Psychologist Philip Zimbardo (photo courtesy of The Lucifer Effect web site) came to speak at a community college here in Columbus last month. I recorded the whole talk, which was an hour long. The whole thing was fascinating, but I set myself the modest goal of transcribing only the last eight minutes. Those last minutes of the lecture were the uplifting, hopeful part, and, I don't know about you, but I sure could use more of that in my daily life.
"The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being", says Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. ... "It's a decision that you have to make every day in various ways."
So what I want to do, is I want to end on a positive note, because I know I've depressed you. When I was writing this book I was so depressed, going through all this horrible stuff, and being immersed in this "evil shit", if you will. (Laughter) But the positive note is, heroism as an antidote to evil, by promoting what I call "the heroic imagination" in every man, woman, and child in our nation.
What I mean by that is, here's Joe Darby. He's the guy who exposed the Abu Ghraib abuses. His friend gave him a CD with those pictures and more--he looked at them and said, "This is terrible! We're supposed to bring democracy to these people, and we're humiliating them!" He took that CD and brought it to the senior investigating officer. He was a private in the Army Reserves. That's a thing you never do. And he knew that his buddies were going to get in trouble. But he said "I had to do the right thing." They had to put him into protective custody along with his mother and his wife, because everybody wanted to kill them. ...He is the most ordinary person, G.I. Joe, and he did the right thing.
And there's also the guy in China, in Tiananmen Square, where students were having a peaceful demonstration to promote more freedom, and here was a line of tanks trying to crush them. He jumped in front and said, "We are all Chinese, we all want freedom! We want the same things--please don't do this!" And he turned around. And so here's a powerful physical hero. Darby was a whistleblowing hero. So I want to refocus away from evil to understanding heroes.
Hannah Arendt, in her analysis of the banality of evil said, you know what, evil monsters like Adolf Eichmann, who orchestrated the deaths of millions of Jews, before he went to Auschwitz, was normal. When we see him in this trial, he's normal. You put him in a situation, and give him power, and permission to kill, you know what? He does his job very well. And she said, the problem with evil is that the perpetrators of evil look like your next door neighbor. They don't look like the comic book monsters that we're led to be afraid of as kids. That's the danger--that they're terrifyingly normal.
So I extend her concept to the "banality of heroism". There are two kinds of heroes: there's Nelson Mandela, there's Gandhi, there's Mother Teresa--but these are the exceptional heroes. They built their whole lives around heroic deeds. They had a call, a mission, to serve humanity. They are the exception. Most heroes are like Joe Darby--ordinary guys, who only once in their lives do a heroic deed. And never again--almost every hero is a one-time hero. And so I'm going to argue that everyday heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary deeds. There's nothing special about them. And I want to argue that the same exact situation that inflames the hostile imagination in some people, and makes them do bad things, that same situation inspires the heroic imagination in other people.
And for most other people, it renders them passive. I call that "the evil of inaction". Most people do what your mother said, "Mind your own business and don't get in trouble!" You have to say, "Mama, in this case, you're wrong, because humanity is my business."
And so, with the psychology of heroism, we want to encourage children, families, everyone, to develop the heroic imagination. To think about yourself as a "hero in waiting". And that, to be a hero, you don't have to be more religious, you don't have to be more compassionate. All you have to do is be ready to act when others are not, or when some people are doing bad things, and you have to be ready to act on behalf of other people. Being sociocentric...you have to stop thinking about yourself and what will it cost you or what will you gain. To be a hero you've got to act, and you've got to act on behalf of other people--that's all you need.
And so what we want to do is have curriculum--I'm working with people to develop curriculum, starting in the fifth grade, getting kids to think about what it means to be a hero, who are the heroes in your life, what have you done that's heroic. What skills do you need--because some kinds of things you really have to know something, like first aid skills. So when the time comes--and I tell you, it's only going to come once in your life!
So I want to end with this wonderful story that some of you know about. A guy named Wesley Autrey, who's the New York subway hero. He was in a train station with 75 other people. A white guy falls on the tracks. The train is coming, and it's going to cut him in half. He's (Wesley) got a reason not to get involved--he's got two little girls. He's got no personal connection. Instead, he jumps on the track to try to save the guy. The train was coming, it could wipe him out. So I'd like you to actually see this in action.
(He showed this video)
So one day, you will be in a new situation, and there's going to be three paths before you. Path 1: you join in and become a perpetrator of evil. Not Abu Ghraib evil, but teasing, bullying, spreading rumors, spreading gossip. Path 2 is you become guilty of passive inaction. You're home at Christmas, and Uncle Charlie starts telling a racist or sexist joke, and you don't say, "Uncle Charlie, please don't." Or you're in a cab in New York, where they do it all the time, and you say, "I find that insulting. Please stop." If you don't do that, you allow this person to think "Everybody likes it. Everybody thinks it's funny." You have to take action.
Path 3 is to go straight ahead and do the heroic thing. You challenge authority, you challenge the system. And so I hope we are all ready to take that path and celebrate being ordinary heroes--heroes in waiting. Waiting for the right situation to put our heroic imagination into action. We have to think it--by thinking it, it increases the probability of doing it. We know from psychology that if I convince you that everything we know about you means that you're really more generous than most people. Next week there's a blood drive--you know what? You're going to give more blood than him. Next week there's a charity drive--you know what--you're going to give more money than somebody else.
I think that promoting a heroic imagination in our schools--just thinking about it--because it's only going to happen once! Wesley Autrey never did it again, he never will--he's not going to be in that particular situation. Joe Darby, never did it before, and he's not going to be in that situation again. So the point is, you always want people to be primed--ready for the situation where things are going to happen, you're prepared, and you're going to be the one to take the action.