Wednesday, March 21, 2012

two articles

I've got a lot to do between now and the time I shove off for work, so I'm going to leave you with these two articles, both found through my Twitter feed:

1. When the Good Do Bad


It’s always interesting to read the quotations of people who knew a mass murderer before he killed. They usually express complete bafflement that a person who seemed so kind and normal could do something so horrific.

Friends of Robert Bales, who is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians, have expressed similar thoughts. Friends and teachers describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he — in the vague metaphor of common usage — apparently “snapped.” As one childhood friend told The Times: “That’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”

Any of us would be shocked if someone we knew and admired killed children. But these days it’s especially hard to think through these situations because of the worldview that prevails in our culture.

According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.

This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.

2. Susan Gelman on Essentialism


Essentialism has a lot of positive implications. You could say it’s one of the motivators for science. One of the reasons why we keep looking and digging for non-obvious similarities within a category is that we have this optimistic belief that the world has a lot of structure to it. That seems to be true. As far as we can tell, there is an awful lot of deep structure to the world, which goes beyond superficial appearances. That’s a very productive and positive feature of essentialism. What’s not so productive and positive is when we turn this lens on to thinking about social categories. A great example of that is when Larry Summers made those off-the-cuff comments about women at a conference a few years ago. If you read the transcript, which I did, he really made essentialist claims. He said that there are inherent differences between men and women that are responsible for women not reaching as high levels in academia and that he didn’t think factors like environment, or outward causes that aren’t located in the individual, had much weight. Interestingly, he also linked these [differences] to childhood. If something is really essential, it should be there from the beginning, it should be innate. It unfolds with development – it doesn’t come to be with development. It’s there all along, within the individual, just waiting for its expression. So he gave anecdotes from small children, where girls wanted to play with dolls, as evidence, as if these were relevant to his claims about the economic situation of women in academia.

Read on!

Of note is the irony that Gelman spends most of the time speaking anti-essentialistically, then later quotes a writer who feels women are "underrepresented in the highest reaches of business and academia." Hmmm. Isn't it essentialistic to believe that any given field or human endeavor should manifest an exact, 50-50 representation by both sexes?


1 comment:

Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Kevin,

The book that shattered my comforting illusions about monstrous evildoers was Into That Darkness, by Gitta Sereny. It is a series of prison interviews with the commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl, and reveals him not to be some sort of sociopathic devil, but a perfectly middling sort of ordinary bureaucrat who had been ratcheted slowly and inexorably down into the darkest abyss of evil.

I cannot recommend this book too highly; it changed me forever.