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Diane Weber Bederman

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Steubenville Mob Mentality: The Banality of Good and Evil

Posted: 04/01/2013 12:19 pm

"So what happened in Steubenville...Was it just 'human nature' or were other outcomes possible?" asked Erin Anderssen in her article about the bystander effect in the rape of the young girl in Steubenville. It is a question that is asked each time a mob watches rather than intervene.

It was human nature. We are by nature selfish. It is the culture in which we live that determines whether or not we will overcome the instinctive, selfish side of our human nature.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis described culture as "the sum of the achievements and institutions which differentiate our lives from those of our animal forbears and serve two purposes, namely that of protecting humanity against nature and of regulating the relations of human beings among themselves."

By nature, human beings do not care for the "other" or the "stranger." It is taught.

Freud was not religious but he knew the importance of ethical teachings. "If you want to expel religion from our European civilization, you can only do it by means of another system of doctrines." In 1928 he wrote without religion there would be mayhem.

"If one imagined its prohibitions removed, then one could choose any woman who took ones' fancy as one's sexual object, one could kill without hesitation one's rival or whoever interfered with one in any other way, and one could seize what one wanted of another man's goods without asking his leave."

Modern researchers have come to the same conclusions. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University, released studies from the Baby Lab in 2012 that reveals the moral nature of babies from the age of three months.

"There is a universal moral core that all humans share. The seeds of our understanding of justice, our understanding of right and wrong, are part of our biological nature. Yet, 'We are predisposed to break the world up into different human groups based on the most subtle and seemingly irrelevant cues, and that, to some extent, is the dark side of morality... to some extent, a bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people who have the same taste as me, is a very strong human bias. It's what one would expect from a creature like us who evolved from natural selection, but it has terrible consequences."

Evolution predisposes us to be wary of "the other" for survival, so we need societal and parental nurturing to intervene. Bloom concluded, "And the truth is, when we're under pressure, when life is difficult, we regress to our younger selves and all of this elaborate stuff we have on top disappears."

And the banality of evil takes over.

Almost everyone can recite the golden rule. In the West we, as a culture, have been teaching it for more than 3,500 years but we are still failing. Terribly. It seems that "evil" bubbles up and takes over, almost without our noticing.

In The Life of the Mind Hannah Arendt, who brought the phrase, "the banality of evil" into the lexicon following the 1961 Eichmann trial wrote; "I was struck by a manifest shallowness in the doer (Eichmann) that made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives."

She believed he wasn't innately malevolent, any worse than others in war. He just acted without thinking, not realizing the depth of the horror of the orders. He just didn't have any notion of critical thinking, of sound judgment, of introspection. No planning. Evil, to Arendt, seemed to be part of living.

Just one small step in the wrong direction, taken over and over, again; an ignorantia affectata, a cultivated ignorance, a willful lack of knowledge. No moral culpability.

In Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship, Arendt emphasized:

"It was as though morality, at the very moment of its collapse within an old, highly civilized nation, stood revealed in its original meaning, as a set of mores, of customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with no more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of a whole people."

We lose sight of the fact that the evil exists on a continuum and if we don't pay attention, we slide, individually and collectively, into evil, selfish actions; exchanging one set of morals for another; Like Steubenville. A mob; a crowd; choosing not to intervene because of an absence of an internalized morality that has taught the importance of caring for the other. It was behaviour reminiscent of our reptilian ancestors -- no gap between the instinct and the response to it -- no place for thought. No humanity involved.

American writer, Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed, published September 2012, argues that children who do well have learned amongst other qualities, discipline, self-control and conscientiousness.

We have stopped teaching these traits along with compassion for others in our schools, in our places of worship, in our workplaces. But, we know from all these acts of violence that when we stop actively teaching these behaviours we regress, back to our instinctual, selfish selves and we turn away from those in need.

Hans Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone more than 60 years ago. It was published in Germany just after the war. It was only recently published here. The theme of the novel could easily be "the banality of good." The book is based on a true and simple story of Otto and Elise Hampel, whose postcard protest campaign "Hitler's war is the worker's death!" frustrated the Gestapo. The frustration only ended when the couple was captured in October 1942 and subsequently beheaded.

Every Man Dies Alone is the story of two people, sick over the war and the horror of Nazism, who chose to rebel whether others followed them or not. They believed, though, that once they exposed the Nazis, others would follow their lead and rise up against the tyranny. Their acts of defiance would begin to normalize goodness, lead to mob banal acts of good; as contagious as the banality of evil. But, the mob did not follow. Those who saw the postcards were so terrified of reprisal that they turned the cards over to the Gestapo or pretended to have never seen them. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote,

"Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts."

In 2005 Yehoyakim Stein, a psychoanalyst, wrote an article entitled "The Banality of Good":

"There are more than enough examples in human history of severe crimes carried out under the influence of the mob. The human being is a herd animal that does not want to be deviant. There is nothing more dangerous than the combination of blind obedience and flight from responsibility (Emphasis mine.) If not for the great masses of little people fleeing from responsibility and hiding behind the big skirts of the generals and the politicians, most acts of atrocity in human history would not have been made possible. Every regime, all over the world, in carrying out questionable acts, relies to a large extent on this army of normal people, on the masses. The main problem of humanity is not aggression, but blind obedience. Just as there is a banality of evil, so too is there a banality of good."

The banality of good will take over when we all internalize moral absolutes bequeathed to us millennia ago.

"Yes, you are your brother's keeper. Yes, you must do unto others as you would have others do into you. Yes, you were once a stranger in a strange land so you will care for the stranger, the other, the weak and the oppressed, the widow and orphan, the sick."

These absolutes are the foundation of Western culture.

Biology and history have taught us that selfishness is our default position. If the banality of good is going to overtake the banality of evil, we must return to teaching these moral values in our schools, places of worship and the public square.

That is how we "re-engineer our mob mentality."

 
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