I always wanted to be the good guy. And on the whole I don’t think I’ve done too badly.
I’m far from perfect but overall I’d say the Libran scales are tipped in my favour. I was the kid at primary school that went to visit classmates when they were sick, even if they weren’t in my circle of friends. And if I could have been anybody I would have been Superman, the ultimate good guy.
Well, I must confess my motivations weren’t entirely selfless; I quite liked the idea of flying, and as girls became something more than an annoyance (don’t get me wrong, they are were still annoying, but I had begun to realise that it might just be worth putting up with on occasion) X-ray vision acquired a potential above and beyond the defence of freedom, justice and the American way. Especially where a certain supervillain was concerned to my 9 year old eyes.
But that’s not the whole story. I wanted to be a good guy, but I was always fascinated by that which was darker, the more malevolent side of human nature. This began with Hammer horror films and progressed to Stephen King books, before broadening to an interest in real life monsters starting with Jack the Ripper and maturing into an enduring fascination with one Theodore Robert ‘Ted’ Bundy, one of the world’s most prolific, compulsive and savage killers, and one of its most darkly charismatic.
Of course, I never wanted to actually be like these people, rather I wanted to understand what could go so wrong in a human being that they could do such unspeakable things to their fellow humans; things that were so utterly alien to what I had always believed as a child to be the fundamental goodness of human nature.
No, I didn’t want to be like these monsters. I wanted to be like Damien Thorn.
You know, The Omen. The Devil’s spawn. The Anti-Christ.
Please understand, I didn’t want to hurt anybody – but I wanted his powers. I wouldn’t use them to behead, dismember or have somebody ripped apart by a pack of wild dogs; my ambition was not to rule the world from the bowels of Hell.
No, my aims were rather more benevolent; I would use my powers for good. Or rather, to stop bad people from hurting me or the people that I cared about. Basically, if you fucked with Matty you were going to get THAT stare from underneath my evil eyebrow, unable to avert your gaze as you collapsed to the floor in a puddle of the blood that poured forth from your ears and nostrils as your brain was torn out of your skull by invisible talons. That kind of thing.
Basically I’d be a good guy until you fucked with me, then I’d go all Prince of Darkness on that ass. And then I’d be a good guy again, because being a good guy’s just my nature you see.
Or is it?
‘Good people’ do terrible things every day. ‘Good’ people lie, ‘good’ people cheat, ‘good’ people kill. And throughout history, some of the most unspeakable, unimaginable acts of horror have been committed in the pursuit of ‘good’, enabled and facilitated by ‘good’ citizens.
Pogroms, crusades, wars, ethnic cleansing; murder on an unfathomable scale, actions that scar the collective human conscience, all considered at some time by significant portions of civilized societies to be justifiable in the name of the greater good, the collective interest. The interests of good over ill, of ‘us’ against ‘them’.
But nothing like that could happen here; nothing like that could happen now.
The kinds of atrocities with which all of us with a basic awareness of human history are familiar did not happen overnight. The conditions out of which horror grows are fertilised over time, and individuals and populations sleepwalk their way into hell under the mistaken presumption that good people don’t commit acts of atrocity.
They do. And if they aren’t active agents they are passive enablers, standing idly by as humanity unleashes hell on earth.
We mislead ourselves that barbarism belongs to others – other times, other places, other peoples. Or we ascribe it arbitrarily to ‘evil’, a malevolent force unencumbered by social constructs such as human rights and the rule of law.
We’re wrong. We underestimate the enormous power that social and environmental factors bring to bear on our selfhood, particularly when we feel threatened, when we fear loss, when our future prosperity looks uncertain. And as we cast around for blame the finger points, inevitably, at ‘them’, as we label the unknowable enemy, the shadow that darkens our hopes.
Lest we forget, there is another label available for us to choose,
The famed Professor of Psychology, Philip Zimbardo, explores how good people turn evil in his wonderful book, The Lucifer Effect. Zimbardo created the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment that saw a random group of ordinary, healthy students placed together in a mock prison with some assuming the role of guards and others of prisoners; the study had to be ended after less than a week when the guards became increasingly power-mad and sadistic, and the prisoners pathological.
This, and his subsequent research into real life abuses, led to the development of a ten-step program for resisting undesirable social influences and promoting civic virtue.
The program identifies steps for ensuring that we take full responsibility for our decisions and actions and do not pass our moral and personal agency to those in authority. It encourages us to be able to accept when we are wrong, preventing us from continuing down a path that is bad or immoral in order to save face. To question authority and demand evidence that enables critical thinking rather than accepting simple solutions and quick fixes to complex personal and social problems.
It highlights the need to value and assert our independence and to be able to resist conforming to a group norm that we feel to be wrong but are tempted to follow in our desire to be accepted, and alerts us to the importance of understanding the ‘frames’ within which information is presented to us to elicit an emotional or fearful response.
Finally, it highlights our implicit need for security and the vigilance that is required if we are to prevent the stripping away of personal or civic freedoms in return for the illusion of security – the sacrifices of such freedoms are real and immediate, the security a distant illusion.
And always we must be prepared to oppose systems that we know to be unjust.
As the largest democracy in the world prepares to elect a new leader the flames of fear are fanned to fuel personal ambitions for power, but at what cost?
In our belief in our fundamental goodness we need to remember that while it can be easy to explain away the abhorrent acts of others as the rotting of a bad apple, perhaps we need to focus more on the conditions within the barrel that contributes to the rot setting in. Only then can the wings of the better angels of our nature be allowed to unfurl.
None of us are innately good – not even me, nice though I am (https://lovelaughtertruthblog.com/2016/02/23/the-price-of-nice/) – but inherent within all of us are the roots that grow into cooperation and altruism and lead us away from violence, conflict and terror. The ability to empathise, the exercise of self-control, the moral sense, the faculty of reason – these are our better angels, and they live within each of us (The Better Angels of Our Nature – The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes; Steven Pinker).
But we must never forget that,
“The line between good and evil is in the centre of every human heart.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)
Dirge – Death In Vegas