Recently Larken and I watched the movie "The Green Mile" for the first time in many years. Having just written my last post about how people always think they're doing the right thing, it was challenging to be reminded just how unspeakably, deliberately evil some people are. Of course the movie is entirely fictional, based on a Stephen King story about characters living or working on a Death Row in a 1930s prison. But there really are people like the villains in that film: people who simply enjoy making other people suffer--which, it seems to me, is pretty much the essence of evil.
Does my premise break down when we look at the worst people on earth? How could mass murderers and child rapists possibly think they're doing the right thing? Well, I do believe that on a conscious level they usually know that what they're doing is wrong and evil, but on some deeper level, below their own awareness perhaps, they've decided that being "evil" is the right choice for them. For some reason they've decided that being "good" just doesn't work for them. It's hard--maybe impossible--for normal people to understand why someone would feel this way, but criminal psychologists keep trying to figure it out.
And why, you might think, should we even try to understand -- let alone forgive -- these horrible people? Especially those who are completely unrepentant, and will keep on doing heinous things until someone stops them with a bullet? How could such a person deserve understanding and forgiveness?
I don't think they do deserve it, and I don't think that's the point. The understanding and forgiveness is for us: because it's not good for us to be filled with hatred and anger. And it's for practice: because if we can understand and forgive the most dangerous and twisted people among us, surely we can also think kindly of good-hearted people with different points of view. It's to diffuse the power of hatred, one person at a time. It's to see everyone as a human being, even when our minds are screaming, "monster!"
One of the Death Row guards in The Green Mile is a sadistic creep who is obviously there to witness and cause suffering. Sadistic people will always be drawn toward those who are seen as less than human, where society gives tacit permission or even encouragement to sadistic abuse. Criminals are a very convenient group for this. Although it's gone out of fashion to abuse groups of people based on unchosen things like skin color or sex, we can still get lots of tacit approval for being cruel to people who have ostensibly chosen to be something that we hate: criminals, drug users, welfare recipients, rapacious capitalists, gun-toting government thugs, or whoever we personally love to hate the most. Righteousness allows us to hate people while maintaining our self-respect, because those people deserve to be hated for what they have chosen to be.
Hundreds of movies (including The Green Mile) cater to an appetite for righteous retribution - the worse the villain is, the better people can feel about enjoying his cruel end, especially with the knowledge that it's not really happening. And very rarely does a hero kill a villain in cold blood, because that would make us all uncomfortable -- the villain almost always makes himself an immediate threat just before his horrific demise.
Why do we enjoy these movies so much? If we simply enjoyed violence and mayhem for its own sake, the writers would not be so careful to make the bad guys deserve what they get. I think that in a society where few of us will ever experience real violence, we feel a need to vicariously conquer evil and danger.
I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. Nor would I ever suggest that understanding and forgiveness be allowed to get in the way of protecting ourselves and others from aggressors. Whether the aggressors are deranged serial killers, burglars, tax collectors, or prosecutors - we must find ways to render harmful people harmless. But it should be done as humanely as possible, without malice, anger, or hatred; not just for the sake of those aggressors, but for the sake of ourselves and the world.
I remember trying to think of prison guards as if they were rhinos or hippos - large, dangerous, stupid animals. You don't have to hate a dangerous animal; you just have to proceed with caution when you're in its territory. Some criminals are more like rabid dogs, where there's nothing to do but shoot them. But again, we don't hate rabid dogs; we feel sad that they're both incurable and dangerous. Imagining people to be animals is dehumanizing, you might say! Yes it is. But because the violence of animals is both impersonal and morally neutral, in some cases this fantasy can diffuse our righteous anger.
Normally, people dehumanize others in order to hate them more conveniently. Group identity helps us dehumanize those outside of the group. Righteousness helps us feel good about hating. And politics allows us to murder, rob, torture, and imprison those we hate indirectly, keeping the blood off our own hands.
I am proceeding here on the premise that hatred is an enemy of mankind, and that we should do whatever we can to discourage this feeling in ourselves, and to avoid that which inflames it. The idea that people are always doing what they believe is right may be hard for us to believe in some cases, but I think that if we were omniscient, we would be able to see how it's true. And the effort to see how it's true puts us in touch with the humanity of those we could otherwise easily hate.