Mind Matters — Critical Thinking Meets Compassion

Elizabeth Minuchin, in The Evil of Banality, argues that when people don’t think critically, they simply “follow” and can become agents of evil without questioning the morality of their actions. An evil system, she says, only works when ordinary people carry out its orders.

The work of Philip Zimbardo corroborates her premise. He and his colleagues devised the Stanford (University) Prison Experiment in 1971 where college students role-played prisoners and guards. The goal of the research was to discover the “power of the social situation to determine behavior.” The results of this enactment were so severe that the study was terminated within days. All subjects were normal, healthy, well-adjusted college students from all over the country who had been thoroughly screened for the study. Nevertheless, many of the normal, healthy mock prisoners suffered … intense emotional stress … other prisoners acted like zombies totally obeying the demeaning orders of the guards.” The guards’ cruel, dehumanizing and sadistic treatment of these prisoners created a sense of powerlessness in their charges. This experiment, terminated abruptly due to the extent of “degrading actions being perpetrated by the guards,” has become “one of psychology’s most dramatic illustrations of how good people can be transformed into perpetrators of evil, and healthy people can begin to experience pathological reactions—traceable to situational forces.” (More information on the Stanford Prison Experiment can be found online at www.apa.org/research/action/prison.aspx.)

So it isn’t just the Nazi of seventy-five years ago who murdered innocents—adults and children—in the morning to return in the evening to his innocent children, just like millions of other dads, “all in a day’s work.” It is also now: every day, “average” people carry out their jobs without questioning the ethics or compassion of their acts.

Besides not questioning the hurtful consequences of their actions, people may also have another reason for being unthinking. People may just go along with systemic—if not evil—at the very least, gross dysfunction for self-preservation.

There is a sense in which individuals and groups protect themselves from their own helplessness and lack of control by blaming the victim—“This can’t happen to me” syndrome. However, if a human being has empathy and can identify with another’s dilemma or suffering then that person cannot very easily either blame or harm the other. Ah, but that very empathy taps into our own vulnerability to the vicissitudes of life, acknowledging, “yes, it can happen to me.” No, we are not in control. Things happen to us and our loved ones that we cannot stop. Out of fear of loss of control we blame the victim: empathy be damned. If we can somehow see the other as defective or wrong, then they “deserve” punishment or pain and we protect ourselves from being as vulnerable as they are. It’s a ruse that we fall prey to unless we integrate critical thinking with compassion.

Recently, a janitor who has worked for MIT for ten years, was arrested to be deported back to El Salvador. The protective—of self—response to this is “what did he do wrong?” In other words, “that can’t happen to me—he must be at fault.” Blame the victim. In fact, the very people who are being snagged for deportation are people who are following the rules: the ones who are not hiding from the law.

I remember so often in the Grief Group I facilitated where the mourners were stunned by hurtful reactions of others to their losses. One woman’s son was killed by a motorist when he was riding his bicycle. The unempathic protective-of-self response by some was “well, that wouldn’t happen to my son, why did you let your son ride his bicycle there?” Blaming the victim by protecting the self from the vulnerability of life is the antithesis of empathy.

We see it in the news too. Trayvon Martin, the teenage African American gunned down by George Zimmerman was not only a victim of gun violence, he was blamed in the media for being a kid with skittles and a hoodie. The goal is to find any indiscretion in the past life of a teenage boy or young woman to blame them for being murdered or raped.

When we project “other-ness” onto a person or group out of fear of being as vulnerable as they are, we’ve lost our interconnectedness to the human condition.

So next time you read a story about anyone or group, whether it be a rape victim, or an immigrant or a striking worker, before blaming the victim, ask yourself, “Am I not also vulnerable? It can happen to me!

The phrase to remember is not “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” No, instead, it can be, “There, for the grace of God, go I.” No “buts” about it: we are all interconnected.