“People of the Lie” is a book written in 1983 by Dr. M. Scott Peck.
Peck was a psychiatrist interested in developing a “psychology of evil,” as evil in general terms has been a topic divorced from secular and scientific discourse. However; within the realm of daily living, “evil” is pervasive, boring, ever present, localized, and persistent.
Peck offers as part of the definition of evil as simply “spell evil backwards.” Anything that is fundamentally opposed to life and the continuation of life is a candidate for consideration. Peck furthers his definition to include scapegoating, laziness, and ultimately lying as conditions for evil to flourish. Part of his exploration of the topic was to disprove the nature of possession and exorcism as real, that this “paranormal evil” is an archaic superstition that can easily be explained by the scientific method and common psychological practise. Peck ended up during the course of writing this book an exorcist himself, taking the lead role in three separate exorcisms. The details of those experiences are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post, however, remain a fascinating snapshot of life and experience.
“Evil” in regards to social cognition is within Peck’s examination of what he terms as “group evil.” Much of his book focuses on individual and interpersonal evil in case by case studies, giving examples drawn from his work as a doctor treating patients in a psychotherapy setting. With these parameters set for what he illustrates “evil” as being, he offers the reader the example of “group evil” in the context of the “My Lai Massacre” During the Vietnam war, some 600 people who were not Vietcong, but rather civilians (such as unarmed women, children, and old people) were murdered by American soldiers of “Task Force Barker.” The soldiers being indoctrinated and heavily stressed, began shooting and just didn’t stop. One helicopter pilot attempted to intervene, but was ignored by the leadership and protested no further. The massacre was covered up, as most massacres are, and wasn’t investigated until some time later. Of the 200 people who witnessed and took part the massacre, only 26 were brought to trial, with one conviction.
Peck offers the illustration and example of how “the stratified hierarchy” enables conditions for evil to flourish, namely in the ability for scapegoating within the hierarchy to take place.
In a passage of the book; Peck considers that if he were to ask in a military organization where weapons are made and how they’re put to use, he’d be directed within the hierarchy to different offices, different places, and ultimately different organizations civilian and government. Each organization and office not taking full accountability for the manufacture and use of those weapons. The gun manufacturer makes the weapons because the military asks, the military needs the weapons because the government is going to war, but the government is going to war because that other government wasn’t doing things right, etc, etc. To more contemporary real world terms for illustration, Canada spent $20,000,000,000 on the defence department in 2014-2015. In January of 2015 a Canadian airstrike in Mosul allegedly killed somewhere between 6-27 Iraqi civilians, as reported in an interoffice memo of the Pentagon in the USA. Given that there are 35,000,000 Canadians each paying into the GST where defence spending comes from, each Canadian citizen contributed around $571.43 to the deaths of those 6-27 civilians. Here is where Peck’s illustration of scapegoating is most useful. The government at the time chose to send bombers, the bombers chose to be in the military, the bombers chose to obey orders. The Canadian public chose to elect that government, the Canadian public chooses to be capitalist and interact with commerce thereby consenting to be taxed. The tax dollars fund the defence department. In all of this, somewhere between 6-27 people die on the other side of the world. Was the man who pushed the button repsonsible? No, he was following orders as a soldier. Was the government in power responsible? No, they were following the prerogative of other more powerful governments. However, as all of these facets of society are connected as a whole, the linkages of responsibility fall upon the organization itself. Though as these deaths occurred on the other side of the world, and direct connections are hard to conceive of, we as the public relegated our responsibility elsewhere rather than taking an active role of accountability, if we thought of it at all.
The Peter Principle is a theory of management studies that is concerned with stratified hierarchies. The theory illustrates that if an organization promotes candidates from within, based upon the performance of the last job the candidate had, that eventually the candidate will reach what is called “the level of incompetence” where the candidate is completely incompetent in the position s/he is in. The theory postulates “managers rise to their level of incompetence” and if any one of the readers has had the experience of a “stupid boss” you’ll understand fully why The Peter Principle was formulated. In theory, an entire organization can become incompetent as a whole if every station of power within that hierarchy is populated with a person who has reached their level of incompetence.
In 1970, H. Tajfel published a study “Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination” where Tajfel coined the term “Ingroup and outgroup.” The findings of the study show that when people are grouped at random, being a member of a group is sufficient enough for the person to show biased affiliation and favouritism toward their fellow group members. Ingroup and outgroup manipulation was most obviously, and arguably famously, put to use in Nazi Germany where Adolf Hitler scapegoated and persecuted Jewish people. Ultimately this scapegoating and persecution of the outgroup beginning in 1933 culminated in the Shoa (Yiddish word for “calamity”) where some 6,000,000 Jewish people were systematically murdered in one of the largest genocides of human history. Ingroup and outgroup politics are not conditional on any one particular trait of humanity, but can be as arbitrary as religious belief, skin colour, or geographical location, as is suggested by the findings of Tajfel.
All of this culminates in the question of how we function as a culture of humans. Genetically, we are less than 1% different than Chimpanzees. This means that we as humans are more closely related to one another than we really can conceive of, yet the arbitrary and nearly meaningless differences that form our ingroups and outgroups affects our daily lives to the core. Our entire society is structured in different iterations of stratified and specialized hierarchies for one purpose or another, and our parameters for ingroup membership separation remain as meaningless as membership to a nation state, how much melanin is in the skin, morphological features of one another, and to what invisible man in the sky the other group of humans is worshipping. That being said, “evil” can also be considered as whomever we have arbitrarily chosen to be a member of the outgroup, given the political preferences of the day. If we are to have a society of specialized and stratified hierarchical ordering, it would serve to be aware of our personal and collective responsibility within that hierarchy, inorder to prevent the peter principle from happening on a grand scale as well as to be cognizant of how wide our parameters of ingrouping can be so as to accommodate reality.
“People of the Lie: The hope for healing human evil” by Dr. M. Scott Peck is available from the U of L library, and I do recommend reading the book.
Information related to Tajfel’s ingroup and outgroup experiment can be found here:
A news report on the Jan. 21st 2015 Mosul airstrike allegedly killing Iraqi civilians can be found here:
A news report that includes information on Canadian defence spending can be found here: