Saturday, March 23, 2013


The root of all evil is sequestration of knowledge.  The most dangerous form of sequestration is that of stigma which proposes that not knowing about evil will make it go away.  The second most dangerous ignorance is believing evil cannot be converted into good.

Philip Zimbardo  is a Berkeley psych prof -- therefore he goes where people are afraid to go because he lives right there anyway. (jokes) If you watch this TED talk by him, you’ll see that he looks quite a bit like Lucifer himself.  He is most famous for two studies: one is an experiment to see how punishing people can be (terrifying!) and the other is a study of Abu Ghraib.  I won’t bother to warn you about how shocking the images are because I suspect you’ve already seen them -- even sought them out -- because many of us (99% of the people who read this blog) want to understand this.

After Zimbardo had thought about this a while, he flipped it over:  what is it that allows people to be heroic?   If you’ve been following my posts, esp the recent ones, I think you’ll be able to see that I’ve been working towards this subject.  His key idea is that good/evil are human and that they are effectively controlled by group dynamics.  This is what lured me into the ministry -- the idea that organizational design, powered by a sense of the Holy, could produce heroic people.  What put me out the other side was the discovery that because my denomination was so open to the general culture it was vulnerable to the same cultural craving for prosperity and safety.  Ministers who get too far out of the norm are eliminated.  My privilege now is to use my independence from ALL group definitions of how I should act.  Not that there is a lot of divergence in my nonconformity.  Most people would see me as a fairly conventional old lady because I don’t reject groups per se -- just their mindless control of individuals.  I have a past, I have a mind, I have heroes, and I use all of them.

The stories that haunt me, that come back in the middle of the night and keep me awake, are the incidents when I was unable to intervene or even one or two cases when my mother in her girlhood couldn’t intervene, which I know about only because in her last living days she was still trying to resolve them.  I hadn’t known about them until then.  If I write a long essay, I’ll try to analyze them, but what they all come down to being aware of someone’s need in a context where others disapproved, and it has driven nonconformity -- much less in my mother than in me.  I mean, I’ve been far more defiant than she was -- but she was a leader who responded to challenge.

Maybe I should describe again one of her stories.  An adult female relative had brought a friend to visit on my mother’s birth family’s farm.  It was supposed to have been a profitable prune orchard, but wasn’t, so my grandmother depended in part on income from chickens who roamed the hillside yard, making it slick with droppings.  The lady visitor slipped and fell, breaking her hip.  She was Christian Science and refused all medical help or to even be taken to a hospital in Roseburg.  My mother was working in town and was considered a reliable, sensible young woman.  She listened to the torment of this woman and went to the pharmacist for advice.  He gave her a “powder”  folded up in paper, which is how tablets were dispensed then.  She took it home and offered it to the woman, who refused it, so my mother mixed it into orange juice and offered it again so she would drink it.  When the woman realized what had happened, she threw a huge fit, accusing my mother of all kinds of terrible things.  When my grandfather, who did construction and was gone most of the week, got home a day or so later, he threw his own fit, insisting that the woman be taken to town regardless of how, why, or where.  “I will not have some female moaning in the guest room and oppressing my family!” he declared.  There are enough ambiguities in this tale to keep a discussion going for quite a while.

Zimbardo came to my attention through a website called  “  His most recent project is about boys:  “The Demise of Guys,” about why some boys are so much more passive, timid, and unskilled these days.  The TED talk is at  All the things that Zimbardo talks about have been witnessed by myself in classrooms, on the street, in the animal control locker room, at ministerial meetings, in bureaucratic offices and in my own family -- in short, everywhere.  

But most of the boys I’ve known recently have been the opposite: they have chosen a sub-group and use it to support an active and potent identity against the larger society.  This does not mean the sub-group is virtuous -- it may only protect its members. Neither does it mean that boys who don’t go out for football are any less manly.  It may be that they are simply waiting and watching in hopes of getting the information they need in order to act effectively.

Let’s hope they get it quickly.  The news is full of stories of young people witnessing rape but not intervening -- even mocking it -- and of military rapes in which the victims are the penalized ones rather than the power-drunk rapists who have the power to deflect their own punishment.  There are more than a few things to learn about effective interventions, chief among them being strategy.  This is what makes the series called “The Protectors” so interesting: strategy is their means of choice.  But you need to know a lot of options, make a lot of contacts, rally social support, be a close observer.

Even on the Blackfeet Reservation there are micro-societies or layers of society.  A couple of outsider guys hanging around a bar at closing time in order to beat up drunken losers (other than themselves) were counter-attacked by a tribally enrolled county commissioner and his wife, who were beaten themselves but followed up on their injuries in court.   It was more of a brawl than a take-down, but in the months-long rez-wide rhubarb over it, a lot of consciousness was raised.  The interveners DID win in court. These incidents have the power to protect individuals -- not so much by helping the individual (as my ministerial colleague and I did for the ill old lady in the hotel sundries shop) -- but by challenging the tolerance and resignation people develop to bad behavior.  These thugs had been beating up people in front of others for a long time. No one had wanted to stop it or even report it, so they pretended not to see anything.

Be a hero.  See it, name it, risk it, follow up.  Strategically.

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