TED2008: Will Evil Prevail?

Posted by: Bgiussani

(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. Session five.)

Will evil prevail? This promises to be a hard session — there will be moments that are hard to watch and listen to, looking evil right in the eye — but discussions of evil will mix with experiences of good.

The best person to start this session is certainly social psychologist Phil
. In 1971, he conducted the Stanford prison experiment, a study
of human responses to authority and captivity. In a mock prison setting
built in the basement of a Stanford University building, volunteers
(students) played the roles of both guards and prisoners — and showed
such a rapid adaptation to their roles that Zimbardo had to interrupt
the experiment early, after only 6 days, because a sizable portion of the "guards" started
developing abuisive behaviour and sadistic tendencies, while some of
the "prisoners" showed signs of emotional trauma (website here, video — a version of which Zimbardo shows during his speech — here).
What makes people go wrong?. "The line between good and evil is movable and permeable. Good people can be seduced through that line. Good and evil are the yin and yang of the world; God’s favorite angel was Lucifer, which God punished by sending to Hell — paradoxically, it was God who created evil. Evil is the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, destroy them physically and commit crimes against humanity." When in 2004 the Abu Ghraib scandal of prisoner torture and
abuse in a US prison in Baghdad was revealed, Zimbardo saw many
parallels to the Stanford experiment (and wrote a book about them: "The
Lucifer Effect
", which he calls "a celebration of the human mind’s infinite capacity to make us behave kind or cruel, nice or bad, etc."). He has been a witness expert in one of the cases
brought to court, which gave him access to all investigation and
background reports — including images that the Pentagon refused to
release publicly, and that Zimbardo shows during his speech. Purely horrific pictures. Zimbardo
disagrees with the official position putting the blame on "a few bad
apples", and contends instead that the Abu Ghraib scandal stem from
systemic problems
— that the environment encouraged some people to
become perpetrators of evil. "All of the things they did at Abu Ghraib
were somehow "authorized" by the hierarchy in their memos on using
sleep deprivation or threatening prisoners with dogs. They added the sexual abuses,  and the
photos — nobody had told them to take pictures". All of the abuses, btw,
happened during the night shifts — the soldiers that were operating within the "environment" of the daily shifts didn’t commit the abuses.
So instead of asking who is responsible, Zimbardo asks what is responsible. Psychologists generally understand the transformation of human character as dispositional (inside the individual) or situational (exernal), but Zimbardo argues that it can also be systemic, and that’s what happened at Abu Ghraib.
Zimbardo recalls several experiments by another great social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, studying how people will commit evil obeying authority. The same is demonstrated by the mass suicides by cult members, and other examples.
There are, he says, seven social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil:

  • mindlessly taking the first small step
  • dehumanization of others
  • de-individualization of self (anonymity)
  • diffusion of personal responsibility
  • blind obedience to authority
  • uncritical conformity to group norms
  • passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference
  • and that particularly in new or unfamiliar situations

Power without oversight is prescription for abuse. it was the environment created at Abu Ghraib that contributed to this abuses, says Zimbardo, and the fact that it went unnoticed for months. So there is a paradigm shift needed. Since the Inquisition we’ve been dealing with problems at an individual level, but that doesn’t work.
The very same siuation that can inflame hostile imagination and inspire perpetration of evil can inspire others to intervene, be heroes, to stop evil. So Zimbardo suggest a "psychology of heroism" as antidote to evil (and to passive inaction) promoting "heroic imagination" in kids, making visible that people do extraordinary moral deeds in certain situations. "Are we ready to take the path to celebrate ordinary heroes?"

Despite a very necessary music intermezzo — personal coach Laura Trice doesn’t have an easy job following Zimbardo’s charged presentation. In a 3-minutes speech, she advocates clarity: If you really told people close to you what you really want, asked them what they need, you both will be happier.

Irwin Redlener, a public health doctor and a leading voice in disaster medicine (Katrina etc) and in pointing out America’s lack of preparedness. Are we at risk of a nuclear attack, he asks. And: could we permanently eliminate the nuclear threat? Since we first developed nuclear weapons, we’ve lived in a dangerous world characterized by two phases. First, the US in 1945 developed the atomic bomb and used it to end the second world war. In 1949  the URSS got the bomb. From there to 1991 there was an extraordinary buildup of nuclear weapons capacity (with a beginning of disarmament after 1985). Those yeas were characterized by a superpower arms race, US vs URSS, in a fragile standoff, depending on MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). There was a high level of public awareness. But even though we knew that there could be a civilization obliteration, America and URSS engaged in a series of responses planning — preparing for destroying the world — doing delusional things like teaching schoolkids to duck and cover, or telling people to build a bomb shelter in their basement, and relocation planning.
Then we entered chapter 2 of the nuclear threat era: after URSS broke up in 1991, the idea of an all-out nuclear war has diminished and he idea of a single event of nuclear terrorism is what we have instead. Although the situation has changed, we haven’t changed our mental image of what a nuclear war would be.

  • Global nuclear weapons aren’t uniformly secure and fissionable materials are relatively availablee (From 1993 to 2005 IAEA documented 175 cases of nuclear theft)
  • Nuclear know-how is accessible, there is detailed informations on how to assemble nuclear weapons
  • Evil-doers are organized, dedicated, "stateless" and therefore "retaliation-proof" (and they’re not only foreigners)
  • High-value US targets are accessible, soft and plentiful ("the level of preparedness in the US is unbelievably inadequate")

So, it could happen. Anyone who dismisses the thought that a nuclear detonation could happen is delusional. What would it mean, and who would survive? Redlener shows footage of what would happen if a nuclear bomb went off in a US city. One can survive a nuclear blast. The difference between information on what to do personally and no information can save you. So response planning is both possible and essential. But as of today there is no single US city that has developed effective plans to deal with a nuclear detonation disaster. In part because public officials and emergency planners are paralized by the terrible images of total destruction.
Nuclear war is less likely than before, and is not survivable. Nuclear terrorism is more likely than before, but it is survivable. Here is what you should do in case you find yourself where a bomb goes off, and you’re alive after the blast:


Eboo Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based NGO working to bring mutual comprehension among religiously diverse young people. He gives a short, 3-min speech. "The world is divided between totalitarians and pluralists; people who seek to suffocate diversity and people who seek to embrace it."

TED is also trying to do something to change the conversation. Actress Goldie Hawn is one of the many public figures around the world supporting Pangea Day, a project that was voiced as a "wish" by 2006 TED Prize winner Jehane Noujaim, when she wondered if it would be possible to create a "day when you have everyone coming together from around the world and sharing a communal experience of watching a film all together, all at the same time, from Times Square to Ramallah to the side of the Great Wall of China". That day is going to happen, on May 10, when four hours of programming — films, user-generated videos, speakers, music, hosted by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour — will take place in several locations and broadcast by TV channels, shown on theatres, distributed over cell phones, streamed online, screened in village places and private homes all over the world. That’s Pangea Day. Movies alone can’t change the world: but the people who watch them can. "We will see sameness and not the differences", Goldie Hawn says. The Pangea Day website is here, with informations on hosting an event or finding one to attend, backgrounders, etc. The event will be globally supported by Nokia. (A side note: the picture on the Pangea Day homepage shows one of the greatest annual moments of cinematic communion in the world: the evening screenings on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where up to 10’000 people gather to watch movies under the summer sky).

PangeaDay is an invitation to see things differently, to consider also the other’s point of view. Here is an example, a video that’s been produced for PangeaDay, based on the images of the famous scene of the unarmed young man carrying shopping bags who stood in front of
the tanks on Tienanmen Square, on 5 June 1989, blocking them. The young
man has remained anonymous. So did the soldier driving the tank.

Harvard political scientist and writer Samantha Power is tasked with
the closing speech. Ted08power
She wrote a book on genocide, and a new one (just out) called "Chasing the flame", a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN envoy in Baghdad who was killed in the first suicide bombing in 2003 (book cover left). She is a powerful
proponent of bringing human rights back to US foreign policy
– see her
essay on "The Human-Rights Vacuum", arguing that the erosion of US
influence around the world has created "a void in global human-rights
leadership". She may get her voice heard by the next president: she’s
an adviser to Democratic candidate Barack Obama (she wears an Obama badge on stage).
On April 31st, 1994, in the middle of the Rwandan genocide, the NYT reported that 200 to 300’000 people had already been killed. An American congresswoman from Colorado met that day with a group of journalists, and one asked why there is so little response out of Washington, no hearings, no denouncing. She said: "It’s a great question All I can tell you is that in my congressional offices in Colorado and in Washington we are getting hundrds of calls about the endangered apes and gorilla populations in Rwanda, but no one is calling about the people". The truth is that while we have developed endangered species movements, we don’t have an endangered people movement, we have a Holocaust museum but we haven’t really created the movement-of-never-again. Now, almost out of nowhere there is an anti-genocide movement, it grew up in response to the atrocities in Darfur, there are more than 300 anti-genocide chapters in universities in the US (bigger than the anti-apartheid movement) and the idea that not being an up-stander, but being a by-stander, has a price. This has led to the referral of the crimes in Darfur to the international criminal court etc. But evil lives on, people in refugee camps are surrounded by janjaweed militias. We have achieved alot, but still far too little. Why? Several reasons. The movement such as it is stops at America’s borders, it’s not a global movement (BG: that’s not exactly true, there are movements in other countries, the UK government has been a key player in trying to broker peace, etc). Second, US has a credibility problem in international circles, it’s difficult to remain credible when you denounce genocide on Monday, declare waterboarding as acceptable on Tuesday, and ask for troops on Wednesday, as the current US administration is doing.
She turns to Sergio Vieira de Mello. He was a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy. He was ingenious, spoke 7 languages, was successful with women; and one could never tell if he was a realist masquerading as idealist, or the other way around (BG: I met him twice, and that’s an accurate description of him). He worked for the UN in Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Kosovo, East Timor and many other countries. "He was the cutting edge of our experimentation with doing good with limited resources". Four lessons from his life on how to prevent evil from prevailing:

  • His relationship to evil is something to learn from. Over the course of his career he changed alot, he had alot of flaws but he was very adaptive. He started as someone who charged, attached, accused. Then in Southern Lebanon in 1992 he said to himself that he would never use the word "unacceptable" again. He became almost obsequious, even negotiating with the Khmer Rouge. But towards the end of his life he had achieved a balance, don’t ignore history, don’t ignore what the wrongdoers have done but go into the room and discuss with them.
  • He espoused and exhibited a reverence for dignity that was really unusual. At a micro-level the individuals around him were visual, he saw them. At a macro level, dignity was at the center of his action.
  • He talked alot about freedom from fear. Fear is not a concept that we want to walk away from, but let’s calibrate our relationship to the threat. Let’s not hype it, let’s see it clearly. Fear is a bad advisor.
  • Because he was working on all those hard place, he was very aware of their complexity, humbled by it, but not paralyzed by it. We, there seem to be a temptation to pull back from the world. We can’t afford to pull back, it’s a question on how to be in the world.

If we want to see change, we have to become the change.