To destroy the dignity of a human being is evil.
Peter Koestenbaum, author of Leadership: The Inner
Side of Greatness
M. Scott Peck’s book, People of the Lie scared me.
I had always thought of evil, when I thought about it at all, as huge events like the holocaust and people like Adolph Hitler or gruesome and macabre murderers like grave robber Ed Gein, who murdered women and exhumed bodies from graves around Plainfield, Wisconsin in the 1950’s.
But Peck-one of my favorite writers–wrote about evil in our normal lives and in everyday people: in families, churches, schools, politics, and in our organizations and institutions. His words alarmed me: I, and people I knew and cared about-ordinary people–could be evil, do evil, be part of evil systems and be unaware of evil in and around us.
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Peck defined evil as “…the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others for the purpose of defending or preserving the integrity of one’s sick self.” Evil people scapegoat others. They blame others falsely and demonize people to justify unnecessary killing or the destruction of people’s spirits. Scapegoating allows evil to pretend to be good. Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D. wrote in Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty that the evil intentionally inflict harm on the good and innocent outsider for the pure pleasure of doing so.
Not all hurtful acts are evil. Peck wrote that the consistency of their harmful actions defines evil people: The abusive husband who humiliates his wife day after day for 20 years; the cruel boss who sucks the life from employees year after year; the political demagogue who scapegoats others speech after speech, and the talk radio blabber mouth who spews hatred hour after hour. Evil encircles us: in families, schools, organizations, our celebrity culture, and in our political parties and partisan media. The malevolent are willful and inexhaustible in their efforts to control others.
Can you think of everyday evil in your life and community?
When we experience scapegoating, we often feel confused. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel whenever what we know, value, or believe differs from what we experience in the moment. Have you ever listened to someone talk persuasively and felt confused: suddenly up was down, right was wrong, and you felt the rug was pulled out from under your experience of life?
Abused women feel confusion constantly. I once spend days unraveling the nonsense of a few paragraphs written by an abusive man. A friend’s advice was sound: “Don’t try to make sense of nonsense.” If you do, I would add, expect to spend much time doing so and beware: confronting evil will exhaust you.
We often also feel instant revulsion in the presence of obvious immorality such as the employee who listened to the company owner viciously attack a co-worker’s dignity in front of the whole company or revulsion may develop slowly as often happens in the cases of abuse where a husband emotionally abuses his wife day after day for decades.
Revulsion makes us want to get away from the person-to escape them. The employee above quit his job on the spot, and the abused wife fled her abusive husband. Years later the mere sight of him triggered horror and loathing in her. The damage he caused meant nothing to him: he saw himself as the sufferer, justified in his actions. Have you ever felt revulsion in the presence of another person (or watching someone on TV or listening on the radio)?
Malicious folks do not endure a lack of self-regard; self-absorbed, they have excessive self-esteem (actual accomplishments may be few). Often they do have empathy: they know exactly how to hurt another. They consider themselves above reproach; they would be appalled to hear that someone considers them evil; they often think of themselves as the victim. Driven by the fear of exposure, they lash out (scapegoat) at those who criticize them to avoid seeing themselves accurately. For the scoundrels, the opposition is all bad; they are all good. Hence the title of Peck’s book: they are the People of the Lie who deceive others as they delude themselves.
If we want to be better people, we must examine ourselves honestly: If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst. (Thomas Hardy). In The Road Less Traveled, Peck defined mental health as, “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” The bad people among us refuse to confront their inner shadow. They lack the motivation to be good; they are motivated to appear good; that is their lie. To avoid our own potential for evil, we must engage with our own dark sides.
Groups regress faster under stress than individuals do probably because of diffused responsibility and accountability. Collectively we can lose our consciences. In organizations, vile people can create sick societies where people “treated with indignity, we lose not only the sense of our own dignity but also the sense of the dignity of others.” I once screamed at a group of power plant workers: “You are losing your humanity-your empathy and connection to other people.” They had become anesthetized to their own and other’s suffering. What could be more evil than that?
My favorite quote from Ernest Becker comes to mind:
“If everybody lives roughly the same lies about the same things, there is no one to call them liars. They jointly establish their own sanity and call themselves normal.”
We must judge and stand against evil people. Many of us try to not judge others, but Peck wrote that the Bible did not require us to never judge but we should judge ourselves (and the groups we belong to) first before we judge others. We must make the moral judgments that support life and aliveness. To refuse to make those judgments is to collude with the sins we abhor. When we choose a favorite evil to fight against, we find our meaning in life.
We live today surrounded by disappointment. We’ve become pessimistic as a people. Our problems go unsolved and grow in number and difficulty. We are vulnerable to demagogy, quick-fixes, scapegoating, and false prophets. We sometimes feel overwhelmed with fear, hurt, anger, and anxiety. Some of us regress in our maturity under so much stress. Some lash out at others (public workers) wrongly. But we don’t hold real villains accountable.
Someone I love said to me, “I hate how it feels to live in America now.” Wisconsin State Representative Tamara Grisgby captured that sentiment when she said: “I don’t recognize where I am anymore. The disgrace, the disrespect, the total degradation of what has become of society is mind-blowing.” I believe many of us feel that way in an America where many care more about unneeded tax cuts for the wealthy (How much is enough?) than they do about food and heat for the poor. Does our greed destroy the dignity of all of us?
Now is the time for the vast silent majority of good people to choose to be bold and to lead. Author Margaret Wheatley defined leaders as people who want to help. It is time for us to do what we can to help our national community renew herself and our people to feel alive again.
We must see the gap between the reality and the possibility of our lives and nation, manage the stress we feel, and say NO to words and actions that harm human dignity. We can summon our goodness: each of us can stand tall in our integrity, maturity, and sensitivity for life and do what we can, however small, to push back the foes of dignity and aliveness. Our choices will define us as caring people.
The everyday evil around us will spread and take us down if we don’t.