Seeing Others as Collectively Evil Is the Root of All Evil

Seeing Others as Collectively Evil Is the Root of All Evil

"We" see ourselves as under attack from "them".

Philip Zimbardo, a former president of the American Psychological Association, observed that the American soldiers who committed atrocities at the Abu Ghraib prison were not inherently evil: “The line between good and evil is permeable. Any of us can move across it… I argue that we all have the capacity for love and evil — to be Mother Teresa, to be Hitler or Saddam Hussein. It’s the situation that brings it out.”

To hold the view that all people can do good and bad is seen as somehow detracting from the legitimacy of grievances.While most of us will never behave that terribly, almost all of us have engaged in actions that we now regret. We have experienced moving across that line between love and hate. Yet many Americans now doubt that simple truth of life; they want to place large groups of people in rigid categories of good and evil.

For some, all policemen are evil racists. Others believe that all those who live in the inner city are potential criminals. To hold the view that all people can do good and bad is seen as somehow detracting from the legitimacy of their grievances.

For instance, it may be difficult for some to believe that there are policeman who unconditionally hold in high regard the public they serve. Charles “Chip” Huth is a sergeant with the Kansas City, Missouri, police department and an instructor at the National Law Enforcement Training Center. In his book, Unleashing the Power Of Unconditional Respect, co-authored with Jack Colwell (cofounder of the Leadership Academy for the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department), Huth tells a story of leading his SWAT team while executing an arrest warrant at the arrestee’s home.

During the raid, a middle-aged woman began to walk down the road screaming profanities. She was angry her son was in handcuffs. Members of the neighborhood began to join her. The usual police reaction would be to arrest her for disorderly conduct. Huth choose a different path:

I chose to listen to her. I just didn’t listen to her; I listened to her with the intent to understand the true nature of her message. When she finished her verbal lashing, I stated: Let me see if I understand you. You work two jobs to make ends meet. You don’t get paid that much at work, so you can’t afford to fix your car. You have to ride the bus to and from your jobs, which puts you at the mercy of the bus schedule. It also means you have to stand outside and wait for long periods of time, regardless of the weather. You worked hard today. You came home with a thought you would get off your feet and relax, but instead you find the police at your house and your son under arrest for selling drugs, and it upsets you very much.

As Huth continued to talk to the woman, the anger drained out of her face. The crowd, “initially attracted to the potential conflict, became disinterested in a civil conversation” and began to disperse.

Some officers equate “respect” for the public with “softness.”Huth and Colwell recognize that their approach is not easy to sell to other policeman. Many officers believe the approach of Huth and Colwell gives “officers the appearance of weakness and exposes them to serious safety concerns.” Those skeptical officers equate “respect” for the public with “softness.” They observe that “tough” officers show little respect for the public: “’Tough’ officers often wear anger and disdain as a badge of honor and always find ample reason (like the screaming lady) to justify their disdain.”

“Tough” officers, Huth and Colwell explain, endanger themselves and the public; they compromise their effectiveness in the community by angering those they are supposed to be serving:

Criminals realize that the hallmark of a disciplined opponent is self-control. The irony in the “talk tough, appear tough mentality” is that the people that it might actually intimidate are the people who lack the inclination to assault the police in the first place… Chasing and subduing those who are disinclined to commit (and are untrained in) violence becomes like a self-deluding drug. These little victories with unworthy, or untrained, opponents serve to delude officers into thinking that anger and disdain towards others serve them well and compromise a tactically sound alternative to personal character and commitment.

Barry Brownstein
Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. He blogs at, Giving up Control, and America’s Highest Purpose.

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