of Living Team)

Image: "Crossroads after a night of rain" © Martin Liebermann

We want to believe that we are “good”, moral and self-aware. We want to believe that we’re different from “bad” or “evil” people. Thinking so is essential to maintaining a sense of personal dignity and self worth. But the line between good and evil is permeable, like the cell walls of our body that allow movement of chemicals across their boundaries. Anything that any human being has ever done - anything imaginable - is potentially doable by any of us in the same situation.

This is not to excuse immoral behavior; the point is simply that understanding how someone could have engaged in wrongdoing, rather than dismissing it as a bad deed done by a bad person, allows us to identify corrosive social forces - the very same forces we need to counteract if we want to avoid going down the same wrong path.

If being surrounded by discrimination, government malfeasance, corporate corruption, or military atrocities brings out the worst in people, it also, in some cases, brings out the best. In all the research that my colleagues in social psychology and I have conducted (including experiments in which ordinary subjects blindly obeyed instructions to administer increasingly painful electric shocks to innocent people), we find that although the majority conform, comply, yield, and succumb to the power of the situation, there are always some who refuse, resist, and disobey.

When the mass of humanity is doing the bidding of unjust authorities or bending to the will of corrupt systems, the few who resist are heroes. But you don’t have to be a Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King Jr. You can be a Joe Darby, the army reservist who revealed the photos of Abu Ghraib to a criminal investigator and thereby stopped the abuse.

The most ordinary of Joes
The heroic act of this average young man (whom residents in his hometown describe as the most ordinary of Joes) reveals what I call the “banality of heroism”. We think of social heroes as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us. But in fact, the first response of many such people is to deny that they’re anything special. (“I’m not a hero”, “Anyone in the same situation would have done what I did”, “I just did what needed to be done”)

What is it, then, that enables some people to refuse to participate in or condone wrongdoing? In part, it’s their sensitivity to situational pressures (being aware when someone is trying to con them), and their willingness to be rejected by the group when they know they’re right. They know intuitively how to spot and identify wolves dressed in sheep’s garments (the sweet-talking cult recruiter or the friendly neighbor who wants you to help discourage a gay couple from moving in next door). They’re also aware of how their own thinking can distort what’s going on around them (as when you want something so badly - say, a promotion, or other people’s acceptance - that you ignore the warning signs that something’s not right with what you’re being asked to do to get it).

Be mindful
There are a number of ways you can train yourself to resist unwanted influence - beginning with always being mindful of what is going on around you, and not going on automatic pilot and acting without critical awareness. You can engage in critical thinking - go beyond accepting other people’s definitions of a situation, ask questions about what’s going on and what happens down the road if you follow the prescribed path. You can develop the personal hardiness to be “different” or “difficult” by practicing saying no and arguing for the unpopular point of view. If the thought of interpersonal conflict scares you, think of it instead as simply challenging others to support their means and their ends. Take nothing for granted; be a hard-headed behavioral accountant. And be willing to admit your own mistakes. Too many people continue acting immorally even after they realize they shouldn’t merely because it’s too painful to admit that hey’ve done wrong. But if you can speak those most difficult words - “I made a mistake, and I’m sorry” - you’ll never have to rationalize away earlier actions. Finally, our stalwart band of resistors insists on retaining their personal sense of identity and self-worth, on not allowing others to dehumanize them. You should always demand the respect you deserve from everyone.

Our "heroic imagination"
I believe we can all benefit from exercising our “heroic imagination” - our capacity to envision facing physically or socially risky situations, to mentally struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider our actions and their consequences. It might mean stopping the cabdriver as he starts telling his favorite racist or sexist joke. It could mean intervening when a relative slaps her child at a family event. It should mean willingness to risk losing your job by exposing fraud and deception - as Sherron Walkins did at Enron - or facing even greater risks, as Deborah Layton did in exposing the dangers of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple cult in Guyana.

Strengthening the heroic imagination may help make us more aware of the ethical tests inherent in complex situations, while allowing us to consider and to some degree mentally transcend the costs of heroic action. Seeing ourselves as capable of the resolve necessary for heroism may be the first step toward taking a heroic action.

Ordinary heroes
There will come a time in each of our lives when three paths lie ahead. To the left, we can follow the lead of others mindlessly engaged in some evil, practising discrimination or injustice or abusing their fellows. This is the path of the perpetrators of evil. To the right, we can follow the lead of those who try to ignore the evil in their midst, smilingly looking the other way. This is the path of the evil of inaction. Straight ahead, we make up our own minds to act responsibly as individuals standing up for what we believe in, to do the right thing when it is easier to do the wrong thing or nothing at all. This is the path of “ordinary heroes”.



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