How People Can Be Bad

The best way to fight is to encourage individualism, contrary thinking and a disinclination to follow blindly the teachings of any leaders, no matter how seemingly benign. ~~Unknown

It keeps coming up, the question of how people can be "bad" - especially when I emphasize and wholeheartedly believe that all people are "good". A Wired article called "How Good People Turn Evil..." will help me explain.

It's possible that the terms that have leaked through to common use from Psychoanalytical theories have muddied the waters of understanding our selves, and ultimately, others. For example, the term "ego" is often not used per the definition that Freud gave it within his topography of personality (id, ego, superego).

The id is unconscious and contains instincts, sexual and psychic energy. The superego develops with socialization and contains values, morals and judgments that serve as a monitor of our behavior. Freud believed these two components of the personality were in a constant tug of war. The ego is the component of the personality that interacts with reality, the real world, in order to relate to our social and physical surroundings. It attempts to reduce the tensions of the id by channeling the id's energy into more adequate and appropriate releases for impulses that the superego has tagged as unacceptable behavior (e.g., aggression and destructiveness).

A strong ego is the cornerstone of a healthy personality. Instead, popular uses such as "he has a bruised ego," which should be 'superego' and "his ego is so large that it can't fit through a door" should be 'id'. Though the ego's function is to procure relief for the id's libido within the constraints of what the superego declares acceptable, the term "self-centered" would be a far better description than "egotistical" in talking about a selfish prat.

Instead of id, ego and superego, we can use the terms "temperament and character" that equals the "personality." The temperament (shy and timid, or confident and assertive, etc.) combined with character (morals and values adopted from parents and society) defines who a person is. The temperament is innate and unlikely to change, and the character is learned and evolving all the time.

What seems to be the primary factor in whether someone is 'good' or 'bad' is character. Values are first learned as an infant's screaming id's demands are served peas (yuck) instead of carrot cake (yum) or water instead of milk. As the child develops and interacts with the world, his parents' demands of "don't lie," "don't talk back," "elbows off the table," "be nice to your sister," "respect your elders" and "big boys don't cry" begins the formation of values that are learned, whether right or wrong. Values are taught by parents and teachers that represent society as a whole. Some are integrated and become core values, others are accepted and adhered to just because it's easier to get along with others by conforming. In other words, those superficial values are not really believed at the core level.

Philip Zimbardo believes that good people under a tremendous amount of fear and stress will lose the ability to reason and lose their free will, no matter how strong their character: "Situations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people, even good people, to be seduced into doing really bad things -- but only in that situation." He believes that any situation can alter the character of a personality enough that it is impossible to predict who will and who won't become 'bad.' A common example would be a person told to do something against his will and values and has to do it in order to keep his job. Unfortunately, this happens a lot in various degrees.

In order to combat the potential of "bad" situations, Zimbardo suggests that we exemplify those who take extraordinary moral actions and teach this to children as a matter of course:

There are some programs, starting in the fifth grade, which get kids to think about the heroic mentality, the heroic imagination. To be a hero you have to take action on behalf of someone else or some principle and you have to be deviant in your society, because the group is always saying don't do it; don't step out of line. Most heroes are more effective when they're social heroes rather than isolated heroes. A single person or even two can get dismissed by the system. But once you have three people, then it's the start of an opposition.

Gaining an understanding of the personality helps us know ourselves and others. This helps us realize the important role that character plays individually and socially as we navigate life. Character begins at home. In order to offset what I call the Current Trend of Violence, values need to be taught at home and encouraged at every opportunity. We need to define and exemplify what we believe so that we all have the strength and courage to defy "the system." An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and defining and teaching values at home is the prescribed cure for today's rise in pressure, stress - and violence.

I'd like to start an opposition. Will you join me?

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