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Ordinary people

Published: 
Monday, October 1, 2007

Plato thought that no one did wrong knowingly. St Paul, on the other hand, felt it was not so much a matter of knowledge as of control. “I cannot understand my own behaviour,” he would famously write. “What I find myself doing is not what I want to do.” Paul considered this dilemma everyone’s experience. It would later lead to the view that original sin was the one dogma for which you had empirical evidence.

The difference between Plato and Paul remains one of the bigger differences between the ancient classical and the Christian world view. But the issue itself hardly remains ancient. St Augustine, observing two babies at their mother’s breast, fighting over possession, thought that the reason why one didn’t murder the other is that neither was strong enough. We, on the other hand, think that babies are really the cutest things.

Knowing what we are really like, before nurture has its way, is a matter that has always perplexed the race. Many will recall William Golding’s allegorical novel, The Lord of the Flies, where a group of boys, ages six to 12, stranded on a tropical island, with no contact with the outside world, and having only themselves to deal with, soon become awful savages. Golding was obviously more sympathetic to Paul than to Plato.

One quite famous experiment—the Stanford (University) Prison Experiment—with a relatively similar motivation was conducted in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo, a professor of psychology at Stanford. Zimbardo arbitrarily divided a group of 24 young students into two groups, one called “prisoners,” the other “guards,” and placed them into a simulated prison situation. The students had all previously professed similar anti-war, peace-and-love sentiments, and quickly took to their roles. By the second day, the “prisoners” had revolted, and the “guards” were being heavy-handed in restoring order. By the fifth day the experiment had gotten so out of hand that it had to be stopped. The “guards” were bullying and sexually humiliating the “prisoners.”

Zimbardo concluded that the experiment, which has since achieved a level of enduring recognition, revealed how much circumstances can distort individual personalities, and how anyone, given complete control over others, can act like a monster. “In a few days, the role dominated the person,” he said. “They became guards and prisoners.”

Zimbardo testified more recently as an expert in the trial of Chip Frederick, one of the US servicemen accused of brutality at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Frederick, in the view of other corroborating witnesses, was a decent, likeable fellow. Yet he co-operated in the sexual degradation and torture of several Iraqi prisoners, and in a sworn statement said that when he was posted to Abu Ghraib, he took the abuse he found there to a new level.

Zimbardo’s testimony was that anyone in Frederick’s position could do what he did, given the prevailing conditions of the war and the stresses of the occupation. He would later describe this as “the Lucifer effect,” ie, the conditions under which people fall from grace, or “good people turn evil.”

This is, of course, more Plato than Paul. Goodness is presumed; from it a hard-to-fathom declension takes place to a completely opposite state.

What tradition in this matter has too little noticed, it seems to me (if we leave Plato and Paul aside for a moment), is that while ordinary people (they are better so described, I think, than “good” people) can turn evil, they can also turn heroic. This is something one witnesses every time a natural disaster occurs. Not only there, obviously, but natural disasters are time and again occasions when perfect strangers come to the assistance of perfect strangers, without hesitation, and often at great risk and cost to themselves.

We saw it in the news in early August when the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Within less than a minute after the collapse, a few people had rushed to the scene, took in the catastrophe below, and began to help passengers who were still underwater or bobbing above it. One of those helping was a paraplegic. Officials at different gatherings would later honor “the heroes of the 35W Bridge.” On the day itself, having done what they did, the heroes just went their separate ways.

An even more extraordinary instance occurred after the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, in Washington, in January 1982. A failure to switch on the engines’ internal anti-icing equipment held to accumulated snow and ice on the plane’s wings. It was airborne for just 30 seconds, lost altitude, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, and plunged into the freezing Potomac River. All but the tail became submerged.

Sixty-nine of the 74 passengers perished, leaving a few survivors in the icy river. Once again, people who heard the crash initially tried to brave the cold water, but were forced to retreat, ice sticking to their bodies. A Police helicopter finally arrived with a lifeline to be lowered to tow survivors ashore. The latter were practically frozen, making them nearly three times their body weight. It would take six people to get each from the shore to a waiting ambulance.

One of the passengers, later identified as Arland D Williams, Jr, himself pinned to the fuselage of the plane kept catching the line and rather than trying to pull himself free, continued to help others help themselves to safety. When he alone was left, the tail of the plane shifted and sank further in the water, dragging him down with it.

Does evidence like this mean we are “naturally” good? And what of evidence to the contrary? Are we rather more neutrally posed, with nurture and circumstance being determinative this way or that? That seems the only fitting conclusion, though it seems that the results of our neutrality show that the evil we do far outstrips the heroism. What can one put in the scales to balance a Pol Pot or Rwanda or Nazi Germany? Our heroism in fact only make the issue that much more perplexing.

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