Any behavior falls somewhere along a spectrum of intensity for that type of activity. The study of statistics tells us that the distribution of intensities within a group always forms a familiar bell-shaped curve. Most people display similar intensity and form the top of the bell. Diminishing numbers display lesser or greater intensities as we move toward the extremes. About 2.5 percent approach each extreme, and less than 0.2 percent fall within either extreme itself.
Thus, most people are “averagely” good or bad, a handful stand out in either direction, and a tiny few are saintly or bedeviled. Because we so rarely encounter such extreme behavior, we may discount it. On the good–evil spectrum, we do so at great peril. As rare as it may be, extremely evil behavior does exist, and if not recognized and dealt with for what it is, it will cause great suffering.
Evil acts are devoid of empathy for the harm done to others. They are only concerned with what the perpetrator gets out of the act materially or psychologically. There have been many attempts to explain the root of evil, but we seem no closer now to understanding or eradicating its roots than were ancient cultures. We can, however, observe the manifestations of evil and act to stop its progression. A leader who is allowed to act narcissistically with indifference to the harm caused to others is on a trajectory toward evil behavior.
Leaders who commit evil acts usually mask them from the broader public until they accumulate enough power to flaunt the behavior with impunity. Thus, fighting evil is like fighting a fire. It is better to contain it early than to wait until it is out of control and consuming everything in its path. Evil is best fought from within an organization by courageous followers close enough to the leader to see behind the public mask. We are the firebreak.
Conversely, evil is fanned by followers who abandon their empathy with the suffering of others, either through fear or through seduction by a leader’s twisted vision. Followers who commit evil acts are not necessarily evil people. There is often powerful pressure for followers to commit these acts. Implicitly or explicitly, they have been promised personal gain for conforming and threatened with personal harm for not conforming. Because their peers are under the same pressure, these acts begin to appear normal. They are even characterized as moral by the leadership through an inverted values logic. This is how millions of people came to support a Ku Klux Klan, a Nazi regime, or other brutal movements. It is also how egregious white-collar crimes or official cover-ups that require the collusion of numbers of people occur. We must be vigilant against starting down the slippery slope of evil behavior:
The very first time we are pressured to commit an evil act, we will experience discomfort; an inner voice protests against it.
We must listen to this inner voice and recognize that it is more valid than the voice of our peers or leader, regardless of the language in which they wrap their demands, and with profound courage we must draw a line then and there.
If we do not listen to this inner voice, it will speak again when we actually commit the act; it may even scream in revulsion.
This may be our last opportunity to listen to the voice; if we do not listen now, we will need to smother it, anesthetize ourselves, and deny our deeds in order to live with them.
At that point we will become indistinguishable from an evil person.
Many wrong acts are not evil. They are done out of clashing values, misplaced priorities, ignorance, or insensitivity. Do not hastily label acts as evil. Doing so can devalue the very concept of evil. It can also be self-righteous and self-serving and itself become a justification for evil behavior.
But, when confronted with actual evil behavior, especially within our own organization or movement, we must not rationalize it, must not hide in the false safety of the group, must not stifle our internal protests in the silence of our peers. If we underestimate evil, it will engulf us. If we behave normally in its presence, it will turn our lives upside down.
We must expose the behavior against standards of basic human decency with the brightest searchlight we can find or build. The less fortunate parts of the world continue to be littered with the corpses of those who were the victims of evil behavior. In more “civilized” societies, demagogues, charlatans, and bullies damage thousands of lives in subtler destructive ways. If we cannot help the perpetrators of these acts restrain and transform their behavior, we must use our power to expose and isolate them.
Fortunately, it is very rare that we will find ourselves in this situation. When we do, let us hope we have the courage to act.