On Evil

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

Is evil the result of human choice or manufactured by social circumstances? Professor Philip Zimbardo, known for his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, opted for the latter explanation at a recent CATO book forum.

Zimbardo told the audience that he believes Lucifer was expelled from heaven not for sinning, but for disobeying an authority figure. “It’s really a story about what happens when you challenge authority—you go to hell,” said the Stanford University professor. The author of The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo believes that any person has the capacity for terrible deeds, torture, murder, and other crimes.

Anticipating the criticism that his theory abdicates human responsibility, Zimbardo said, “When I give this talk people say ‘oh, you’re saying people are not accountable for their behavior.’ No, not at all…You are personally accountable for your behavior.”

This did not, however, keep Zimbardo from sympathizing with the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters.

He said,

“Again, I did a lot of research [earlier] on shyness and shy people desperately want someone to notice them…This little Korean kid at Virginia Tech, what did he say in that video? He said, ‘for two years nobody spoke to me. You ignored me. I was nothing until I had a gun and started shooting, suddenly I became important.’ And the same thing at Columbine and [in] all these cases these are kids who are marginalized…”

He continued,

“And so what he’s saying is ‘everybody wants to feel special, at least to somebody. And so my sense is that is an obligation that you have, that for all the people you come in contact with, you think ‘what is it I can do to avoid myself treating you as an object, treating you as a student, treating you as an ordinary person.’”

As director of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo personally presided over abuses similar to those found at Abu Ghraib. The sociology professor described the abuses perpetrated under his supervision in 1971.

“Our guards stripped prisoners naked. They put bags over their head[s]. They sexually humiliated them,” he said.

Zimbardo later added, “And then they got them to engage in humiliating tasks—cleaning toilet bowls out with their bare hands, stripping prisoners naked, sexually taunting them, and then it always descends halfway through into sexually-degrading activities, literally much like we saw at Abu Ghraib.” The men Zimbardo recruited for this experiment had just graduated college and were psychologically screened before their selection.

Professor Zimbardo said that he ended the experiment after six days at the behest of his girlfriend (now wife) after she threatened to break up with him. “She looks at the same thing with a different definition of situation and says to me ‘it’s terrible what you’re doing to those boys. They’re not prisoners, they’re boys and you are responsible’—and she runs out,” he said (emphasis added).

Zimbardo outlined eight steps by which people are radicalized into violence against others.

1. “Mindlessly taking the first small step.”

2. “Dehumanization of others.”

3. “De-individualization of self.”

4. Diffusion of personal responsibility to the group.

5. Blind obedience to authority.

6. Uncritical conformity to group norms.

7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference.

8. Conformity to an ideology.

“And lastly, all evil begins with an ideology, the big positive value that when you accept that, it justifies the evil processes to get to that ideology,” he said.

While many of Zimbardo’s theories have become mainstream, his political attachments tend to be limited to one particular side of the aisle. A visit to his Lucifer Effect photo gallery reveals which political associations Professor Zimbardo considers valuable:

· Al Gore

· Bill Clinton

· Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

· Former Surgeon General and Bush critic Richard Carmona

· Chip Frederick, one of the Abu Ghraib torturers

· Janis Karminsky, another Abu Ghraib figure

· Studs Terkel (progressive journalist)

· Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer-Prize winner for reporting on the My Lai Massacre

· UC Berkeley Professor, Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror

· Major General Antonio Taguba, author of the Taguba Report.

The now-retired Major General recently spoke out in support of a new report issued by the progressive Physicians for Human Rights which accuses the Bush Administration of war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. “The remarks by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who’s now retired, came in a new report that found that U.S. personnel tortured and abused detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, using beatings, electrical shocks, sexual humiliation and other cruel practices,” reports the Sacramento Bee.

Zimbardo had highly complimentary words for General Taguba. “For that wonderful report he got fired. They told him ‘do not submit your request for promotion, you will never get it.’ And this is how the system protects itself,” said Zimbardo.

He ended his presentation with the following comment: “We want to oppose evil systems of power at home and abroad and advocate for respect of personal dignity, justice, and peace.”

Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia. Photo by Clatie K.