the nature of evil.

12 Mar

The Nature of Evil
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 3, 2013

A Reflection on Evil, by Chris Rothbauer, First Unitarian Church Intern Minister

When I came out of the closet in my early 20s, I had a sort of naïve optimism about my life. I thought that, since I came out, things would only get better for me from there. I was dating, making friends, and learning to accept that part of my life. Around this time, I hung out in a little coffee shop that was open late on Preston Street across from Tryangles bar. It became like a haven for me and I felt at home in my new community.

One night, I must have been 22 or 23, I was in the coffee shop with friends when we started hearing people calling, “Fag! Fag! Fag!” and we saw a group of about a dozen teenagers running by. Soon after, a homeless man ran into the shop bloodied up. The employee at the shop took him into the restroom and tended to his wounds. Meanwhile, a couple of my friends went outside to see what was going on. I started seeing panicking people run back and forth so I went outside to see what was going on.

There on the sidewalk was a man, unconscious and bloodied. We would later find out he had been violently attacked by the teens as he walked the block from The Connection to Tryangles. Though he survived, suffered brain damage. Arrests were eventually made, and it was soon discovered the teens lived in Clarksdale, a notoriously violent housing project. Unfortunately, the homeless man was the only witness to the actual attacks and he soon skipped town, never to be seen again. The teens were released due to lack of evidence.

I struggled to reconcile this attack with my burgeoning optimism, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me a bit cynical at the time. It was really my first glimpse into how horrible the world could be. This was an evil act perpetrated on two people merely for being from marginalized places in society. Looking back, though, I can’t help but think about the teens as well. They were marginalized, living in a housing project that no one wanted to raise their kids in. They were forgotten and angry, and they decided to take their anger out that night on two innocent men who were easy targets. The system failed them, as it did the gay man and the homeless man. In this way, they were victims as well, victims of an evil system that marginalizes people, taking away their dignity and self-respect and pushing them
into a life of crime.

Clarksdale is gone but I still vividly remember that day. It’s one reason I have a passion for social justice: because no one should be a victim to an evil system and evil acts. Everyone has inherent worth and dignity, and, if we don’t speak up for those without a voice, they are forgotten, just as these teens were.

The Sermon
In the powerful reflection Chris shared with us this morning about his own experience, he identified two distinct types of evil. One type is the oppressive and unjust systemic evil of generation upon generation of poverty and dehumanization that taught the teenagers that assaulting another person was within their rights. We will talk about systemic evil as an expression of oppression on May 5.

Chris also named what the teenagers did as evil: the actions were cruel and dehumanizing. Many of us wonder: how could someone cause such violence, pain and harm to another person? What was going on inside those teenagers that allowed them to commit such actions against another human being?

These are the types of questions that led Simon Baron-Cohen to write his book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. Baron-Cohen, as a scientist, is particularly troubled by the fuzzy theology around evil. Religions, he say, can tell us what it is, but a scientist wants to know what creates the conditions that allow evil to occur. Scientists, and most contemporary liberal religionists, are not satisfied by answers such as “The Devil made me do it.” Evil is most often not a noun, but an adjective or an adverb. We want to know how someone is able to commit such actions because, in part, if we know the conditions in which it occurred, then the hope is that we can figure out ways to prevent such evil actions from occurring in the future.

What is it that allowed doctors, for instance, to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural black men in Tuskegee, men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. Government?

What is it that allowed regular people, like the students randomly chosen to be guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment, to, within 48 hours of having been given their new status, douse the “prisoners” (other students!) with a fire-hose, strip them naked and start verbally abusing them?

What is it that allowed Nazi men to kill innocent Jews during the day and then go home to their families and kiss their children goodnight each night?

Baron-Cohen ends up the same place as others before him, such Captain G.M. Gilbert. Gilbert was the Army psychologist who was assigned to watching the defendants at the Nuremberg trials, held between 1945 and 1949 for the purpose of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. Gilbert writes: “In my work with the defendants I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

Baron-Cohen has spent much of his professional life studying empathy, and so is uniquely poised to study how what he calls “empathy erosion” sets the stage for and is a precondition for cruel, dehumanizing acts that most would call evil.

But before we go much father, we should clarify what we mean by empathy because it is often confused with sympathy. Basically, empathy is understanding what someone else is feeling, because you have either experienced it yourself, or you can put yourself in their place and imagine how they feel. Empathy requires us to be in touch with our own feelings, and to use our imagination and our people-skills in an effort to understand and, at some level, imaginatively experience, where another person is coming from.

Empathy is a much more complicated emotion than is sympathy, which basically just means that you acknowledge a person’s emotional hardship and are led to provide some comfort. You feel bad for them.

I don’t generally quote politicians from the pulpit, but there is a line from Barack Obamas book The Audacity of Hope that I believe captures the distinction “It is how I understand the Golden Rule,” he says, “not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”

Baron-Cohen explains that empathy is something that is measurable – and that when we measure it, we find that it is not a light switch, either you have it or you don’t, but is instead more like a dimmer with various settings…7 of them, in fact, ranging from 0 to 6. And when you measure a person’s empathy, and plot it on a graph along with the measured empathy quotients of other people you find that where we fall on the empathy scale creates a bell curve: some people are at the low end, some people are at the high end, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

Baron-Cohen connects our empathy quotient to the language of Martin Buber, who defined our relationships as either I-Thou, meaning we recognize a person’s inherent worth and dignity, their humanity, their uniqueness and sacredness, or I-It, wherein we relate to people not as human beings, but as objects. I-Thou relationships are higher on the empathy scale, I-It relationships are lower.

Zero empathy, says Baron-Cohen, puts us strictly in the I-it mode, where we can only relate to other people as things, not as people. If you have zero empathy, you have “no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions…not just oblivious to other people’s feelings and thoughts but also oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view.”

He points out that we all shut down our empathy occasionally in transient, short-term ways – cutting people off in traffic, walking past the homeless person without looking or acknowledging them. I know that whenever I see pictures of starving, maimed, or abused children in particular, I either collapse in tears or literally can feel something inside turn off in what feels like self-protection. And indeed, it turns out that empathy actually connects with 10 different parts of the brain, and some of these we do have some conscious control over. These 10 interconnected brain regions make up what Baron-Cohen and neurologists are calling the “Empathy Circuit.” Malfunctions or changes in any of these 10 can reduce a person’s level of empathy.

For example, people who are psychopathic, with antisocial personality disorder, or people with borderline personality disorder, have, by their nature, a level of zero empathy. And, not surprisingly, their brain-scans show malfunctions in the empathy circuit. Baron-Cohen advocates for new treatments that address this lack of empathy as a key factor (not just a symptom) in their disorders. Treatments that address the lack of empathy though medical and behavioral techniques, similar to those used to help people with Autism and Aspergers, who also have low empathy but are not inclined toward cruelty to others.

Baron-Cohen identifies twelve factors that influence our empathy circuit. I don’t have time to go into detail on all of these, but here is a brief summary: Our intentions influence the empathy circuit – there are times when we may want or need to switch it off, such as when surgeons are operating on a patient. Also, if we feel threatened, and our fight or flight response has kicked in, it is hard to feel empathy. The third factor that influences our empathy circuit is if our culture tells us it is okay to act in a certain way – such as to treat women or girls in a particular way. Fourth is our ideology, such as our religious or political beliefs. Fifth is our early experience in childhood – were we shown empathy and were we able to form stable attachments to others? Sixth is conformity or obedience to rules and institutions. Seventh is in-group/out-group identification. Eighth is corrosive emotions like anger, hatred, jealousy and revenge. Ninth, tenth and eleventh are genes, neurology and hormones – some people just biologically programmed to have more or less empathy. And finally, physical states such as how tired or hungry we are, or if we have been drinking or taking drugs can also alter the functioning of our empathy circuits.

So we see that there is much that can influence our ability to have empathy for another person. When we drop to low or zero empathy, when our empathy erodes, it can create room for us to engage in cruel, dehumanizing acts – it can set the stage for us to act towards others in evil ways.

I think one of the most important things, in understanding and reflecting on evil, is to have a level of what Angela Herrara calls spiritual humility. That is, to know that just as we are almost all capable of amazing acts of compassion and kindness, so too do we have within us the capacity to act in evil ways. We have the capability, through any of those 12 factors Baron-Cohen identified, through a reduction of our level of empathy (intentionally or not) to become cruel, harmful, and dehumanizing of others. And it is not all or nothing – empathy erosion can occur with specific sets of others – like the Nazi soldiers who would murder Jews during the day and yet come home and be loving to their families. Evil is not always identified with big, glaring, neon signs. This is what Hannah Arendt identified as the banality of evil, when she observed that the great evils in history, such as the Holocaust, were perpetrated not by fanatics or psychopaths, but instead by ordinary people who participated with the view that their actions were acceptable and even normal.

We religious liberals once believed that human beings were inherently good. The modern view was of onward and upward forever. The Holocaust of the Jews changed that. Now we understand that humans have the capacity for good, and for evil. What we believe about the nature of evil has a strong impact on how we relate to one another. Understanding that we all have this capability in us is an important step towards not taking that path. It gives us empathy for those who commit evil acts, because we know we are just like them.

What I particularly appreciated about Chris’s perspective is that he did not name the teenagers themselves as evil. Though it took him time and reflection, he came to recognize that they, too, have inherent worth and dignity, as did the homeless person, and gay man who was attacked. Chris came to be able to see the circumstances and decisions that led to the malfunctioning of their empathy circuit, which enabled them to commit such evil acts. If Chris had labeled those teenagers as evil, he would have been denying their humanity, their inherent worth and dignity. And in denying their humanity, he would view them not in an I-Thou relationship, but as objects – which then makes it much easier to further dehumanize them.

Let me say that again. When we label a person as evil, we deny their humanity and thus objectify them. This makes it possible for us to treat that person in cruel and dehumanizing ways. We see this in our current incarceration system, where prisoners are routinely and as a matter of course dehumanized. Dehumanization is a standard operating procedure in our jails and prisons.

In order to not allow our own empathy to erode towards others, particularly towards those who commit evil acts, we must work to not dehumanize them but instead recognize their inherent worth and dignity as human beings. And then treat them accordingly – with compassion. I believe this is what Jesus was talking about when he urged his listeners to turn the other cheek – to not respond to dehumanizing behavior with more dehumanizing behavior but instead with compassion.

Because, as it turns out, just as empathy erosion can lead us to commit evil acts, so too can amplifying our empathy for others lead us towards compassionate actions, which are the opposite of evil. This does not mean not setting boundaries or enforcing rules or laws. It means acting with an eye to the inherent worth and dignity of all involved: victim and perpetrator.

This is the goal of restorative justice, which is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims, the needs of the community and the needs of the offenders. Rather than focusing on satisfying abstract legal principles, or focusing on vengeance, or on punishing the offender, restorative justice involves the victims taking an active role in the process and the offenders being encouraged to take responsibility for their actions by working to repair the harm they’ve done—by apologizing, making right what they have wronged, or through community service. Restorative justice involves both victim and offender and focuses on their personal needs. And it provides help for the offender in order to avoid future offenses.

Amplifying our empathy benefits us as individuals, as well. Like the story that was in the news last week, recounting the aftermath of the murder of Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo. Her daughter, Penny, was bitter and angry, with good reason, not just at the murders but the government for how it portrayed her mother. But when she saw the torment and regret on the face of the man who murdered who mother, she began to feel compassion for him, and was able to open herself up and forgive him. It changed her for the better.

Or like Robbie Parker, whose daughter Emilie was one of the 20 children that tragically died during the shooting at Sandy Hook. The day after the horrible tragedy, he shared a message of love and forgiveness and expressed compassion for the family of the shooter.

It is has Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” I would add, evil actions cannot stop evil actions. Only compassion can do that.

If it is empathy erosion that enables people to objectify and dehumanize others, allowing them to then perpetrate acts of evil on their fellow human beings, let us work to amplify our empathy through love and compassion for one another, and particularly for those who may seem to deserve it least. In this way, we may best fight the capacity for evil that is within ourselves.

One Response to “the nature of evil.”

  1. paul buchheit March 15, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    Just another reason to be at service this sunday

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