Train to be a ‘Hero-in-waiting’.


When I see the amount of crime that’s happening all over the world on a daily basis, it makes me wonder how everyone is born as innocent babies and yet as they grow up, some of them transform into heroes, while others transform into bystanders and yet others transform into perpetrators of evil.

Here, I would like to use the definition of Evil as given by Philip Zimbardo in his Ted Talk – The Psychology of Evil. He says (and I fully agree with him), that EVIL is the EXERCISE OF POWER to INTENTIONALLY HARM (psychologically), HURT (physically) and/or DESTROY (mortally) and COMMIT CRIMES against HUMANITY (this leaves out crimes against animals, birds, and other life forms, but let’s focus on crimes against humans for now).

Now, what prevents people from doing evil acts? I guess, it could be empathy? If someone can imagine what the other person (at the receiving end of the evil act) would feel, then he would understand that he should not commit that evil act, since he would not want to be at the receiving end of such an act. But what if the person believes that he is in such a position of POWER that he will never have to fear about being at the receiving end of the evil act? Now what prevents him from doing an evil act (abusing his power)? Is empathy alone sufficient? I think the feeling of guilt triggered by conscience is the only factor that might stop a person from committing an evil act. So if this factor is suppressed or overruled in some way, it frees up the person to commit the evil act.

So what factors could possibly silence the voice of conscience? Philip Zimbardo talks about the Lucifer Effect and how it could enable a normal otherwise humane person to transform enough so as to commit inhumane and evil acts under certain circumstances.

I feel it is very crucial and important to understand this and be wary of and cautious of this effect and do everything possible to contain this effect so that people always choose to become heroes and not villains when they encounter the unexpected situation. I feel every child needs to be trained and warned about this effect as soon as they are old enough to understand, especially when their minds are still mouldable. When a situation catches us unprepared, the danger of sliding down the slippery slope of evil is very high.

According to Philip Zimbardo, the human mind has an infinite capacity to make us behave KIND or CRUEL, CARING or INDIFFERENT, CREATIVE or DESTRUCTIVE, HEROES or VILLAINS. Every one of us has the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in us, and we don’t need a drug to bring out the Mr. Hyde always! Certain situations and social processes can do the trick! This is what worries me, because our current parenting and education practices in schools do not seem to focus enough on this aspect of a child’s grooming.

Every teacher in a typical school has his/her subject to teach and syllabus to complete and the lesson plans focus on the subject material. Most parents are not trained in parenting at all and most parents are busy working to earn, and hardly spend enough quality time with their kids. So most of the children grow up untrained to handle such unexpected situations and as adults they have very high probability to slide down the slippery slope of evil.

I can’t believe that anyone can be born evil. I believe that at birth every baby starts with a fresh slate and a fresh memory. So the external factors – the situations and systems transform the individual’s character to enable him to perform evil. So how do we make people resistant to this negative transformation?

Every child has to truly understand the ‘7 processes that grease the slippery slope of evil’ as listed by Philip Zambardo in his Ted talk:

  1. Mindlessly taking the first small step: It is possible to stop thinking for a second and commit an evil act. That opens the way for more such acts.
  2. Dehumanization of others: The perpetrators of evil fool their conscience into being silent by finding ways to convince themselves that the victims are not humans who might be suffering.
  3. De-individualization of Self (anonymity): This is the most dangerous factor. This leads to the next point – shifting the responsibility for the evil act from the actual perpetrator to an external agency, which could be the higher authority which might be real or imaginary. The higher authority could be part of the organization to which the person belongs, or the person’s beliefs and ideals. That’s why as teachers and parents, we need to instil the sense of individuality and encourage every child to develop as individuals with their own unique likes and dislikes and skills and talents. It’s vital that we teach every child to become critical thinkers at a very early age and keep training them throughout their school life.
  4. Diffusion of Personal Responsibility: I think this is what enables terrorists to kill innocent people. They dump the responsibility for their actions to a higher authority – their belief of ideals or their version of God.
  5. Blind obedience to authority: This suspends the thinking and suppresses the conscience of the person by fooling him into thinking that he is just following orders and doing his duty. This is extremely dangerous. We must caution every child against blind obedience to authority. They need to be mentally prepared to challenge authority when required.
  6. Uncritical conformity to Group Norms: Again, one needs to train the mind to be assertive and do what is right while in a group which might be thinking otherwise.
  7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction, or indifference: This is commonly known as the BystanderEffect. This could be because we are in shock and are taken by surprise when the unexpected situation suddenly arises. So the group mentality takes over when we are indecisive and we tend to go with the flow in such situations, I think. How many times have we seen in the news that a crowd just watched passively while a crime was being committed in broad daylight? A woman was stabbed more than 20 times while the public just watched and did nothing? That’s why it is critical that we prepare our minds in advance. We should think through all such situations and ponder deeply over how we would/should respond to such situations, so that the surprise and shock will be mitigated when we actually encounter such situations, and instead we will be better prepared to think calmly and respond and do the right thing.

We need to ponder deeply as to how we would/should respond in emergency situations like – would I risk my life to save a stranger? Wesley Autrey didn’t hesitate for a second before leaving his young daughters with a stranger and jumping onto the subway railway tracks to save a stranger from the oncoming subway train! He could’ve easily died, and orphaned his two daughters. Yet, he never thought about that. While all the others were passive onlookers, he chose to be a Hero in the same situation. Even now, if you ask him, he still says that he would do the same thing, if the situation arose again.

I somehow can’t imagine sacrificing my life and saving a stranger. I’ll certainly do it for my family and friends, but I think I’ll hesitate when it comes to strangers. But when I think about it more deeply, I tend to become unsure. What if I felt sorry for the person? What if it was a little girl who needed to be saved? I don’t know, I’m confused. What if it was a puppy? Would it be sensible to die for the sake of saving a puppy? Where do I draw the line to decide whose life I can save and whose life I cannot save at the expense of my life? I don’t have an answer to these questions and I feel very uncomfortable when I think about these questions. So I’ll be totally unprepared if I’m put in a situation which forces me to confront these questions. What about you all? How would you respond in such situations? Are you having confusion like me or are all of you crystal clear about your response? Would all of you chose to be the Hero always? Is it right to chose to be Hero always? What if the plane in which you are travelling, gets hijacked? If you try to be a hero, you run the risk of failing and getting more people killed, and even crashing the plane. If you’re a bystander, you might let innocent people die. There has to be an algorithm to help us decide the right course of action QUICKLY in such situations, without any confusion! If anyone knows, please do write about it in the comments!

Philip Zambardo says, that unexpected situations have the power to do 3 things:

  1. inflame the HOSTILE imagination in those who become perpetrators of evil.
  2. inspire the HEROIC imagination in those who do heroic acts.
  3. render most people passive bystanders and guilty of The Evil of Inaction.

Philip Zambardo concludes his talk with the advice (which I strongly advocate) that we should “encourage children in new ‘HERO COURSES’ to develop Heroic Imagination and Hero Talents to think of one’s self as “Hero-In-Waiting” for some situation to provide the catalyst for ACTION on behalf of others, or for defending an ideal – a moral principle. Heroes are ORDINARY PEOPLE whose social action is EXTRAORDINARY/ who ACT when others are passive, who give up EGO-centrism for SOCIO-centrism.”


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