Adam Blatner

May 31, 2007

A few generations ago it was common for fathers to whip and/or beat their sons—and sometimes daughters—, and some considered it a duty and part of the role of the father. Now such behavior would be viewed as being on or even over the edge of a criminally prosecute-able criminal offense, yet once it was a social norm.

Other behaviors have similarly shifted in their status from socially acceptable or tolerable to no longer respectable or acceptable:
  – acting on prejudice in hiring, allowing into universities or postgraduate programs, selling homes, renting apartments, and so forth, treating disrespectfully, etc.
  – sexual harassment
  – teasing, mocking, or bullying minorities of any kind
  –driving dangerously and/or while drunk
... and so forth.

In committing such acts, now considered cruel or immoral, a perpetrator converts the “other” from a “thou” (i.e., a person deserving of sympathy if not empathy) to and “it.” What is generally less recognized is that this de-humanization of others also takes its toll on the perpetrator’s psyche. The part of the self that is naturally empathic, sensitive, and caring must be encapsulated, the personality becomes a little hardened, at least in some domains, and the soul begins to have parts that have also become somewhat more “it”-like.

A corollary of this dynamic is the natural emergence of shame and guilt, often at an unconscious level. When shame and guilt can be worked through consciously, atonement—at-one-ment— follows; however, the circumstances are frequently lacking for such inner healing. (Shame is when one hasn’t been able to live up to one’s own standards, while guilt is an awareness that a choice has been made—one could have done it differently, one was able—but a choice to give in to unworthy temptations was made.)

Unconscious guilt more often becomes repressed—not only not thought about, but that the decision to not think about it has also been buried, the whole event has been “forgotten,” as if it never happened. This tension in the psyche is compensated for by the individual directing his mind to the good things he does, the kindnesses, or at least the good intentions. It’s surprising how effective this dynamic is even in what might be judged by others as relatively obvious villains. (Occasionally, villains celebrate their wickedness, but that’s a minority. The majority of people are otherwise “normal,” seemingly good folks, who lapse into circumstances where the temptations to be cruel become too tempting. This is what Hannah Arendt meant by the term, “the banality of evil.”)

What needs to be emphasized, though, is that such low-grade sinning has a price: People become not only a bit hardened, but in a subtle way, burdened. They feel heavier, more inhibited and stiff. Compartmentalization is a kind of splitting, and leads to a life of in-authenticity. The free flow of love for self and others is inhibited, and the experience of shame and guilt also induce a kind of inhibition to vitality. This heaviness is a sub-clinical form of PTSD, I suggest, the trauma of being a perpetrator, of discovering a capacity for unfeelingness and cruelty that we intuitively would clearly not want anyone to do to us! In place of living the golden rule deeply, we become lined with a figurative lead.

One escape is through intoxication—and the co-morbidity of drug and alcohol use applies not only to victims, but also perpetrators. (Of course, having been a victim often feeds the rationalizations necessary to release cruelty to others, thus reinforcing the vicious cycle!)

Another escape is into piety. This would be a good thing if the piety opened the mind and heart to a true process of atonement. That’s what the Twelve Step tradition seeks to promote. Alas, for many, the claiming of piety, the first step or two, seems to be supported by many religions that don’t know themselves—or at least most clergy don’t seem to---how to take the process through its full psycho-social completion.

Religion, it should be realized, can be used in a fairly superficial way. A belief in the doctrine of forgiveness of sins, if not fully applied, can permit a continued encapsulation of the guilt-perpetrator complex. What is needed is a socially-agreed-upon ritual of confession, authentic repentance (i.e., yes I did it, I feel sorry, and I want to avoid temptations to do it again now that I’m more aware of the behavior and its consequences), and atonement (i.e, at-one-ment with higher power, holistic self, and social community), and a ritual or process that seems workable.

Without such a recognizable process of social and spiritual healing, bringing the full awareness of the perpetration to consciousness would be re-traumatizing. People with perpetrator guilt cannot tolerate the overwhelming feelings of shame, humiliation, guilt, and anticipated social rejection and isolation. They should not be expected to manage this process of healing alone. Yet it is possible to create and apply such processes, mixing elements of religion and group psychotherapy. (Nor does this require any specific religion, but rather can happen even with a more general spirituality or philosophy that addresses the felt experience of meaning in life.)

The Social Context of Evil

In a recently published book by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo (2007), The Lucifer Effect, some understanding is offered about how good people turn evil. Social structures that provide authority and support for being a “team player,” demonstrating efficiency, initiative and competence, and the like can form in the service of nefarious ends. It is quite possible to build into the system the demonization of the “other,” the scapegoats or “enemy.” In Hitler’s Germany, the “other” were described as those who undermined the vitality of the master race, and thus worthy of denigration, torture, and destruction. The Tutsi tribe were similarly targeted in the tragedy of Rwanda in the 1990s, and other examples sadly abound. The author included also the conditions at the Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad, operated by the otherwise seemingly idealistic American troops.

When the myth of strength is paired with the need to be “tough,” and this in turn edges on the sadistic, which happens not infrequently in military training contexts, it isn’t difficult to rationalize what only later might be judged as slipping over the edge. That this has been common was reinforced by a friend who said that in the Navy, being sent to the brig was more than an act of mere imprisonment. The Marine guards were known to be sadistic, and they would beat up prisoners—akin to the situation portrayed in the movie, From Here to Eternity —fairly regularly.

There seemed to be a gentleman’s agreement not to call the officers in charge of the brig, or their superiors to account for this violation of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights—the Eighth Amendment forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment.” Anyone adjudged wicked enough to be in the brig was informally assumed to be deserving of punishment above and beyond the official act of imprisonment. Alas, this situation continues endemically throughout our prison system (and do not call it “corrections”!).


One of the shifts in social norms has been the civil rights movement—with its roots in abolitionism, and also the general complex of free-thinking beginning over three centuries ago that questioned the morality of monarchy and aristocracy, the combining of church and state, the institutional persecutions of alternative religions, quasi-slavery (e.g., the serfs of Eastern Europe), the use of torture as a rational instrument for justice, and so forth. Alas, many of these battles are still being fought, sometimes in more covert ways.

Part of this is a shift in the underlying social and philosophical attitudes towards authority. If a higher authority commands what is felt to be sinful, what are the subordinate’s responsibilities? What if failure to follow orders, or just being lukewarm in following them, entails a danger of severe consequences? One can be found to be less-than competent, not a team player, and as a result, promotions become stalled, or one may be assigned to a far more onerous or dangerous position. It can be let known that bullying the non-team-player will have no negative consequences, and this releases the inherent sadism of peers. (This was the theory of being in the stocks: It wasn’t just being subtly imprisoned! Community members and cruel children could and did attack, throw rocks and feces, mock and torment the helpless victim-criminal!)  It doesn’t have to be direct punishment. People understand the dangers in bucking an authoritarian system.

Who Are the Terrorists?

Combine this system with another predicament: The government-in-charge must show that it is making progress against the insurgents. To that end, they need “numbers.” If it can be shown that there has been an increase in arrests, the fine points of whether or not someone is guilty can be waived. After all, this is war, and the enemy are evil, capable of deceit. Torture is not out of the question and can be—and, alas, has been—rationalized and authorized.

Now imagine an innocent man whose house or goods or wife is desired by a covetous neighbor. Simply lying, “informing” on this man, is easy in such a system. The authorities seek numbers. The highest authority, Dick Cheney, has announced that if there’s a 1% chance of the accused being a terrorist, then actions should assume that is valid. Hey, it’s not that hard to play those probabilities. Two per cent, one-half a percent, who can say? And the government authorities, their police and army, need to prove their competence by having “numbers.”  (The horror of the criterion of the “body count” in the Vietnam war may be here recalled. Proof of whether the body was or was not innocent was generously overlooked.)

If I lived in Iraq, I would live in terror not only of the sectarian violence, but also of the possibility—nay, the probability—that I or some friend or relative may be picked up on a “sweep” of suspects. (Note the word, suspect. Anyone can be a suspect; you could be a suspect. Round up the usual suspects.)  We might well be tortured. We would probably be at least roughed up or beaten. We might well suffer disability, mixed with a sense of not knowing how long this imprisonment may last, not having access to help. Recent news (e.g., Newsweek, May, 2007) reports this very situation, along with another nasty twist: There’s also the crypto-kidnaping process implied when the police require a bribe for release. The motive for arrest then becomes not only the job performance of the police, but also their or their superior’s monetary benefits. In other words, the system is corrupt at its core. Who then are the terrorists?


A new morality is needed: We need to ask for accountability from the top down, and to distrust those even at the top. This applies to all authority systems. The legal criterion used in criminal investigations is “cui bono?”—Latin for “Who Benefits?” We need to look for the beneficiaries of various policies—past their rationalizations. Who cleans up, who gets more power, whose cronies can pick up non-negotiated contracts?

The dynamic mentioned earlier on the individual level applies also on the systems level. Groups in power, poltical parties, city councils, and so forth can and do disguise their corruption by engaging in what is sold as noble actions. Hitler could be very nice to some people, and other villains have also shown their capacity for being sweet, generous, forgiving, and in other ways virtuous in a variety of contexts. (But in the other contexts—watch out!) Add to this the power of claimed good intentions and the mythic power of piety. Bring in claims of religious faith and it becomes difficult to criticize, because how could a seemingly God-fearing person commit evil? Thus does the power of overgeneralization, idealization, and other rhetorical or propaganda devices lead to credulity and acceptance.

The solution is to teach about propaganda, semantics, cultural manipulation, the evil that higher ups can perpetrate, as well as good ol’ boys, and ordinary folks. Indeed, cultural rhetoric is often adopted by the criminals and welfare cheats as a rationalization of their villainy! Sloppy thinking and the temptation to not make trouble adds to all this.

More insidious is the act not only of subtle perpetration of cruelty, but of knowing about or witnessing such cruelty by bullies and not doing anything about it. This is doubly rampant, and yet it, too, leads to perpetrator PTSD and guilt, even though it is milder and easier to rationalize. The result is a kind of hardening, a numbness, and a slight drain of vitality and full humanity.

We need to recognize that we all pay a price as a community by this prevalent laziness of mind mixed with a low-grade cowardice. I’m not saying that everyone should become fiercely socially active, but neither can we escape the price paid for lapsing into complacency. Drawing from a seemingly different context—eating meat—the Zen-espousing philosopher, Alan Watts did not insist on vegetarianism. He did suggest, though, that if we are to eat meat, if we are to murder sentient animals for our sustenance, we should at least open to the consciousness that this was a living creature that was sacrificed for our benefit, and acknowledge this fact, own and contain the guilt that accompanies this consciousness.

People can contain guilt, seek to find ways of reducing evil in the world, forgive each other and themselves, but only if the issues are brought into consciousness. Otherwise, the subtle trauma of our acts as perpetrators or as those who witness or perpetrate even minor cruelties will numb our souls. Seeking wholeness, we need to pay the price of consciousness.

Another way to do this is to recognize that we have many parts, we play many parts. Some parts of us hold higher ideals than can be sustained or enacted by other parts. How to accept our imperfection, our internal contradictions, without yet slipping into complacence?

First, we need to cultivate a spiritual path that keeps this reality of humanity in mind, our un-finished-ness as a species, our un-finished process of maturation even through adulthood. We need to recognize the proper use of faith, not as a sop to our guilty conscience, but as an aid to an activity of atonement. We need to stretch a little, in our imagination, in our self-discipline, in our willingness to extend ourselves, give a bit more, and so forth. Beyond that, we need to forgive ourselves for not being able to tolerate the overload of stretching “too much,” and find some cosmic symbol system that can offer solace and support in our learning to accept ourselves. There’s a balance.

Mix that then with a process that’s part therapy, part confession, part group support and spiritual perspective, and part a creative working-through of finding some rational or symbolic way to realistically make amends for our weaknesses. I draw from the Twelve Step traditions in this formulation, and imagine some part of it as having far more application in life than had been previously appreciated.


In numerous ways, many people have participated in or allowed to happen many different kinds of cruelty, the perpetration of un-ethical behavior. Unconsciously, these episodes evoke guilt and, unless there be some culturally-agreed-upon process for atonement, they generate subtle dynamics of compartmentalization and hardening—the opposite of authenticity and integration.

Recognizing the pervasiveness of this dynamic and also seeking to understand its causes, we can learn more about and challenge artificial authority structures and norms. Learning about propaganda and social manipulation (i.e., rhetoric), we can introduce increasing amounts of rational activity into contexts that were enacted mythically, often feeding illusions of strength, greed, power, stability, honor, and other questionable subconscious goals.

As much as I disagree with many aspects of Freudian psychology, I do agree with one of Freud’s goals, paraphrased as: to make conscious that which had previously been unconscious.


Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.

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