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".

In short, the “Dirty Harry mentality” only provides officers an “illusion of safety and security.”


Philip Zimbardo has noted that people are seduced into evil by dehumanizing and labeling others. Police who brutalize others and those who murder police see the world in the same way – they label some as fundamentally different than they are and thus feel justified to deal with them ruthlessly. This type of thinking leads down a slippery slope. In her book about the Rwandan Genocide, Left to Tell, Immaculée Ilibagiza heard a former neighbor and friend say of her, “I have killed 399 cockroaches. Immaculée will make 400. It’s a good number to kill.”

Each side needs the other to misbehave in order to demonstrate that their own narrative is correct.America seems to be in a dangerous spiral of polarization. Each side believes that those who hold opposing views are inherently evil. When we dehumanize others, we are guilty of hating others. When we hate others, the psychological mechanism of projection kicks in. The good side in us is not comfortable with our hate. Our good side feels guilty over our choice to hate, so we project that hate out in order to relieve our often unconscious guilt. Where do we project our hate? We see it in the group that we have dehumanized.

As the Arbinger Institute points out in their book The Anatomy of Peace, we will see the world in a skewed way in order to justify our emotions: “When we need to be justified, anything that will give us justification will immediately take on exaggerated importance in our lives.” Further, “The surer I am that I am mistreated, the more likely I am to miss ways that I am mistreating others myself. My need for justification obscures the truth.”

Those who hate need each other in order to justify their hatreds. Each side needs the other side to misbehave in order to demonstrate that their own narrative is correct. Politicians add to the polarization for their own personal benefit; the more angry emotions they arouse, the more they believe the public will see a need to elect them. The success of both Clinton and Trump seems to depend upon their success in splintering Americans.

The Way Out

Decades ago on vacation, right before Christmas, we got a telephone call in New Hampshire from our neighbor in Baltimore; four big boxes were sitting on our front porch. Realizing that the snowshoes we’d ordered for our vacation had been shipped to Baltimore, my wife called the company immediately. The first person who answered the phone saw instantly that the company had made the error. She said she would call back shortly, and did so within a half-hour. It was 8 p.m., and already she had arranged for FedEx to return that evening to our Baltimore home, retrieve the boxes, and make the delivery to New Hampshire by the next morning. And that is exactly what happened. The company was L.L. Bean.

“Whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human – including myself.”Notice how the front line telephone service representative had authority to take an action that would entail a considerable expense for the company. Her authority to act was grounded in a culture of customer service that is more than a hundred years old — a culture that was built on unconditional respect for the customer.

Why don’t we see more police departments filled with officers who have unconditional respect for citizens? Why don’t our police departments embrace ideas taught by Huth and Colwell? Dan Sanchez in his essay, “From Cops to Clinton: Impunity Corrupts,” has one answer: “State agents can violate rights with reliable impunity because a critical mass of the public considers the aggression of state agents to be exceptionally legitimate.” Police departments have little incentive to root out bad apples.

In other words, L.L. Bean has to compete for business, and the organizational culture they developed is far different from that of the police department. L.L. Bean does not have “qualified immunity” (the concept is explained in Sanchez’s essay), and so they learn to respect others.

The way out is for us to choose to not dehumanize others nor see others through the simplistic lenses of good and evil. As we stop polarizing, our candidates will necessarily follow. Our own personal development depends upon our choices. As the Arbinger Institute writes in The Anatomy of Peace, “Whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human – including myself.”

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

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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