Many faces of evil

Monday morning for us at the Family Support Center started in a sad way. We received a female patient who had been raped by eight men. The woman was travelling to visit relatives during the weekend and, when she got off the bus, a group of men attacked her and took turns in raping her. She came to our clinic with her clothes torn and muddy, experiencing severe physical pain.

Another patient that presented at the Family Support Center had been travelling on a bus when it was stopped by a group of thieves (here usually called rascals). The rascals robbed all the passengers in the bus of their money and valuables; they forced out all the female passengers, took them aside and raped them.

Since I started working in this project and began to witness all the horrible fates we see in our clinic each day, I have countless times asked myself why. Why does someone commit these awful crimes? Who does it? Like most people, I guess, I am at times inclined to think about the perpetrators as evil by nature – as abnormal, sick and crazy. Separate people: in us, the good; in them, the evil. This simplistic dualism of good vs. evil, however, is not very constructive if we really want to understand acts of evil.

Social psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo writes that horrific deeds are possible for any of us in the right (or wrong) circumstances. Social situations and environments have a significant effect on people’s behavior; it is not only about personality variables or genes. Look at the classic example of Nazi concentration camps, which were run by ordinary men and women. Therefore, Professor Zimbardo writes, in order to understand odd behavior, we should always start by analyzing the situation – yet avoiding determinism: people are still responsible for their actions. Neither should people be categorized as evil or good. When upholding the approach of people being either good or evil, the people considered “good” lack all responsibility

Yes, it was the rapist who raped, but what about all the rest of us who contribute to maintaining a system where gender inequality prevails? And would any of the eight men who raped our patient have done so if they had met her alone?

Suggested reading: Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect. Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.

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6 Responses to Many faces of evil

  1. Thank you all for your wise, thoughtful comments. This indeed is a complex question that is not easy to solve. I am very happy to you Peg and William for suggesting those books. I will definitely read them! When faced with a difficult issue I think one of the best solutions is to read, read, read more about it.

  2. E Johansson says:

    I greatly admire the work you do and am a long-time supporter of MSF.

    But I emphatically do not contribute to a system that supports rapists and will not share the blame. I don’t have any answers, but it seems to me that anything less than making rapists wholly responsible for their acts is apologetic.

    We can contribute to a society where gender equality and respect for human rights is paramount in many ways without supporting crimes.

  3. Dear Minja,
    God bless you for all you and your colleagues do to help.
    Michael Lardner

  4. Peg Young says:

    Dear Minja,

    I have boundless admiration for you in your struggle in trying to mitigate some of the pain experienced by the people in your care. Trying to make sense of humans is like swimming in a pit of molasses, sometimes.

    In her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout includes a chapter called “When normal conscience sleeps.” She talks about how ordinary people of good conscience can be swayed by charismatic sociopaths–in all levels of society. She also discusses Milgram’s astonishing experiments in 1961-2 and his findings. His experiments are familiar to students of psychology, but not necessarily to others.

    It is a most worthwhile and informative book for everyone to read.

    I wish you well in what you are doing for those in need. I just wish I was young enough to be able to do the same. :-)

  5. Fiona Rustom Jagose says:

    How full on this must be. I have no answers but have plenty of suggestions. In all societies children are most perceptive of violent or denigrating practices in the adult world and seek to prove themselves by imitation. Even when I was a kid in a supposed liberal and socially responsible environment,pre-school boys would hit pre-school girls and nearby adults would coo along the lines of “Ah how sweet, he really likes her.”
    I have no idea of the intricate make-up of the society you are working in-other than mind-boggling diverse…however would be most interested to hear if there is social education from early childhood.
    People seldom just suddenly turn into rapists. many are almost ‘nurtured’ (forgive dystopic use of such a word) into it by completely ignoring the build up.
    I wish you much patience and less such patients. Thank you for your post.

    Be well,

  6. William Chalupiak says:

    Hi Minja,

    I wonder if you have read a book by the french scholar Alain Badeau entitled “Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil.” It may give you some food for thought with regards to you moral deliberations.

    Keep up the good work.
    All the best,

    William Chalupiak