Resisting Evil

U.S. Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson (1943-2006), who protected Vietnamese civilians from his fellow U.S. Army troops during the My Lai Massacre

The British political philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” For every Hitler there are millions of good individuals who did nothing and thousands who willingly participated in horrible crimes. Far too few dared to speak out. Some of those who did paid the ultimate price for their bravery. Socrates said he would rather suffer evil than to do it. When I taught ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy, I would ask my students, If you were a German parent during World War II and had to  choose whether your son had to become a victim or perpetrator of the Holocaust, which destiny would you choose for him? Most didn’t like the question. They’d try to say neither. But then I’d rephrase: If your were FORCED to choose, which would you choose? The vast majority said they would rather their child be a victim, not a perpetrator. I would too.  But how could you stop your child from becoming a perpetrator? Is there a way teach our children (and ourselves) to resist negative peer pressure?

The following ten-step program to build resistance and resilience is adapted from Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil:

  1. “I made a mistake!” Start by admitting your mistakes, and encouraging others to do so too.
  2. “I am mindful.” Use critical thinking to keep from mindlessly going along with the crowd. Always keep in mind the ends don’t justify the means.
  3. “I am responsible.” We become more resistant to undesirable social influences by always maintaining a sense of personal responsibility and by being willing to be held accountable for our actions.
  4. “I am ME, the best I can be.” Anonymity and secrecy conceals wrongdoing and undermines the human condition. Assert your individuality and insist on the same from others.
  5. “I respect JUST AUTHORITY, but REBEL against UNJUST AUTHORITY.” We should always be polite and respectful to those in authority; however, only leaders who do good should be obeyed; leaders who do evil or encourage others to do evil should be resisted, not blindly followed.  
  6. “I want group acceptance, but value my independence.” We humans all naturally crave acceptance but sometimes the cost is too high. We must value truth and doing the right thing more than being counted as a “team player.”   
  7.  “I will be more FRAME VIGILANT.” Who makes the frame becomes the artist, or the con artist. We must realize that our surroundings have a great influence on how we think and behave.
  8. “I will balance my TIME PERSPECTIVE.” Moral evils are often tolerated “for the moment.” By putting them in perspective of the past and future, we are less likely to rationalize bad behavior. Ask yourself, What do I want to be able to tell my grandchildren I did at this time?  
  9. “I will not sacrifice personal or civic freedoms for the illusion of security.” Most people will trade freedom for safety. Don’t make that deal with the devil. The sacrifices are real and immediate and the promise of security is a distant illusion.
  10. “I can oppose unjust SYSTEMS.” Systems have enormous power, whether those of gangs, cults, fraternities, corporations, or dysfunctional families. Individuals can enlist the help of likeminded people to oppose injustice or to remove themselves from the systems altogether.

In addition to learning and teaching these helpful principles for resisting evil, we need to saturate our minds with the stories of people such as the Prophet Daniel, Queen Esther, Sir Thomas More, William Wilberforce, Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Will D. Campbell, Rosa Parks, and Hugh Thompson. We can draw inspiration for our ourselves and our children by studying the lives of heroes such as these who displayed moral courage and opposed evil.


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