Pushing the Gear Shift of Conduct Back from Neutral to Good

The recovery connection to this post may be a bit tangential, but I do see the processes of critical thinking, self-evaluation and a stance of empathy towards others as vital to the recovery process. As a person who has lived in addiction and experienced conducting myself in ways that were far out of my value system, I see from personal experience how we are vulnerable to alternate ways of behavior under certain conditions.

“We can assume that most people, most of the time, are moral creatures. But imagine that this morality is like a gearshift that at times gets pushed into neutral. When that happens, morality is disengaged. If the car happens to be on an incline, car and driver move precipitously downhill. It is then the nature of the circumstances that determines outcomes, not the driver’s skills or intentions.” ― Philip Zimbardo

I firmly believe that each of us have the power within us to change the alarming dynamics that are readily apparent and  unfolding now in our world. In that light, there are several books that resonate with me now. These books remind me that while there are many big things occurring that may seem out of our control, the “small things” we each do as individuals matter very very much to our shared destiny. This last point is also a recovery lesson, simply lets figure out the next right thing to do and do that thing.

Two books I am thinking about relate to the loss of social capital within our society and the consequences of their erosion. Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community twenty years ago. Many of the concerns he expressed seem prescient. I had the opportunity to hear him speak about it in person. His work influenced work around the understanding of recovery capital, a fundamental element of recovery. The book also had an impact on Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska as he references in his more recent work, THEM Why We Hate Each Other–and How to Heal. Senator Sasse focuses on the dynamics of deaths of despair and the loss of hope, purpose and connection in current American society. My main takeaway from his book is that we used to define ourselves by what we are “for” as a people and now we define ourselves by what we hate. We are defining ever narrower groups of “others” and doing tremendous damage to our frayed national fabric in the process.

The book that has most been in my mind in recent weeks is by American Psychologist Philp Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil for nonreaders, there is also a 25 minute TED Talk. In short, the truth of the matter is that 99% of us under the “right” circumstances would put our neighbors in the oven, participate in genocide and other really unimaginable things. Acknowledging that each of us have this terrible capacity is key to avoiding it. Dr. Zimbardo breaks it down into Seven Steps or Processes:

  1. Mindlessly taking the first small step. Consider the Milgram experiment. It began with the subjects only giving a small 15-volt shock. Later the vast majority would go up to a fatal 450 volts shocks, we tend to follow authority. When a person with a uniform or a lab coat tells us what to do, we tend to do so. Evil starts out small.
  • Dehumanizing others. In the Stanford Prison Study the randomly assigned prisoners were arrested and assigned numbers to dehumanize them. The well-known result was that the experiment went out of control. But a quote from Dennis Burning of Charlie Company concerning the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam more potently illustrates the impact of dehumanization: “I would say that most people in our company didn’t consider the Vietnamese human.” In this massacre more than 340 unarmed civilians, women and children included, were killed by members of the U.S. Army’s C-company. Evil involves Dehumanizing the subject(s) of our hate.
  • Deindividuation of self. The violent power of anonymity is inherent in the work of anthropologist John Watson, who studied 23 cultures and found that if they don’t change their appearance only one out of eight kills, tortures or mutilates, but when they do 90 percent kill, torture, and mutilate. When we are anonymous we are more violent.
  • Diffusion of personal responsibility. Following the New York City murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, witnesses were said to have seen the slaying, but did nothing to stop the attack. While the initial number and situation of the witnesses has recently come into question, social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané began research on what has been called the bystander effect. This line of research demonstrates that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely an individual is to help a victim. If others don’t do something, we won’t either.
  • Blind obedience to authorityAdolf Eichmann defended his role in the Holocaust by saying he was just following Hitler’s orders. He did what he was told to do. But obedience isn’t only about hurting others. In 1978 over 900 people committed suicide or were murdered in a Guyana jungle because they were blindly obedient to their pastor, the Rev. Jim Jones, head of the People’s Temple. They gave up their lives because they were told to.
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms. The notorious Manson family, responsible for the Tate LaBianca murders in was a prime example of both blind obedience and conformity to group norms. The group norm was to do what Manson said, including murder, without question ‘Charlie made me do it?’  Only doing what everyone else does.
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference. In 1972 Dr. Jack Hammond was confronted about the conditions inside Willowbrook State School. They were horrific. He responded that “the conditions here are no better or worse than any other facility for the mentally retarded in the state.”  Evil thrives on apathy and indifference.

So here we are in the grim days of early 2021 and the stark truth of the matter is that we actually could go down and even darker pathway than the one that got us to our current crossroads. The “right” hates the “left” and vice versa. We lack a common narrative about what we believe, who we are and even what is happening right now. Conduct is shifting and can shift even further under the “wrong” circumstances. We seem increasingly to be moving it into the gear of acting towards each other in a way that leads us to physically harm each other in widespread way. We need to shift out of that gear as a people as soon as possible. We need to shift back to good or very dark days may be ahead.

I was thinking about all this when I read the account of a police officer in the assault on our capitol on January 6th and how people were beating him and yelling to kill him with his own gun. When he pleaded that he had children, a smaller group surrounded and protected him. The mob saw him as a thing to kill, not a person. A handful of people saw him as a fellow human and made a conscious decision to step in and save his life. My guess is that he was saved by one person who stood up and a group followed him. The lesson for all of us is that we can flip into a kill mode all to easily, and right now those conditions in America are ripe. Like this anonymous hero, we can also stop atrocities.

It must have been very hard for that smaller group to step out of the mob energy and act independently. I hope very much I would do the same thing. I am not willing to go down this pathway of atrocities, and I hope that the vast majority of my brothers and sisters in this grand experiment called America feel the very same way. It can be harder than one may think on first consideration. Events from grade school, where a bully picked on a kid that was different haunts me. I sat by the side, afraid to act, afraid I would be next. I stood by without acting.

Blinding hate and the seven processes can flip most of us into thinking and doing things we would not ever consider in other circumstances. Many if not all of these processes described in the seven points above are in operation at this moment in history. Our outcome is not fate, we all have the capacity and responsibility to identify that this is happening right here, right now in our society and do what we can do as individuals to step off this horrible path we are walking on. Atrocities have happened here, can happen again and yes we can do something about it. It starts with the recognition that we have a problem and each of us is vulnerable to acting like a member of a mob.

We have some profound problems as a nation and I am going to continue to work to build community and common purpose with anyone I can. I hope you do to. This is a recovery lesson for me, but I see it as a part of our larger social compact. Our shared future and the next generation is counting us to do the right things and be heroes. This is our moment in history.

We must work on a shared story of the hero’s journey out of darkness and towards the more perfect union our founders hoped for us. We will have to account for what we do, may it be a story of rising above rather than a story of decent into the abyss. At least, this is my perspective as a person in recovery with the lived experience of being in an altered state of conduct that in retrospect was frightening and foreign to how I see myself as a person.

Pulling this back to addiction and recovery, if someone needs help with an addiction problem, my mindset if to help them without regard to any other factor. Perhaps we should look at hate and the deindividuation of other people in the same light. Thinking about the Seeds of Peace program that serves to bring youth and educators from areas of conflict together to find common ground and to empower youth from conflict regions to work for a better future. Phil Zimbardo has a similar project, the Heroic Imagination Project that serves to train people to act in more heroic ways. How do we reconnect as a society and step back from this abyss? I don’t pretend to know.

I can however suggest that it will be one step at a time.

5 thoughts on “Pushing the Gear Shift of Conduct Back from Neutral to Good

  1. Excellent reading. The horrors of January 6th still resonates with a lot of us.

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