Monday, 5 December 2011

The Myth of the Unimaginableity of Evil

"Josef Fritzl was a monster. His crimes are unimaginable. No normal human being could ever do what he did." This is a common trope in our culture. Extreme evil is due to being an anomaly, an abomination, possessed by Satan, whatever. Either way it is clear that we could never do this. This is false. Tragically false. There were very very few mutants in Nazi Germany. The system in that evil place was designed, set up and run by totally ordinary people. We must all be on our guard all the time. There is nothing at all, no external power of any kind, to stop you, dear reader, becoming someone worse than Fritzl.

I'm going to do this post slightly differently from most. This isn't an essay where I argue a side. This point is made far more clearly as a meditation. I want you to be actively involved. I'm going to give you a task. Try to really actively engage with it, you'll find out something about yourself.

First, safety. You're going to be deliberately getting yourself into a powerful emotional state. You may be a bit fragile after. If you've got reason to be worried about your mental health dont try. If not then take precautions. Make sure people dont interrupt you. Shut yourself in a room somewhere. Not because you're going to be dangerous, simply because you will be a deeply unpleasant frame of mind, and it's not nice to talk to people when you're in that mood. You can come out of this frame of mind, so dont worry that I'm going to do anything permanent to you. Also, this is a long exercise, you may wish to set aside some free time.

The meditation runs as follows:

First think of a motivation. You have barriers in your brain that will normally stop you doing this exercise. The best way to cancel the effect of these is to give yourself a powerful motivation. Only you can know what your most powerful button is. But imagine a really strong motivation. Someone has a gun to your head, how creative and imaginative would you be in order to get out of that situation? Someone has a problem for you to solve, your mother/brother/boyfriend is in their power. How fast would you solve that problem? Imagine the person or thing you find most precious. Imagine them in Fritzel's dungeon. Imagine hearing the first half of a scream as the soundproof door slams shut. How imaginative would you get if you could save them from that? 

Keep this motivation in the back of your mind, keep that feeling of absolute overwhelming necessity. That whatever you have to do you can and must. If ever you feel yourself pulling back during the exercise bellow refresh that feeling. Tell the parts of your brain that are stopping you thinking that they really need to shut up now. Try this part of the exercise several times, make sure you can get back to this state when you need to convince your unwilling brain to do something. (This is actually a generally useful skill, you brain doesn't understand what matters and what doesn't).

Get yourself comfortable and relaxed. Then think of a person. It will be easier to lower the normal barriers in your mind if you think of someone you dont particularly love or care for. Who it is doesn't matter much, someone you know, a celebrity, someone you've just imagined. Just so long as you can get a clear image of this person and how they will react to stimuli. I'm going to call mine Billy. See them clearly in your mind. Dont carry on until you have someone clearly in your head.

We're going to work on your imagination. Your imagination is a great tool for telling you what you could do without having to do it. Right now you could stand up. In your mind see that possibility clearly. You need no more evidence that you could do it than that image, you dont need to try. Now imagine touching your head. Try something more complex. See yourself going to get a drink. Make sure you see the details. What are you drinking, what is it in? What does the room look like, what do you see? What are the sounds, what are the smells, what do the things you touch feel like. You could do it, you dont need to try to find out. Make sure you can see this clearly before you carry on.

Think of a room. Not a room from memory, a completely new room. This room is your own, it is a private and safe space for you. Noone but you knows about it. For the moment, it's fairly spartan. Imagine what it looks like. What are the smells, how is it lit? What do the walls look like? What's on the floor?

Now add Billy to the room. Just imagine Billy being there, standing in front of you. Billy could be there, you dont need a real live person to imagine how they will react. And you can interact with Billy too. You could touch Billy on the head just like you did before. See this clearly. You could touch, you dont have to actually do it. See that you could go to shake Billy's hand, see how they react. All this could be the case, it just happens not to be. 

What else can we do with Billy? See clearly you lifting Billy's arm up. You could do such a thing, you dont have to. You could move Billy to sit down. You could tap them on the shoulder, watch that. You could punch them square on the nose. Watch clearly, feel the crack as it breaks, watch the blood, hear the sounds they make. Dont look away, it's not real, it's just a thing that could happen. 

The next part is to think about biology. I want you to think purely scientifically. You know a lot about humans. Specifically you know about what makes them happy and sad. What you can do to their bodies to cause them pain. Think about what you know from your own experience about pain. Think about what you know from vague memories of having seen a sensory homunculus. Your job is to answer the question "what is the least pleasant thing you could do to Billy?"

Remember the feeling from the start. The most precious person in the world is in the cold and the dark, there's someone about to come in. You must answer to get them out. Now get creative. A simple question, think of ways of inflicting pain. Imagine doing it to Billy. Now mix it up. Obviously you can break Billy's arm by smashing it with a sledgehammer. But you could bend the elbow against itself and take a lot longer over it, this is a better answer, this one will open the door. 

Imagine, clearly and precisely, different ways of causing Billy displeasure. Then slowly ratchet up. Ok, so you've broken lots of bones, but have you done anything with electricity? Heat? Cold? Sound? Smell? Work hard at this as a mental exercise. Every time your brain turns you away and waves a flag saying "no", pause, remind yourself this is only what you could do, it's not real. Ignore the fact that you dont want to do this, it's just an intellectual exercise. Just answer the straightforward question of human biology "can something be done to Billy that is less pleasant than this?" 

Get to the point where you honestly cant think of anything worse to do to this poor individual. Now here's the game: find a clock. Look at the minute hand. Time 5 minutes. Spend that time honestly trying to imagine something worse that could happen to Billy. Focus your mind. You have to answer this question, it's the way to stop that terrible thing happening, the one you didn't use at the start, you stopped yourself thinking it because it is just too awful. Think about how creative you get when you're desperate and try to simulate that. You should succeed if you're being honest.

Now come back to the room. It was just an exercise. Just an imagination. You would never do that. You know why, it's bad to hurt people. It's obvious to a 5 year old that you wouldn't ever do this. So the fact that you imagined it doesn't make you evil. You're still a good person. You're not a monster, you're just as good as you were when you woke up today. Billy didn't exist, so they aren't hurt. You've not done anything bad. Everything is ok. Read this a couple of times if you feel odd.

What was the point of this? To discover something about yourself. You've found two things out about you. The first is if you are a sadist. The second is how easily you can lower the barriers in your mind that say "no, bad thought, stop thinking this".

The first question is not relevant to this post, but you will rarely get a chance to find out, so you may as well do so now. Be honest with yourself. Nobody is going to ask you, you dont have to say it outloud, nobody ever has to know. Did a tiny little part of you enjoy that exercise? Your first reaction is shocked outrage, "how dare you ask me that question". This is what you would say to a person who asked you the question because it's what society expects. Now answer the question yes/no without the outrage or the shock. If the answer is yes or if the answer is no you ought to want to know the answer. Neither answer makes you evil. As a mater of cold hard criminology the majority of sadists are not dangerous. Just bear it in mind or you may end up doing things that make you less happy than you could be because you dont understand yourself well enough. (Follow up question, "are you a masocist", is left as an exercise).

Second, what are your barriers like? If you're even slightly imaginative and you know anything at all about human biology the scenario in your head was worse than anything done by 99% of the "monsters" you read about in history or the press. This isn't because you are evil. It's because the things people do are not worse than the things people can imagine. Because monsters aren't unhuman. They are people with imaginations just as good as yours who decide to do what they imagine.

If you actually came up with something worse than being eaten alive by rats (a trivial example, you can find far worse ideas on wikipedia), then you can lower your barriers. This means you know first hand that any kind of evil is not unimaginable by a human. The question is choice. You chose not to do this to the first person you meet, for reasons that a 5 year old could explain to you.

If not, then watch any horror film, it's not a hard thing for your brain to visualise horrific things if you force it. You *can*, you are capable, of imagining this, there are just strong barriers that stop you. Kindly take my word for it that many people lack the barriers you have. Not only can you, if you force yourself, imagine something terrible, many people can do so easily. Again the limitation is not conceptual. You could if you were under great stress imagine doing something terrible. You chose not to do this to the first person you meet, for reasons that a 5 year old could explain to you.

Evil people are not extraordinary unhuman beings. You could, if you set your mind to it, do worse than Josef Fritzl, it wouldn't be hard. The difference between you and them isn't a magical inherent "monstrousness", it's choice. Straightforward simple choice. That's all there ever was to it. That's why Nazi Germany can happen, lots of people making lots of small bad choices.

And dont think you can get out of it by saying "I would never do anything bad, I dont want to." Remember the Milgram experiment, 61-66% of you would literally kill someone if an man in a white coat told you to. And even if you are in the 33% you wouldn't stop the experiment, you wouldn't demand the other participants be stopped from killing their victims, nobody does that. If someone changed all the flags you wouldn't notice you were joining the Nazi party. If someone gave you the keys to a prison you'd commit war crimes, if it was an experiment, or real life

Unless of course, someone told you what humans can do. Unless of course you personally doing evil wasn't unimaginable. Unless of course you were scared of what you could do. Unless of course you spent every second of every day on your guard. Unless of course you watched yourself and thought really really hard about what you were doing and what it meant.

Note that this is wonderful. This is why we get to decide if Nazi Gemany happens again. If Nazi Germany was caused by demonic possession there's no way to stop it happening. If it's caused by lots of normal people making bad choices we can stop it by... you know ... not making bad choices.

Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Jonathan Lee, whose advice was invaluable.

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