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The root of all evil. Also, it's time for July Just Posts!

Edited to say: In my busy-ness I have been thoughtless. I owed Liv a big THANK YOU for sending my post 'Is The Internet The Rainbow Connection?' to Jen for the Just Posts. I'm so appreciative, Liv, and I want to say it publicly too.

I had so many different ideas mashing about in my mind for how to introduce the July 2007 Just Posts.

Then I read Jen's introduction, and I forgot the rest of my ideas. My mind congealed into one hot question: can people simply be evil? Or do they lack ability to know how to productively manage their emotions? How do their circumstances matter within assessing this?

In my life, I've known a large number of cruel people, thoughtless people, people who perpetuated some of the worst kind of harm there is...people who hurt children and created the opportunity for harm to perpetuate through another generation. It may be compassionate, it may be crazy, but I don't necessarily run from people who are doing or who have done what we might call sin or bad or evil.

I expect this is because I tend to believe that people harm out of their own pain, whether it is emotional of physiological in origin.

With an almost academic and dispassionate curiosity, I begin trying to understand them. The original distance is necessary in order to make this about understanding the other person, versus myself. I usually find understanding and compassion. It certainly helps if the person is "reformed" or "reforming."

This is one reason you'll find me advocating sometimes for the rights of prisoners. It's also because I can see the potential for the greater good there, at least for a percentage that should make it worth our while.

But what about the man in Jen's story? If you haven't read, take a quick peek and come back. If you prefer, here's a short synopsis: an elderly man sat on a curb eating a burger. Two men exited the shelter, and one threw something at the man, hitting him in the head and causing him to drop his prized burger. Another man hit the Thrower, and Jen went to comfort the elderly man, who ended up comforting her.

What creates this sort of dynamic?

In my comment to Jen, I wrote

It distresses me on so many levels when I hear a story like that. I know the man found grace through your kindness and the other person's defense, so there three goods. But the perpetrator of cruelty, that's one pretty bad bad. And why? Why is he as he is?

Is he like a young child, lashing out in pain, thinking it can be transferred through hitting? Lacking words or power to deal with his trouble?

In other words, can he learn to be otherwise?

Did hitting him teach him anything?

Or is the man unsalvageable, just cruel and evil, his hope point passed long ago?

Is that possible?

I often wonder...

I wonder if the Thrower was taught through violence. I wonder if he feels a white hot burn of impotence inside that he reads as rage. I wonder if the small spurt of satisfaction he felt finding and harming someone lesser than him was knocked out of him when the other man hit him. I wonder if he felt tired after the fight, and was it a relief from the anger? I wonder if what he learned was to hide his cruelty and be less public.

That last bit is the crucial portion in my mind for so many issues, conflicts, in our society today.

Since becoming a parent---an incredible life lesson in and of itself---and learning about methods of parenting, I have become so much more sensitive and aware of the way we teach, and the subtle lessons we unknowingly convey.

For example, when Persistence gets angry---the youngest and smallest, so young that she still hasn't developed her full emotional vocabulary or understanding---sometimes, she hits. In my head, I understand why. My smarting arm isn't quite so comprehending. In my heart, I worry.

It's my instinct to show her how appalled I am and to focus on what she did.

But once upon a time, I got good advice: by focusing on the bad, we reinforce it.

Instead, I rub my injured arm and say, poor arm, poor arm, oooh poor arm is hurt, there there arm, you'll be okay.

Within seconds Persistence is moved to regret and compassion, "Here, mommy arm, here," and kisses the injured spot.

"It's not okay to hit," I remind her, "It hurts. You can say, 'I'm mad,' or 'I don't like it,' or stomp your foot next time, okay?"

Children, in my experience, want to learn okay ways to manage their anger or hurt. They don't want to learn that they can't have this emotion, that it is invalid, or unwelcome, that it won't be received with respect and care. In my opinion, much of our initial reactions and emotions are very valid, and are okay. What matters is what we do from there.

With Patience, the issue is no longer physical, but is instead now more complex---largely verbal, something Persistence is quickly picking up on.

She is aware of fairness and justice. She applies it in the only way she knows: the way her parents do within the family.

It's true: this is the manner I have taught her because it is how I parent her. But me applying it to her, and her applying it to me...doesn't quite jive. I struggle with the unfairness much the same as she does.

"If you don't let me get an ice cream," she shrieked at me only this week, "Then I will...not kiss you for a week!"

The difference between how I discipline and she does is currency, power and authority, which, I guess, can be everything.

When she offers these punishments, I wonder if I've failed, if my style has failed. We employ positive parenting, generally, with natural and logical consequences. This threat is neither natural nor logical. But more than that, I worry that---despite my careful, careful attempts to make her understand that I don't like what she did, not who she is---I haven't gotten the true point across. Is it my talking or her listening? Withholding love is not one of the punishments from us. In fact, based on good advice from my friend Gina, after every discipline moment, we hug and say I love you. But for Patience, her love is one of the few currencies she carries at this stage of life.

At least she knows how much we love her. At least she knows that withholding her kisses will hurt us.

Still, I haven't quite gotten across to her yet---nor do I expect to for many, many years, maybe not until she herself is a parent, if that happens---that I do not discipline her to hurt her.

That has to be one of the most painful parenting moments---those times when they rip your heart out of your chest and stomp on it---knowing they do not yet understand just how deeply out of love we do these things to guide them, to help provide them the tools they need in life, to be happy and do well.

It feels like hurt. So the instinct is to hurt back.

As adults, do we really grow out of these tendencies, or do we simply gain more power within life that tests us less?

I hope it is that we have better tools to manage the challenges, but I suspect it is a combination of the two.

So back to the scenario Jen described. I wonder what difference it would have made if, instead of hitting the Thrower, the Hitter had, like Jen, rushed to the side of the injured man, and offered him comfort and support.

I believe my children will grow up to be lovely people.

But I am raising them within a life that contains many privileges for a life that hopefully will contain even more.

What if our circumstances were different? Would I be so focused on ethics, or would I be more focused on survival skills?

If I were very clever, now I would link this clearly back to the race discussion that has gone on this week and will continue next week. I would credit Kim, who brought up the concept of class in my comments, and Chani who mentioned economics. I would offer, more or less, the same theory for class that I have for race

Because while I don't think another person's socioeconomic status ought to matter to me, in my assessment of them, it can matter to them in how they feel a part of the world and therefore I ought to respect that, especially if they ask me to consider it as part of my understanding of them as an individual. I ask the same. My socioeconomic status experiences are a part of me, too, and have affected how I view class, class issues, and culture. Where I come from, the place and the people, affect who I am and how I perceive things, as well as my beliefs. I think this rings true for all of us, regardless.

(For more information about my theory of social justice and economics, read my March Just Post essay, which also includes links to other social justice posts I wrote within this same topic and two of my prison posts.)

As I said, the myriad ideas floating about in my mind congealed into a question after reading Jen's post. After writing this one, they have gelled further in so many ways as I begin to better comprehend how justice, fairness, class, race, status, situation, childhood, and more come together to form the individual we are---and how who we are is so very dynamic by circumstances and experience.

I respect more and more those who remain heartful, despite challenges, poor circumstances, or difficulties. I understand that jaded and cynical can be much, much easier.

I still don't know whether people can simply be evil. I don't dismiss it as possible that there are people who are simply evil. Some people have assured me passionately that they exist. I haven't met one, though. I hope I never, ever do.

Many thanks to Jen and Mad for starting and continuing the Just Post Roundtable each month. To read the other posts, check out their sites. As always, it's an awe-inspiring collection.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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Snoskred said…
You know what, Julie? I think every single one of us can be pushed so far we're willing to *consider* violence.

My example might sound lame but this happened to me just yesterday. I was in a Subway store waiting to order dinner and there were these teenagers in there, throwing food around, cussing the staff, in general being f*ckwits. When they began throwing food at the staff and the staff just pretended not to notice in order not to cause trouble, I really began to boil.

At that moment I wanted to grab the main ringleaders earlobe with my fingernails and dig in, hard, while saying "didn't your parents teach you any f*cking manners?".

Now typing this here it just seems like fluff. But standing there in the moment, if that ringleader had then thrown food at me.. I might have gone there.

There comes a point in all our lives where we decide on a line that other people aren't allowed to cross. Where that line is drawn is based on a number of things. It might be someone acting inappropriately in public for some of us. For others, that line wouldn't be crossed unless someone broke into your home and was threatening your family.

I would have crossed the line on this occasion because it was a teenager, who was shorter than me and less likely to win if it came to punches. Had it been a tall, heavy built adult male, there would have been a long way to go before that line even came close to being crossed. You have to take into consideration each different situation.

I'd rather not act violently, but if it's a matter of life and death, believe me I'm gonna do what I can to make sure I'm the one who stays alive.

I do not believe people are simply evil - that's what the press wants you to believe. Gavin De Becker's The Gift Of Fear book completely breaks that myth down.

I believe evil is inside each one of us, if someone pushes the right buttons. It's up to us to try and handle things in the best manner we can but if our lives are at risk.. that's when we might cross that line we've drawn for ourselves.

S said…
Sigh. Jen's post just did me in.

I'm sorry to say that I do believe that there are those among us -- luckily a relatively small number -- who are what is often referred to as psychopaths (or sociopaths, but sociopathy is a misnomer and an outdated term). They are without conscience. When they lie, they do not suffer any of the physiological consequences the rest of us do if we lie -- increased heart rate, pupil changes, sweating, etc. Robert Hare is a psychologist who has done brilliant work in this area. I'd encourage anyone interested to check out his book Without Conscience.
Girlplustwo said…
sociopaths aside i think people who hurt others are in a tremendous amount of pain. or have been treated so terribly in their lives that they've lost respect for the world. i have met people who have murdered and assaulted and in general have done some pretty bad stuff over the years through my work and they seemed in the moment to be good people who at one time had done something so egregious. none of this condones the acts of "evil" as you put it but it isn't as straightforward as all bad or all good. more so to the "are people evil" thought is "can folks be evil, and then not" how much do our actions define who we are?

thank you for dissecting my post, i will be avidly watching the discussion over here.
Unknown said…
The question of whether or not a person can be evil is an interesting one.

I think if you consider sociopaths evil then the answer to the question is yes, people can be evil.

By placing emphasis on the events in people's lives, the pain they've experienced, you have to be careful about removing accountability. Even with the example of a sociopath, delving into the what makes a sociopath a sociopath does not necessarily remove the responsibility.

(I'm not suggesting that so far anyone has suggested people shouldn't be responsible for their actions; more so, I am just not sure you can have a discussion on why people do things that are evil, whether or not they are evil themselves, without risking losing the idea of their accountability in the discussion.)

I think to answer the question thoroughly, though, you first have to determine whether or not you believe evil exists and what it actually is. Is evil just the "bad" things that people do to each other? Or is there something more, beyond our choices, a presence of evil? (The late M. Scott Peck addressed this question in his book, People of the Lie. His conclusion: evil exists beyond the actual actions of people) If so, what part does that play in considering whether or not a person is evil?

Without being able to really answer all those questions and do them justice here and based on my spiritual beliefs, I would say that there is the evil that people do out of their pain and there is the evil that people do out of selfishness. Beyond the example of being a sociopath, I think that a person can give him/herself over to this selfishness, create such a habit and pattern of giving in to that habit that they can lose him/herself. For all intents and purposes, the impact of such a person in this world is evil. (Which, again due to my spiritual beliefs, doesn't mean I think they are beyond change or redemption. I just read John Newton's autobiography, Out of the Depths, and this book--so recently finished--is having a large impact on these ideas for me.)

I do believe in Evil. I think there is an evil presence at work in the world. It seeks to influence people to give in to their selfishness and to distract us from the good that we can do.

Finally, despite any mitigating factors behind the choices a person makes which might be considered evil, his/her accountability cannot be escaped. That doesn't mean that everyone will get the consequences they deserve. It also doesn't mean that I don't think there is a place for mercy and grace.

Okay, now the phone is ringing and I have to go. I hope this all makes sense.
flutter said…
I've lived through the most personal and egregious form of evil. People are capable of it, oh yes indeed.

However, people are also capable of kindness and beauty beyond measure.
Anonymous said…
I still hold true to the belief that no-one is born evil, but some few unfortunate beings can be made to behave that way through neglect and personal tragedy.
Best wishes
painted maypole said…
I think that most people are capable of doing bad things, but that does not mean that if they do them they are evil. However. I have a friend who works in the prison system in CA, and has met Charles Manson. My friend is a person with a huge capacity to love. And yet he feels that Charles Manson is pure evil. He says you can feel it when you are in the room with him. He calls him something other than human. I have not had this experience myself, but I found it very interesting. I have read a TEENY TINY bit about sociopaths, and they seem to be the ones for whom there is no understanding of right or wrong, or regret. Supposedly there are many more out there than we would like to think. I know I would like to think that people are capable of change, of learning, of empathy, of love.
ewe are here said…
I read Jen's post, too, and I have to admit, I'm glad the guy slugged the Thrower. I'm not a violent person by nature, but this ---this--- just happens to be one of those situations where I really think the Thrower not only had it coming, but was the only way he was going reconsider acting in such a horrid, evil manner. Picking on the old, the weak, the infirm, the defenseless... it's indefensible.
Lawyer Mama said…
"If you don't let me get an ice cream," she shrieked at me only this week, "Then I will...not kiss you for a week!"

They really know exactly where to put the knife, don't they? But you're right, she will eventually understand.

As for evil, like SM mentioned, there are some people who are simply evil and without remorse or conscience. Whether they're born or made, we can't really say.

As for everyone else, I think we all have the capacity to do very bad things and to do very good things. It makes me think of the Stanford prison experiment that everyone learns about in psych 101. Evil and good are in all of us. But if anyone had figured out exactly what combination of events and experiences brings out the good and what brings out the evil in each of us, well the world would be very different, wouldn't it?
Aliki2006 said…
Great post.

I think there is always that balance--those tremendously kind and good people, and those evil ones. When we talked about forgiveness and genocide in one of my classes a few semesters back one student said of kind, generous, forgiving people: "They just blow your mind" and he was so right. Unfortunately, those capable of real evil can blow your mind too--I can understand kindness, but I have such a hard time understanding how one human being can look at another and still perform evil. Yet it happens everyday and it weighs my heart down.
Liv said…
Don't forget to read Julie's other post, which I nominated her for, that Jen has linked to for just posts!

Julie, you've totally been awesomely thought provoking this past week!
Julie Pippert said…
Snoskred, I agree. I'm not sure where the line is before that, but I am 100% certain I could go the distance to protect my children. In your scene, yes, I've seen that and I certainly want to---and lol have---parent those kids. Draw a boundary. I try to see first if it would help or hurt the situation, of course. I also agree that we all have the potential to be our own worst selves---which varies from person to person---depending upon combination of circumstances.


SM, glad you weighed in with that info! That is why I believe people when they tell me it's out there. I'll keep my eyes out for that book.


Jen, yes, I believe that as well, about the pain. Your question is an excellent one and is something I've often wondered. It would make an excellent discussion: are some things so egregious they define us, or can we grow beyond even a terrible act?

You know, I think it depends upon the other person, too.


M-L, you rock. I don't even know where to begin! It's intriguing how your explain and personify evil. I think..I think I need to think a little more. I know...this is a good post it's so good.


Flutter, no doubt. People are capable of it, indeed.


Mcewen, absolutely, yes.


Ewe, thanks for making that point. As you and Jen mentioned, it was a response some part of probably most of us wanted---and might be the only way that guy understood his actions weren't okay. But I don't think it cured the tendency...which begs the question where it will go next time. KWIM?


LM, to repeat myself...yes, that sounds about how I think of it. What I wonder is how we cue into when a situation is reaching a danger point and extricate many of us are good at this, how many of us can recognize it, have the tools to deal, etc.


Aliki, do you think the balance is in each person and in society---microcosm, macrocosm? Or are you describing more of a spectrum that we all fall on? I ask because you are making me think of this in a slightly different way and it's good...


Liv, you rock! Thanks!!
Unknown said…
Thanks Julie! I'm glad it communicated something to you. Usually with such a lengthy comment I'll ponder for awhile before publishing it. The phone really did ring and I just thought I'd go for it.
Bea said…
In many cases, I think that evil involves a kind of shrinking of the self - becoming less than what one was. For various reasons, some people may not start out with much in the way of heart/soul/humanity - but by our choices we can become more than we are, or less. (That's why I like the final image of Voldemort in HP7.)
Anonymous said…
I can't help thinking about Frankenstein's monster. I can't help thinking that everyone is born good and that we breed evil through our rejection, neglect, and mistreatment of others.

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