Mind Matters: Critical thinking meets compassion

Elizabeth Minuchin, in “The Evil of Banality,” argues that when people don’t think critically, they simply “follow” and can become agents of evil without questioning the morality of their actions. An evil system, she says, only works when ordinary people carry out its orders.

The work of Philip Zimbardo corroborates her premise. He and his colleagues devised the Stanford (University) Prison Experiment in 1971 where college students role-played prisoners and guards. The goal of the research was to discover the “power of the social situation to determine behavior.” The results of this enactment were so severe that the study was terminated within days.

All subjects were normal, healthy, well-adjusted college students from all over the country who had been thoroughly screened for the study. “Nevertheless, many of the normal, healthy mock prisoners suffered…intense emotional stress…other prisoners acted like zombies totally obeying the demeaning orders of the guards.”

The guards’ cruel, dehumanizing and sadistic treatment of these prisoners created a sense of powerlessness in their charges. This experiment, terminated abruptly due to the extent of “degrading actions being perpetrated by the guards,” has become “one of psychology’s most dramatic illustrations of how good people can be transformed into perpetrators of evil, and healthy people can begin to experience pathological reactions — traceable to situational forces.” (More information on the Stanford Prison Experiment can be found online at www.apa.org/research/action/prison.aspx.)

So it isn’t just the Nazi of seventy-five years ago who murdered innocents — adults and children — in the morning to return in the evening to his innocent children, just like millions of other dads, “all in a day’s work.” It is also now: every day, “average” people carry out their jobs without questioning the ethics or compassion of their acts.

Besides not questioning the hurtful consequences of their actions, people may also have another reason for being unthinking. People may just go along with systemic — if not evil — at the very least, gross dysfunction for self-preservation.

There is a sense in which individuals and groups protect themselves from their own helplessness and lack of control by blaming the victim — “This can’t happen to me” syndrome. However, if a human being has empathy and can identify with another’s dilemma or suffering then that person cannot very easily either blame or harm the other. Ah, but that very empathy taps into our own vulnerability to the vicissitudes of life, acknowledging, “yes, it can happen to me.” No, we are not in control.

Things happen to us and our loved ones that we cannot stop. Out of fear of loss of control we blame the victim: empathy be damned. If we can somehow see the other as defective or wrong, then they “deserve” punishment or pain and we protect ourselves from being as vulnerable as they are. It’s a ruse that we fall prey to unless we integrate critical thinking with compassion.

Recently, a janitor who has worked at MIT for 10 years, was arrested to be deported back to El Salvador. The protective — of self — response to this is “what did he do wrong?” In other words, “that can’t happen to me — he must be at fault.” Blame the victim. In fact, the very people who are being snagged for deportation are people who are following the rules: the ones who are not hiding from the law.

I remember so often in the Grief Group I facilitated where the mourners were stunned by hurtful reactions of others to their losses. One woman’s son was killed by a motorist when he was riding his bicycle. The unempathic protective-of-self response by some was “well, that wouldn’t happen to my son, why did you let your son ride his bicycle there?” Blaming the victim by protecting the self from the vulnerability of life is the antithesis of empathy.

We see it in the news too. Trayvon Martin, the teenage African American gunned down by George Zimmerman was not only a victim of gun violence, he was blamed in the media for being a kid with skittles and a hoodie. The goal is to find any indiscretion in the past life of a teenage boy or young woman to blame them for being murdered or raped.

When we project “other-ness” onto a person or group out of fear of being as vulnerable as they are, we’ve lost our interconnectedness to the human condition.

So next time you read a story about anyone or group, whether it be a rape victim, or an immigrant or a striking worker, before blaming the victim, ask yourself, “Am I not also vulnerable? It can happen to me!

The phrase to remember is not “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” No, instead, it can be, “There, for the grace of God, go I.” No “buts” about it: we are all interconnected.

* Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Belmont, Massachusetts. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or 610-388-2888. Past columns are posted to www.drgajdos.com. See book.quietwisdom-loudtimes.com for information about her book, “Quiet Wisdom in Loud Times: The Rise of the Wounded Feminine.”

** The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to editor@chaddsfordlive.com

 

 

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About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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