When People Mistake the Evil for the Good

This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in early December, 2021.


It was in the 1980s that I came to believe that far less evil is done in the world by people who know they are doing wrong than by people who believe they’re doing right.

Researching for the book I was then writing (subtitle, “Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War”), I delved deeply into the story of Nazi Germany. One speech by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, made an especially strong impression on me:

Speaking to a group of SS men who’d just completed their task of machine-gunning hundreds or thousands of men, women, and children (Jews) to death in a ditch, Himmler praised them for their heroic actions, for remaining “decent” despite their challenge, for writing “a page of glory in our history.”

People sometimes mistake the evil for the good.

I wondered: How does that happen?

Recent developments in America have brought the question up for me again with greater urgency.

For a decade (1992-2002), I conducted meaningful conversations on the radio with a mostly conservative (Shenandoah Valley) audience. I developed a deep respect for their commitment to important values: Christian values; patriotic values; values of good character; values of respect for tradition, for norms, for the rule of law, for the Constitution.

Now I see those same people — and millions more like them, people I assume I would have appreciated back in the 1990s – supporting politically something that – quite blatantly – works against all those values they’d persuasively declared they held sacred.

What could be going on in their minds and hearts to enable such an astounding switch from the good to the evil?

  • I don’t believe they were insincere when they declared their commitment to those good values.
  • And I don’t believe they’ve repudiated those values. (They’d still, I imagine, would regard “What would Jesus do?” as a right question to ask.)

I expect, in other words, that these people are completely unaware that they have now given their allegiance to a political party that consistently advances what they’d have called “Evil” back in the 1990s.

Which creates the puzzle: What is happening, psychologically, when – in their politics — otherwise good people fundamentally mistake the evil for the good?

One possible piece of an answer comes from studies that were done in the decades following World War II, as our civilization struggled to comprehend how presumably civilized people could embrace evil while feeling righteous.

Some of the roots of the Nazi nightmare were found in problematic aspects of the historically typical German family’s child-rearing practices.

For it is in the family where human beings learn their moral foundations.

One thing that the cultural psychologists found, when they sought insight into such moral confusion, was that there are families in which the parent – while ostensibly teaching the child morality — expresses “evil” (cruel) impulses under the guise of representing righteousness (what’s “good”).

Part of that brokenness is the falsehood in which the abuser insists to the child – and likely actually believes — that the cruelties being inflicted on them are (in the title of a famous book on the abusive child-rearing practices that prepared the way for the Nazis) “For Your Own Good.”

Such masquerading of the evil as the good – in the family — lays down a foundation of moral confusion right from the start.

It also lays down a pattern of the child buying whatever lies of false righteousness the person’s “moral authority” insists be unquestioned. In the face of the parent’s power, the child learns not to see what’s obvious to everyone else —i.e. that the falsely “moral” authority is doing evil things.

Those patterns certainly correspond with what today’s conservatives have done, putting themselves into a position where they support a supposedly righteous authority (parent, or Republican Party) even when the unrighteous nature of its conduct is plain for the rest of the world to see. People can be trained to “believe” (i.e. support) whatever the “authority” tells them, even if the lies are obvious. (Like the Big Lie that the election was stolen, when it is not even hidden that it is the Republicans who are acting as the thieves.)

But this explanation seems inadequate. Although the pattern fits well, I am doubtful that enough American families so broken that so large a segment of the American population could be exploited through that pattern. (My impression – which I concede might be mistaken — is that most American families are more loving and supportive than could account for all the moral confusion we see in Conservative America today.)

But there’s another way this pattern might work.

As my life’s work has sought to establish, some of the (systemic) forces that shape civilized societies are hostile to human needs. Such hostility shapes part of the “moralities” of civilized cultures. (Consider the way the morality of our civilization has often regarded the sexual part of our nature.)

That means that — especially in those cultures and subcultures whose morality takes harsher forms — even loving, good parents (when they instruct their children in what their society requires of them) will be in the position of inculcating as “good” what the growing human will experience as injurious, and therefore the opposite of good.

Such moral confusion can make people vulnerable to mistaking the evil for the good.

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