frgavin on September 13th, 2011

By John Richardson

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, I, i, 1).
A little piece I wrote for our parish magazines:
What is ‘civilized’ behaviour and from whence does it come?
I ask these questions in the light of the outbreak of looting across England in the early days of August.
Looting is normally regarded with disdain, occasioned as it usually is by some kind of misfortune — a conflict, perhaps, or a natural disaster, which forces other people to leave their homes or property unprotected.
Yet in the wake of the shooting of Mark Duggan on August 5th, a significant number of people seem to have connected with their ‘inner looter’. And by no means all them fitted the traditional view of ‘low life’. Some were indeed your ‘typical hoody’. But others were clearly acting on an impulse quite against their normal personality. And it is this ‘out of character’ behaviour which is a warning to us all.
One of the most famous psychological studies ever carried out was the Stanford Prison Experiment. What it suggested about human nature is still controversial and disturbing.
In the experiment, student volunteers from Stanford University were randomly selected to act as either ‘prisoners’ or ‘guards’ in a simulated prison environment. This was in America in 1971. The Vietnam war was still in full flow and American students typically regarded themselves as the radical, ‘hip’ generation, opposed to authority as represented by the police and army. It might therefore have been expected that the student guards would adopt a ‘non-authoritarian’ approach to their rôle.
What actually happened meant that the planned two-week experiment had to be stopped after just a few days. Instead of a new, humane, regime emerging, student ‘guards’ forced student ‘prisoners’ to clean toilets with their bare hands and to wear bags over their heads when moving around. Intimidation was rife, and even acts of low-level violence.
Since then, the chief experimenter, Dr Philip Zimbardo, has published a book called The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil. Essentially, he says, we think we are ‘good individuals’, but under certain social influences we will act quite differently — indeed, we may do evil, especially when others around us are doing the same thing.
A lot surely depends, however, on how we have been taught to think about ourselves and about the pressures to conform. If we have been taught, in the words of another bit of 1970s pop-psychology, ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’, we may be ready to excuse ourselves and our behaviour. The Church of England’s traditional services of Morning and Evening Prayer, however, give us a very different self-image: ‘Have mercy upon us miserable offenders,’ they say, ‘Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent’.
In the days following the looting, many voices suggested that something has gone missing from our social conscience. Perhaps the ‘missing ingredient’ is this self-awareness of our own imperfections. Perhaps we need this before we can control those impulses which so easily overwhelm our consciences when all around us are going down the wrong track. Perhaps it is a sense that we ourselves are potentially evil that will best equip us not to do actual evil.

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