A therapist advises a woman who’s been stalked and harassed by her psychopathic ex-husband to meet him over coffee to address co-parenting. A young woman with severe somatization of trauma is told by her therapist that her psychopathic brother was engaging in sexual “play” when he was raping her vaginally with objects as children. A young man avoids necessary treatment because his perpetrator, his father, is an iconic philanthropist.
Why is the burden of proof on the victim to establish a legitimate case for his/her suffering? Why aren’t these victims believed, and why are facilitators of an empirical science denying the psychological reality of evil?
The answers to these questions are complex. Many people, including clinicians, are blinded by the psychopath’s mask of normalcy. We stigmatize victims, denouncing them as inferior given their emotional instability, while lauding the capable and convincing psychopath. Our innate tendency to maintain internal equilibrium and illusions of safety compel us to rely on elaborate psychological defenses to deny threatening information.
What is Human Evil?
Evil denotes an absence of good. It is that which is depraved and immoral. In this article we will address the conundrum of human evil—specifically the evil we inflict upon one another—and the collective denial of its very existence, which in turn allows for evil’s proliferation.
In “Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason” philosopher Immanuel Kant makes the claim that evil is innate to the human species. According to Kant, self-conceit is the trait responsible for moral corruption (Kant, I. Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Robert M. Adams et al, Eds. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press;1998).
An extreme propensity for evil has been referred to by psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley as a neuropsychiatric defect that fuels the need to destroy. According to Cleckley, the psychopath has the uncanny ability to conceal this defect (Cleckley HM. The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality. Whitefish, MT: Literary Licensing; 2011).
We are deceived, even deluded, by the psychopath’s disguise of virtue, his glibness, ostensible calm, status, and charm. The psychopath’s veneer of normality can be so seamless it becomes implausible to consider the malevolence behind the mask, even for trained clinicians.
How Evil Hurts Its Victims
Prolonged exposure to the psychopath’s abuse and exploitation results in complex PTSD, and in the worst case scenarios dissociative identity disorder (DID). The victims of psychopaths are emotionally, psychologically, physically, financially, and socially devastated.
The visibility of their distress and symptoms makes victims vulnerable to being stigmatized. Sociologist Erving Goffman emphasized that stigma is an insidious barrier to recovery, and dehumanizes and depersonalizes victims, causing further damage and marginalization (Goffman E. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster; 2009).
Essentially, stigma breeds contempt and contempt breeds blame. Following this line of reason, the stigmatized victim is ultimately blamed for the harm inflicted by the psychopath.
This socially Darwinistic paradigm illustrates how the psychopaths’ advantages over their victims supports a “survival of the fittest” template. The fittest are elevated, irrespective of their character. Signs of weakness and fragility are subject to condemnation. Power and status are the relevant markers for what is valued and esteemed.
There are other collective biases we adhere to in spite of contrary evidence. For example, the need to believe that the world is fundamentally just contributes to the rationalization that egregious maltreatment must be somehow deserved by the victim. The need to assure ourselves that we are invulnerable to evil affords us a false sense of control, which again, shifts the focus onto the victim’s culpability.
Why We Deny the Existence of Evil
What deviates from the norm creates conflict with our social reality. This generates uncertainty and threatens our world-view. To return to a state of perceived equilibrium, we may limit the intrusion of new information or thinking about things in ways that contradict our pre-existing beliefs. We simply deny that which causes us distress.
Given that evil calls into question our basic trust in the order and structure of our world, we are compelled by our instinct for self-preservation to deny evil’s existence and construct a reality that offers an illusory sense of safety and predictability.
My treatment of D, who was perpetrated by a pedophile over the course of many years, is an example of this phenomenon. The pedophile who I’ll refer to as R was a highly regarded coach and educator in an affluent suburb. Years after the assault of D, the FBI arrested R in a sting operation. In spite of the irrefutable evidence implicating R, the community came to R’s defense, citing his character and beneficent deeds as proof of his innocence. Even when allegations of sexual abuse made by a foster child in R’s care came forth, the child’s credibility was ironically damaged by his stigmatized status as an emotionally troubled ward of the state.
This case illustrates the ego’s ability to censor and reconstruct distressing information so as to maintain consonance.
On a global scale we see the same defenses employed in response to allegations of clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups perpetrated by the Catholic Church. In spite of the church’s heinous history of aligning with Hitler and Mussolini, implementing the Inquisition and Crusades, the Magdalene laundries, the witch-hunts, and the supported democide and slavery in the Americas, Africa, and Australia, the persistence with upholding naïve, illusory ideas of spiritual infallibility and idealized notions of virtue trump accountability and objective reality. When followers succumb to pathological influence, what results is a collusion with evil.
The Authoritative Power of Evil
Those who are pathologically evil are ruthlessly driven to acquire power and control. They command compliance and obedience. Hence, they are encouraged by the absence of critical thought, and the reliance on primitive psychological defenses intended to deny unacceptable truths.
Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the early 1960s illuminated how susceptible we are to the influence of authority. The impetus for Milgram’s experiment was the defense that Nazi genocide was blind obedience to following orders, offered during the Nuremburg war trials. Milgram investigated this explanation by testing whether study participants would follow instructions to administer electric shocks to other participants. They did—65% of the participants fully complied with the commands to administer up to 450 volts of electricity (Milgram, S. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: HarperCollins Publishers;2009).
This study reinforces what psychopaths understand; that the innate inclination to uphold and obey authority is rooted in sundry factors such as fear, identification with the aggressor, and the need to belong. As long as there are no serious repercussions, orders dispensed by an authority figure are generally obeyed, irrespective of whether they oppose our morals. This predisposition offers the psychopath malleable, yielding victims ripe for exploitation and abuse.
None of us are immune to the intimidation of authority. The world is rife with leaders in high positions of power who are pathologically evil. For myriad reasons our innate inclinations to conform and obey eclipse our moral judgment. Unknowingly, ignorantly, carelessly and unintentionally we collude with evil more often than not.
Is There a Panacea?
Mental health practitioners are bound to come in contact with victims of evil. As treatment providers, we need to vigilantly challenge our denial systems and demythologize evil if we are to adequately treat those seeking our help. This requires us to courageously face the harsh reality of life’s dangers, including the potential for evil that lurks within.
Jung referred to the repressed, dark, unenlightened parts of the psyche as the shadow. As Jung explained, the denial and repression of the shadow unconsciously causes it to be projected onto the ‘other.’ If mental health clinicians collectively deny the reality of evil, to quote Jung, then “…how can evil be integrated? There is only one possibility: to assimilate it, that is to say, raise it to the level of consciousness” (Jung, C. “Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology” in Civilization in Transition; The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press; 1970).
By bringing the reality of evil’s influence into the therapeutic framework, a clinically significant factor in the healing process is consciously addressed. The dark side of humanity must be acknowledged if victims of evil are to assimilate what was done to them.
Summarily, it is our ethical responsibility as therapists to embody consciousness. Only then can we truly recognize evil, refuse complicity, and be reliable instruments of helping others heal from evil’s wreckage.
Evil eye photo courtesy of Brian Suda on Flickr