Thursday, September 19, 2013

Evil. Should we just ignore it?

Evil. It's in the news again this week. A "nice" man walks on to a naval base and kills twelve people. Many people who knew him called him "nice."

How do we recognize evil? Is Edward Snowden evil? How about "Chelsea" Manning? Peter Ludlow reports that

70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

So has the younger generation lost its moral compass?

No, in Ludlow's view, just the opposite.

In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.

Do you confront evil? How about in your workplace? Do you just "do your job and keep your mouth shut?" Are you one person at work and another in your personal life? How do so many well-intentioned people end up committing so much evil?

As a guy who came into adulthood in the 1960s, I agree with Ludlow's reminder that Aaron Schwartz quoted:

there is no justice in following unjust laws.
Separate drinking fountains for whites and coloreds anyone?

Ludlow writes,

preventing the system from doing evil may well require breaking with organizational niceties, protocols or laws. It requires stepping outside of one’s assigned organizational role. The chief executive is not in a better position to recognize systemic evil than is a middle level manager or, for that matter, an IT contractor.

It seems that we are witnessing a new generation of whistleblowers and leakers, which we might call generation W (for the generation that came of age in the era WikiLeaks, and now the war on whistleblowing).

But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; if there are psychological motivations for whistleblowing, leaking and hacktivism, there are likewise psychological motivations for closing ranks with the power structure within a system — in this case a system in which corporate media plays an important role.

Read Ludlow's article, which is entitled The Banality of Systemic Evil.

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