Heroes, Great and Small

My recent vow to again ignore the news (gets my blood pressure up) found me in search of other media this morning, during my 2-hour ‘waking up’ tea drinking period.   Oh, yes, I’ve decided to go coffee-free again for awhile – see how my body likes it.

I head on over to Philip Zimbardo‘s website to wake up while reading how to develop our hero abilities.

Unfortunately, I decided to click on a video link that contained graphic pictures of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib prison.

Hmmm…. not exactly what I had in mind for ‘gentle waking’.

But, I was intrigued by how he ‘broke down’ and presented his version of the mechanics in play that not only allow, but aide and motivate, good people to do evil things.


First, what is Evil?   Mr. Zimbardo defines it as follows:

  • The Exercise of Power to
    Harm (Psychologically),
    Hurt (Physically), and/or
    Destroy (Mortally) and
    Commit Crimes Against Humanity.

Seems like a fair definition.  I think it adequately squashes the whole, “but who decides what is good” and “there is no good or no bad, just what is” theological debates that sidetrack us from taking responsibility for and striving to heal, the ills within our world.


He contends that for Evil to flourish, it takes more than just “bad apples” (individuals).    There must also be the correct barrel (Situation) and a barrel maker (Supporting System).

Apples only stay good when stored (situation) properly in a well-made container (supporting system).

In other words, when an average person, with an average background is placed into a Situation they have no contextual reference or preparation for and are told by the Supporting System to take actions fitting the above definition of evil, then we’d better all hope the average person has a strong set of non-evil ideals, the personal perseverance and moral fortitude to not only act in a manner that is possibly detrimental to their own welfare, but is also actively opposed by those around them AND is considered disobedience, blasphemy or treason by Authority.

Conclusion: We all need some hero training.


His list of Evil’s Seven Step Seduction Course is also interesting.

Do Nothing

This is also known as MYOB (minding your own business), Live and Let Live, and other similar cliche’s our society is peppered with.   Yes, sometimes it behooves you to MYOB and quit complaining about your neighbor’s mode of dress, simply because, in the end, the activity does not really Harm, Hurt, Destroy another. (Yes, I know it offends your moral code to see a 50 year-old dressing like a teeny-bopper, or catch a glimpse of cleavage,  but really, does it truly hurt you?)

However, there are many opportunities to Do Nothing, when in fact, we really should.   Recently, while at a Sky Sox game, I observed two sisters at the sinks in the washroom.   Littlest sister is crying.  Big sister is off to dry her hands.   I stoop down to ask little one what is wrong.   Seems she was at just the right height to get an eye full of handwashing soap that was jetting out in all directions, instead of into her cupped hand.   By now, soap is smeared from forehead to fingertip in frantic efforts to stop the burning.

Now, I know it’s not my business.   Her sister is there, right?   Also, in today’s world of unspeakable horrors committed on children, I’m risking someone crying “Foul” or  little one saying, “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”

Nevertheless, I get some paper towels, help repair the damage and distract her by tales of how wonderful our tear duct and crying systems are.   Big sister figures out she’s lost her charge and returns to stand nearby, making sure nothing fishy is going on.

They exit the ladies room ahead of me. I risk my own eyes using the soap dispenser then head back to my seat.   Previously, those same two girls had been sitting with Mom and Dad about 3 rows in front of me.   I return to find them not in their seats.

Back up I go, onto the main thoroughfare, to look for two who are not mine and not my responsibility.  Ahhhh…there they are.    Must be slow walkers….. Sigh of relief and I sit back down.

Hubby wonders what I’m doing.  I explain.  He again points out my negative thought processes that see child molesters and evil perpetrators around every corner.  I’m encouraged to quit focusing on the negative.

Now, I’m not sharing this with you to declare myself a hero, or even a good person.

I share it because I had some internal qualms when I first offered help.    What if they’ve been trained well in Stranger Danger?   What if one or both of them start screaming bloody murder?   Will the security guard  who saw me in the smoker’s area  earlier, really believe I had good intentions?    Crazy, but true, all these thoughts went through my head…

I also have past experience of dirty looks and harsh words when I stopped to ask a child if they were lost…   Mom was really only 3 clothes racks away, and How Dare I approach her little pumpkin?  And via my actions,  question her mothering abilities?!

In our culture,  we have plenty of ‘feedback’ from both law and social norms, encouraging us to Do Nothing.

Doesn’t  mean its always the best choice.

Stick Pretty Close to your Ideals

In our neck of the woods, “pretty close” only counts in the game of horse shoes.   Yes, I’ve been known to side-step mine in the past.  I imagine you have too.

Worries of job security, too tired to engage in a long debate or thinking it’s just kinder and easier to tell your friend, ‘Yes, you do look fabulous in blue’, when in fact she looks like a whale…..

I understand, I truly do.

But continually placing yourself in environments and around people where safety and peacefulness means you must continually sacrifice your ideals is Danger Zone.   Little by little, your internal compass gets off track and pretty soon, you’re heading south all the while convinced you’re going north.

Everyone Knows “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” – however, a close inspection of behavior considered to be ‘socially acceptable and politically correct’ reveals how we subtly condone Evil by keeping silent or being polite.

Respect Authority and Obey the Rules

Hubby has not been pleased with my tendency to raise argumentative kids.   I’ve tried to make him see the teen-ager’s rebellion as a natural progression of Child Safety values I instilled when they were too young to kick some arse on their own, but old enough to spend time away from my protection.

I raised my kids to Question Authority.  I raised them to tell me if someone in a position of power  (aka Adult) was taking undue liberties or treating them in a demeaning manner.

This also means I get called onto the carpet myself, when long workdays, short sleep and stress drive me to “Unload the dishwasher Now!” instead of “Could you help me, please?”

I was informed by older co-workers over the years that once I had matured some and had a vested retirement savings account, I would understand and learn how to go with the flow.

Apparently, I never ‘matured’ because I still have a tendency to Question Authority.

Hey, if it’s good enough for my kids, it’s good enough for me.

Be A Team Player

Any job interview I’ve had the past 15 years contained the question, “Are you a team player?”

My response?

“Yes; however, I will not stay up all night working to cover the fact that a co-worker was too bombed after lunch to finish their part of the presentation.  I will not drop data points as ‘anomalies’ just to make your graphs look good.   I won’t file insurance papers with wrong diagnosis codes in order to get paid.”

Yes, it’s good to play well with others.   But often  “Are you a team player?” was asked of me when someone in my workplace wanted to engage in the illegal, unethical or expedient.  Another version of this ruse is the whole “Employee Loyalty” debate.

My experience is Employee Loyalty is questioned the most in atmospheres of shoddy and underhanded leadership.

Pick a good team before being a good team player, is my motto.

Share Responsibility

Yes, Yes, I know…. You All thought the firecrackers, plastic army men, combined with lighter fluid and matches was a good idea.  I’m not talking about that episode and neither was Mr. Zimbardo.

When those in authority pacify your doubts with, “It’s okay, I’ll take the blame,” sometimes this is truly an offer to be the fall guy if the planned action doesn’t turn out well.  And if all goes well, those who risked failure are now ‘heroes’.

But more often, this is what Mr. Zimbardo refers to as ‘diffusion of personal responsibility’.   It’s another ‘container’ in which Evil loves to grow.   When you choose to engage in behavior you feel is wrong, but is deemed “acceptable, legal, ethical” etc., by others who also offer to ‘relieve you of your personal responsibility’  then you have been seduced into actively participating.  (“I was just following orders…” and “Well, yes, but that’s just how things are” are two common examples that come to mind…)

Value Your Kin and Your Kind

I’m a big fan of Loyalty.   I also think that Family, no matter how much they drive you nuts, should be cherished and supported.  I also try to find the ‘flock’ of birds with similar feathers to fly with.

But there is a line, at least in my world.

I don’t care who you are, how much blood or DNA we have in common or how similar our upbringing, beliefs or ideals are –  if you’re engaged in behavior I believe to be intentionally harmful or hurtful, all loyalty vanishes.

Powers that Be, who pursue in Evil, really like to use your Loyalty to their advantage.   Be Aware!

Justify Believing in a Good Ideology

How many times have you personally experienced, “Hmmm….but it looked so good on paper (or in my mind)?”

Another cliche that adequately conveys this Danger Zone is, “The ends justify the means.”

Meaning, the end result in all it’s ideological beauty is justified no matter what atrocities occur during the journey from here to there.



Nothing on Mr. Zimbardo’s list was news to me.    I had a hero for a Dad.  In fact, his gravestone even says, “Our Hero”.

I think back to my favorite quotes of his:

“Respect is Earned.”

“Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is still wrong.”

“You better make damn sure you’re right.   If you are, I will back you 100%, but if you’re not, you’ll stand alone in the principal’s office AND you’ll be in trouble when you get home, too.”

“Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right”

“If you don’t know what to do, do nothing.  But realize sometimes any action is better than none at all.   Learn the difference between caution and cowardice.”

“Never underestimate the power of the misinformed, stupid or fanatical – especially when they gather in groups.”


I imagine most of the list of 7 was no surprise to you either.   Safe in a Situation where the luxuries of a computer, well-fed tummy and leisure time have all combined, makes the above list seem obvious.

But how relevant or easy do these seven seem if you wake up to find yourself  on the front lines facing enemy troops or in charge of guarding captured foes?  Volunteering to aide in the search of the bank robbers who just killed your high school chum? Watching soldiers take away your friends and neighbors, under the orders of the man you elected because he promised you security, abundance and a return to National Pride?  Facing a choice between protecting those who turned to you for help, or risking the health and welfare of your family?

When our systems and/or situations change for the worse, that’s when we come face to face with our own quest regarding heroism.

Sometimes these changes come about drastically and in your face.  Pretty easy to be ‘heroic’ then.

But when the change occurs slowly,  under the guise of safety and security, patriotism and liberty, ideologies that blame personal will and exclude examination of existing structures and systems, well…

That’s when you must be most vigilant.

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