Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Would You Do?

I'm very excited about the Discovery Network's new series 'Curiosity'. They're doing some brilliant & inspired work in popular non-fiction. As someone who's worked in the Indian non-fiction industry for over a decade and is severely jaded, this series gets me energized. So of course, I'm going to plug it like crazy.   

Writer-Director Eli Roth hosts the second episode of Curiosity that asks - 'How Evil Are You?'
It's a topic I'm captivated by - acts of evil (especially mass destruction) and how evil-doers reconcile themselves to their actions.
Not all the answers can be found in this film, which focusses primarily on a famous experiment from the '60's called the Milgram Experiment, but it's still a fascinating watch.

The film's basic premise (as I understood it) is:

In terms of biology, evil isn't as far removed from 'good' people, like you & I, as we'd like to think.
And that critical moment when you decide between right & wrong action? It's not quite as straightforward as we'd imagine.

Turns out that at crunch time, it's not so much our moral beliefs we employ but those of the top dog who controls our environment. Nearly 65% of us will act, not in accordance with our conscience, but in accordance with the accepted 'code' of that time (Sounds a lot like Twitter, doesn't it?).

Turns out that even if women ran the world, the Holocaust could still have happened. (Sigh. There goes my favourite unsubstantiated theory.)

Turns out that decades of widespread 'sensitization' & awareness about things like genocide, murder, torture etc. have had very little effect on our collective sense of right & wrong.

Turns out empathy is one of the most difficult emotions to feel and even more difficult to act from.

Turns out that you & I will commit acts of evil even as we bury ourselves under excruciating guilt. That we, in the words of Eli Roth, are willing to be 'the torturer & the tortured all at once, never quite comfortable in our own skin'.

This isn't a comfortable realisation: because not only does this mean that you & I could plausibly run death camps, it also means that we can't be quick to judge or distance ourselves from those who do commit acts of evil.

But don't be sad. Turns out that the reverse is also true: that if someone intervenes with positive role-modeling, you & I will suddenly grow balls, rebel against provocative authority figures and refuse to commit evil acts.

To this I'd like to add my own little theory (which is based on little to no research data): I think empathy is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. At its strongest, it can overcome the compulsion of cowing to authority & prevent you from becoming part of the mindless herd. At its best, it can return to you, your sense of self.


John Steinbeck's work touches frequently upon themes of good & evil and what makes us act in one or the other way. His epic novel 'East of Eden' is a generational story that suggests evil is a genetic predisposition (as do certain segments of the Discovery film) but eventually hinges on a biblical word 'timshel', which is a game changer.
In the latter half of 'East of Eden', various characters debate the correct English translation for 'timshel'. One translation of the Bible interprets it as 'thou shalt' but deeper study reveals its true meaning lies in the phrase 'thou mayest'. 'Mayest' offers man a choice in his actions that the word 'shalt' doesn't. Out go any notions of religious compulsions, out goes the excuse 'I commit this act in the name of God'. Steinbeck makes a powerful suggestion that free will exists in holy scriptures and there is no basis for using religion as justification for doing evil (or good, I suppose).

In another of his famous works 'The Winter of Our Discontent', the 'good' protagonist grapples with a critical choice. To commit an act of evil or not. He is torn straight down the middle and, as a reader, one doesn't know what he will decide to do. But once he (and a very likeable 'he' he is too) goes down a path, he commits to it in its entirety. In the final chapter we get a glimpse of the price he's had to pay to make his choice. It's beautiful and devastating and to be frank, even though I've read the book several times, I'm yet to fully grasp it.

Also read: Does Evil Exist?: Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing (as evil or free will). Are they right? (link via @culdivsac)


  1. Yep, the ability of anyone to be evil tells us that positive reinforcement had better be about something positive.