Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Virginia Tech: A Thought about the Media Coverage

I'm teaching a class this term on the moral psychology of evil. So far, I've managed not to say a word about the Virginia Tech shootings (yes, there's already a very good Wikipedia entry, with 119 references). I believe that the massive attention given to such events has negative consequences.

There's the obvious negative consequence (mentioned often, hand-wringingly and half self-condemingly, in the press coverage of such events) that excessive attention to these events catapults their perpetrators to a fame they don't deserve. The perpetrator becomes a model; his way of behaving gains salience as a possible way of behaving to others of unbalanced mind; and the promise of comparable notoriety may be appealing to some.

But what I find more troubling is this: Focus on events of this sort encourages an inaccurate and falsely comforting model of evil. By ignoring (or burying on page 12) the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, killed every year by vile governmental, military, and corporate policies, and by individual, private acts of evil -- by focusing on massacres and suicide bombers instead, we ground our conception of evil in a narrow band of strange cases. In particular, we may be tempted to think of evil as something done by unusual, deranged people (like Cho) or indoctrinated, almost brainwashed, followers of radical religious movements (as most Americans conceptualize suicide bombers).

As Hannah Arendt, Ervin Staub, and many others have made clear, though, most of the evil in the world is not done by such people. Instead, it is done by ordinary folks, like you and me. The assumption that it is not -- that it is done instead by monsters and maniacs -- is comforting because it allows us to hide from recognizing the potential for evil in ourselves.

And for exactly that same reason, that assumption is extremely dangerous.


Sam said...

Great post Eric!!!

A father of a child killed in the Columbine High School massacre made a wonderful comment during an interview that these massacres (no matter how evil) are a small fraction of the evil done each day in our violent culture.

We do not want admit to ourselves the violent fantasies we have had about harming the ex-girlfriend (or boyfriend) or current boss who hurt us. We all need to wake up! I could say more, but I'd only be preaching to the choir.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind comment, Sam. I hadn't heard of that comment by the Columbine father. Which among us could take such a broad perspective in such a situation?

Clark Goble said...

The whole notion of the banality of evil makes me think of these sorts of shootings. While in this case the guy appeared to exhibit signs early on that made people afraid similar shootings tend to come from people the neighbors don't expect.

To me this always makes me worry that almost anyone could, with the right trigger, do evils.

The scene that always makes me think of some Arendt's claims is the piano playing by the Nazis in Schindler's List. This moment of humanness admidst all the evil. It was something I thought Spielberg captured exceedingly well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Clark. I agree with you about 2/3. There's a sense in which Cho is banal, but also a sense in which he is very unusual -- not the best case for situationism, I suspect!

I agree that Spielberg does a good job with the banality of evil in Schindler's List -- especially in the ghetto clearing sequence. Not only is there the piano playing, but there's the German soldier who affectionately says "wie heisst du?" ("what's your name?") to a kid and in the next moment being brutal to adults. There's Goeth's self-pity at having such a long night.

Clark Goble said...

Yeah, the nutso factor cuts off banality. I wasn't trying to say the VT was about banality just that a lot of evil was.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...