Love as Social Policy

12/30/2005 02:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unless love enters into the process of curing social injustice, we get sucked into a vortex of blame and the mindlessness of "Us versus Them." Love underpins idealism, and those who feel the saddest and most discouraged right now are failed idealists. I'm sure old-line liberals who opposed the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights cringe to find themselves labeled evil or see their best works callously undone.

But I'd like to argue that the force of love, even in the gray world of social policy, is still powerful. Beneath the present lull, a movement could arise whose goodness exceeds the progressive era that withered away with time.

Idealists feel impotent now in large part because they have passively allowed "evil" to enter political thinking, where it spread like a virus. The moment we allowed defenders against evil to control social policy, there was no alternative but the present state of rigid intolerance and militancy in the name of security. How else would any sane person deal with evil?

Here's an alternative.

By now, many people are familiar with the Stanford prison study, in which normal, bright college students from good backgrounds were told to play the parts of prison guards and prisoners. No checks were put on the guards' behavior, and within days they behaved shockingly close to the guards at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They humiliated their charges, stripped them naked, put hoods over their heads, and forced them into sexual acts against their will. The alarmed experimenters were forced to call off the experiment before its completion date.

Do you read these results as "stripping away the thin veneer of civilization" or "exposing the innate evil in human nature"? The psychologists who ran the experiment would disagree. It's not that we put a few bad apples into a good barrel, they said afterward. We put good apples into a bad barrel.

That was a crucial distinction, because evil is situational. The conditions that created the appalling deeds in this experiment, as in Abu Ghraib, the Nazi death camps, the Soviet gulag, and all like scenes of atrocity, were very similar and not that diabolical-looking on the surface.

The experimenters listed the following conditions for turning a normal person into an evildoer:

--Give him permission to disregard morality.
--Put an authority figure in charge and nearby to reinforce the wrong act--make it seem like a duty
--Arrange a hierarchy so that lower ranks must obey higher ranks
--Create an atmosphere of fear
--Apply group pressure, show that everyone else is going along
--Release the evildoer from any threat of punishment
--Do everything behind closed doors.

What I notice from this list is that it makes no reference to metaphysical evil, or personal evil, either. These are special conditions, and when they are enforced, anyone can turn into a monster. There is no guarantee, but the probability is high. That's why when the conditions for evil are removed, people wander back into the open light of morality dazed, as if waking up from a dream.

If you take any social problem branded as evil, from terrorism to urban crime, I think the same set of conditions will be found. Families exist under them if they are dysfunctional enough, but so do fraternities when hazing season arrives and everyone is drunk enough.

Each condition that primes the pump for evil can be reversed (I believe this even applies to Nazism, if it had been caught early enough). In the future I can foresee no better vision of social policy than doing exactly that. We liberals and moderates need to formulate a policy of practical idealism that is powerful enough to defeat the present vision of "Evil Rampant in the World." So stop falling for the rhetoric of evil--sadly, it seemed convincing after 9/11 to millions of otherwise balanced people--and second, begin to heal the atmosphere of fear.

Beyond this, the new vision of social policy can advocate the conditions that promote social accord:

--Offer yourself in service
--Talk to children about their fears (and to adults, too)
--Refuse to contribute to the toxic debate between political enemies
--Join groups that promote social justice and tolerance
--Walk away from situations dominated by discord and antagonism
--Exercise patience and tolerance
--Give time personally to someone who is outcast in society
--Cross barriers of class and race; sympathize with "the other"
--Start grass roots movements to counter militarism, mandatory sentencing, denial of civil rights, and so on. Write and speak on these injustices.
--Get a spiritual life. If you are religious, go back to church and reclaim it from intolerance.
--Read about inspiring leaders, whether Jesus, Nelson Mandela, or Lincoln, and remind yourself of what successful idealism looks like.

This is only the beginning of a discussion that needs to draw in many more people, but I think as a doctor that the beginning of any cure is a precise and credible diagnosis of what the ailment is.