“No, I Would Never Do That!”
Yes you would, I guarantee you. And so would I. Sure, some of you are outliers, but the bell curve cannot tell a lie. We are all human, and there are some (many) human “traits, propensities, behaviours” that we all share. And given the appropriate opportunity, training, indoctrination, or circumstance, we can be read like an open book.
Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychologist, was big on the idea that we are made up of all things human, and if one human could do something nasty, then all humans were capable of the same behaviour. This goes for good stuff too, but people typically do not disown the good things they are capable of doing (some do, but that’s another story). Most people don’t want to accept the fact that if given the right circumstances, they could be pretty evil. Carl Jung wrote:
Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness's of other people. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely. Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
Jung called these oppressed attributes our “shadow” and Jungian psychotherapy consists largely of integrating the shadow with the rest of ourselves—the nice parts. He suggested that if the shadow was hidden in the unconscious, because it’s owner didn’t want to claim it, this shadow would still act out in uncontrollable ways—such as in bursts of anger, or worse, dark evil acts no one would be proud of. Think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—one of the most perfect literary descriptions of Jung’s concept of shadow.
You may not agree with this idea, and if not, you may be more likely to think of evil as an external element such as a devil or demon that possesses a person and causes him or her to do bad things. Or you may want to think of evil as something a person is born with, such as a genetic deformity. A popular film of the ’50s (originally a book and then a play) played on this “genetic goof” just at the height of scientific discoveries regarding genetics and the genetic effect on psychology. The film was titled The Bad Seed and told the story of a little girl of dubious lineage (her mother was missing some chromosome and thus would make her evil) who wreaked havoc on her neighbours and schoolmates.
This “nature vs. nurture” idea has been tossed around in psychology circles for decades, and still is a major topic amongst academics. How much of our personality and behaviour is due to genetics, of which we have no control, or how much is due to how we have been raised, or by the trauma we have been subjected to, which we may have some leeway to correct? The argument has profound evidence on both sides to support either thesis. But it is rather obvious through our own personal observation that you don’t have to be born with an evil gene to be evil. And being evil does not necessarily mean being a psychopathic killer—there are a lot of things that would comfortably sit under the “evil” banner.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a brilliant writer and lecturer at various institutions, was notoriously famous for her book, The Banality of Evil. Here she described her assessment of Adolf Eichmann during his trial for Nazi war crimes in Israel. Arendt got quite a bit of flak from her Jewish compatriots for describing Eichmann as just a normal, ordinary, man who got caught up in the Nazi furor and as a result his shadow was allowed free reign. Most people wanted to see Hitler and his henchman as evil incarnate, and completely separate from other human beings who could not, at any stretch, commit such atrocities. Arendt didn’t see it that way.
Here are a few juicy Hannah quotes:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought, for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.
So why is it important to recognize that we all possess the ability to be evil?—or to do unsavory things? Because it puts us all in the same club, and prevents us from taking on some sort of virtuous stance over others. We may have avoided the circumstances in our life that would make our shadow/evil self act out, or we may also have done the work to integrate that shadow, as Jung suggested, and thus avoid the same sort of manifest demonstration. If so, fine, good for you. But it is still there, and still a potential danger—evil, lurking in the shadows of the unconscious.
The sad truth is that man's real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites - day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.
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