The debate about the flaws of conformity and the banality of evil gained popularity after the end of the Second World War, which witnessed some of the most atrocious crimes in the history of mankind. The genocide of the Jewish people as well as various other populations by the Germans, who were considered some of the most polite, cultured, and well-educated nations on the planet, has brought forth the question of how could such evil and barbarism happen on such a large scale? The question regarding the root of evil has interested psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers for some time now. The modern understanding of evil has been shaped by theories of obedience and conformity supported by the iconic experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo, which suggest that evil draws from conformity, and that adherence to rules, laws, and social obligations has the potential of unwittingly pushing large groups of people towards committing acts of cruelty and brutality. However, mounting evidence suggests the inconclusiveness of these explanations.
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The arguments offered by Milgram, and, subsequently, Zimbardo, support the idea of the banality of evil. This corresponds with the results of their experiments, during which students proved to be capable and willing to deliver painful electric shocks to “test subjects,” or mistreat and brutalize prisoners they were tasked to guard. The first case tested the strengths of social ties, authority, and conformity, while the latter analyzed the strength of social labeling on how it motivated the actions of otherwise good and decent people. These theories gained popularity due to the empiric evidence they seemed to provide as well as the stunning results of the experiments. It is argued that have the results been different, the experiment itself would not have received the same amount of social resonance.
However, not all contemporary scientists agree with the assessments of Milgram and Zimbardo. Haslam and Reicher argue that for evil to be conducted in an effective, efficient, and creative way, it requires leadership as well as willing commitment. To prove this point of view, they cite several experiments similar to those of Zimbardo, with the only difference being that no higher authority above the participants is present during the experiment. As a result, the tyrannical hierarchy was built not because of blind obedience and conformity to the role, but based on leadership and willing participation from the rest of the participants. Haslam and Reicher reject the notions of conformity and obedience as the main factors for large-scale tyranny, stating that “at root, the fundamental point is that tyranny does not flourish because perpetrators are helpless and ignorant of their actions. It flourishes because they actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous.”
Upon reflecting on both articles provided for this debate, it seems to me that neither of the articles contains a wholesome explanation of how evil works. Milgram and Zimbardo see the root of evil in conformity and obedience, neglecting a willful desire to commit atrocities, whereas Haslam and Reicher base their research upon an axiom given by a Civil War general, which is subjective at best. It would be equally wrong to brand all citizens of Nazi Germany as brainwashed innocents as it would be wrong to paint them as conscious accomplices to the atrocities that took place. The systematic destruction of millions of people involved not only soldiers with guns, guards, and gas chamber operators. It also involved train conductors, drivers, suppliers of various resources, paper bureaucracy, and management, as well as many other facets of the death-dealing industry. The majority of these people have never seen the victims up close, never knew their names, never heard of their suffering. To summarize, it requires leadership and willing followers for tyranny to begin. However, it requires obedience and conformity to maintain it.