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Teaching our children about evil.

Responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush asserted that Americans are fighting "evil." His way of thinking is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's assertion that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." What can we humanists understand about "evil" in the light of our recognition of the cultural relativism of values? What can we teach our children about the moral issue regarding killing thousands of innocent people? And in what sense, if any, is this kind of behavior "evil"?

My purpose here is to propose a preliminary outline for a view of evil derived from humanist philosophy and behavioral science, rather than from traditional religious preconceptions. I use the term evil merely to acknowledge an extreme opposite of what we conceive to be valued as good. My basic assumption is that there can be no genuine understanding of goodness in human behavior unless we also understand evil. And we need a clear understanding of evil in the world in order to be able to teach our children humanist values and have a meaningful rationale for fighting injustice and changing society for the better.

Humanists should avoid light-headed thinking that focuses on goodness in human behavior and ignores maliciousness. There is "evil" in the world and we need to struggle against it. The problem is in knowing what is truly "evil."

Creative and Destructive Potentials

We can begin with the recognition that neither good nor evil exist outside the human personality. Humanist morality can be anchored in sociobiological realities of the natural world. (In that sense, humanist morality is at least as "absolute" as a morality anchored in religious beliefs about the supernatural.) In the broadest sense, there are two essential dispositions for action: one that enhances human life; the other that destroys life. Our creative potential is to nurture, enhance, and enrich life. It is the impulse to comfort others and rejoice in their pleasure. The opposite disposition is our destructive potential to threaten, harm, impoverish, and destroy that which sustains life.

Such destructive potential arises out of a fundamental desire for self-preservation--to protect ourselves from material deprivation or the harm others might cause us, whether physical or emotional. In its extreme form, some philosophers have termed it the "will to power"--a desire to control other people as if they were mere physical objects in our environment to be manipulated solely for our personal satisfaction. This will to power is expressed in self-centered egotism and an indifference to the pain of others.

Our creative potential arises out of our human ability to empathize with others, to feel care and concern and a desire to nurture and help. (In an evolutionary sense, this need may be a prerequisite for group survival of families and other associations.) It is expressed in the various ways people reach out and enjoy life, in curiosity about our environment, and in the creation and appreciation of beauty.

These creative and destructive tendencies are merely potentials for action embedded in our ways of thinking and feeling. Only our actions, in the form of our behavior and communication, have any effect on other people and the world around us. Hostile thoughts and angry feelings can only frustrate the person experiencing them. Internally, the destructive potential is activated by the stress reaction. It is activated by the perception of a threat, particularly from other people.

In order to understand the psychodynamics of our destructive potential, it is useful to employ the concept of the "shadow" developed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. The shadow refers to aspects of our self that we try to hide from others and often from our own self-awareness. It is that part of our self that we would rather not recognize because to do so would cause us emotional pain. It often has a character opposite to that of our public self-presentation. (Aggressive Mr. Hyde is hidden within the character of our kindly Dr. Jekyll.) We try to censor awareness of our destructive potential and deny its existence because we are ashamed of it. Everyone has a shadow side. There are no saints.

Denial is a common way of dealing with one's destructive potential. Self-righteous people are those who are particularly blind to their destructive potential. Self-righteous ideologists divide the world into good people like themselves (for example, "true" Christians or "true" followers of Islam) and "evil" people like all others (heretics, nonbelievers, apostates, oppressors, and the like). In traditional language, they see their self as being "without sin"; they commonly view the world as an arena for struggle between the forces of good and evil. If we are not fully committed to their particular ideology, they regard us as being on the side of evil. They preach that, if one is not on the side of God, one is on the side of Satan. Self-righteous religious fanatics, like Osama bin Ladin, can easily justify acts of violent aggression against nonbelievers. He isn't very different in mentality from the Christian fundamentalist extremists who murder abortion providers.

Projection is another common way we might deal with our shadow. This mental gymnastic involves blaming others for destructive thoughts and feelings we are dimly aware of in ourselves. We often find in other people the faults that we are most ashamed to face within us. This mechanism leads us to hate and attack other people, who are paradoxically targets for our own self-perceived faults. It is possible that some people who believe in the devil as a supernatural entity may use it as a projection of their internal self-contempt. I am tempted to believe, for example, that many of the televangelists who lecture against Satan's influence are themselves mentally bedeviled.

It is possible that, for many Americans, the "evil empire" of the communists served as a projective mirror of American desire for world domination and to protect American pride and power. Many of the accusations of evil-doing attributed to the communists reflected American behavior that was contrary to our own professed ideals: our repression of internal dissent, our worldwide subversion of noncompliant governments, our training of foreign agents in techniques of torture, our spying on friends and foes alike, our development of germ and chemical weapons, and similar unsavory activities. It may be that many Americans need an enemy to assuage their guilt.

Displacement is another common way we may deal with our shadow. In this mental process, we use other people like lightening rods for our frustrations and fears. It is particularly destructive when people displace their aggression onto scapegoats from ethnic, racial, or religious groups which cannot defend themselves. This happened in the United States after September 11 when a few angry people senselessly attacked fellow citizens who had Middle Eastern appearances.

Are there personalities which are particularly likely to be drawn to destructive behavior? I believe so. For example, sociopaths--people unlimited by conscience or guilt--can be very destructive, particularly if they attain positions of great power over others. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein are representative. If it is true, as the evidence suggests, that a sociopathic personality develops in infancy when a child receives insufficient parental care and nurturance, then American society is manufacturing thousands of potential sociopaths in poverty-stricken, broken, and drug-infested homes--children with no inhibitions or guilt about violent aggression.

Social Forces Activate Destructive Potential

What commonly activates our creative or destructive potential arises from outside ourselves. There are social forces inherent in groups, which can easily activate our creative or destructive potentials. These social forces aren't collective expressions of individual personality qualities, as is often mistakenly assumed. Instead, these forces develop when people form associations with each other. Our destructive potential can easily be activated, for example, by a group's collective fear of attack by an enemy--whether that fear is based upon a genuine threat or manufactured by propaganda.

Our destructive potential can be activated by group ethnocentrism and xenophobia in all its forms of racial, religious, and ethnic hatred. (Consider the mass murder in Rwanda of tens of thousands of Tutsis by machete-wielding Hutus.) In addition, our destructive potential can be activated by a group ideology of self-righteous idealism that justifies aggression against perceived enemies. (The Nazis combined ethnocentrism and a racist ideology to kill millions.) Finally, it must be recognized that competition for wealth, power, and prestige in a society activates the destructive potential and encourages direct and indirect expressions of aggression. All of these social forces exist, to a greater or lesser extent, everywhere in the world. They can be managed but never extinguished.

On the level of intergroup relations, the destructive potential of huge numbers of people can be activated by these social forces. The fundamentalist ideology and propaganda of al-Qaeda provides an excellent example. Al-Qaeda activated widespread angry frustrations in the Islamic world, based upon resentful memories and perceptions of oppression, and directed that destructive potential toward American society.

How Should We Teach Our Children?

So how should humanist parents teach their children about good and evil? It is much more useful to offer our children a path to follow than a battery of abstract values. I mean this in the Buddhist and Taoist sense as a "way" of thinking rather than a code of rules to follow. The following path combines self-awareness, empathy, learning, creative compensation, and good works.

We need to teach our children introspection and self-awareness so that they can make more informed choices and be less guided by unconscious destructive impulses. We should teach them empathy for other people, especially those who differ from them in terms of ethnicity, religion, race, and social class. It is their only bridge from self-centered experience. We need to foster their appreciation of learning, because ignorance gives rise to unnecessary fears, superstitions, and prejudices. We especially need to encourage their learning about people from many different ethnic groups, nations, and religions as a way of reducing ethnocentrism.

We must also teach our children how to channel their destructive potential toward creative goals. Destructive impulses can't be suppressed but they can be redirected toward creative outlets. Therefore, children can learn to deal with their angry memories of painful experiences by turning their energies toward lives of peace-making or the pursuit of social justice, by helping others in need, or through artistic activity. This may be termed creative compensation.

Finally, we should endeavor to teach our children to cultivate their creative potential by doing "good works." This doesn't mean we should expect them to commit their lives just to helping others. Instead, we can guide them to be helpful to others on a daily basis, when circumstances arise. We need to teach our children the logic that "goodness is its own reward," that helping others enriches our own appreciation of life.

I would guess that humanist parents raise their children according to these assumptions about good and evil, even if they haven't articulated precisely why they are doing so. Contrary to the claims of religious traditionalists, it isn't necessary to teach children about God's supposed intentions and by creating fear and guilt in order to inculcate moral values.

Jeffrey S. Victor is a professor of sociology at Jamestown Community College and the author of numerous essays and articles. His 1993 book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend won the Free Press Association's 1994 H. L. Mencken Award.
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Author:Victor, Jeffrey S.
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
Words:1886
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