THE CATHOLIC HERALD MAY 25, 2007
Literary Editor: Stav Sherez Tel: 020 7448 3603 Fax: 020 7256 9728 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Could you torture an innocent human being?
If you believe that you are incapable of inflicting cruelty on others this haunting book will convince you otherwise, says Quentin de la Bédoyère
The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, Rider Books £19 Could you torture innocent people? Could you take part in the deliberate humiliation of others to a stage where you are doing deep psychological harm? Could you subscribe to deceitful and fraudulent practices in the organisation for which you work? If you reply in the negative, then you are almost certainly one of those at danger. But if you feel that, under given circumstances, you could do so, then join the human race and be on your guard. You might argue that your great age and experience would protect you. No it wouldn’t. You might argue that your high level of education would protect you. No it wouldn’t. You might argue that being a faithful child of the Church would protect you. Sorry, not even that. Philip Zimbardo is one of the most distinguished social scientists of our age. His book was triggered by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American guards in Abu Ghraib prison. You will have seen, and been disgusted by, the photographs. But Zimbardo has devoted most of his professional life to examining the situations and circumstances in which “good people turn evil”. He emphasises that circumstances do not excuse individual responsibility but demonstrates that plenty of circumstances exist within which evil is almost inevitable. Before you look at the bad apples, he says, you must look at the bad barrel. His founding point is his notorious 1971 Stanford prison experiment in which a group of college graduates, monitored for their normality, were randomly assigned to the roles of guards or prisoners in a mock prison. The experiment had to end after one week because of the increasing brutality of the guards, and the patent psychological damage being done to the prisoners. You may well know the experiment but I have never read it described in such meticulous detail. He follows this up by accounts of many other experiments and observations which demonstrate the potential for evil in normal people. He concludes with the Abu Ghraib prison incident which became public in 2004. Reality was acting out, but with far greater harshness, the lessons which had been learnt at Stanford three decades before. Yet the brunt of culpability was laid on the guards, the bad apples, and virtually none on those who had set up and supervised the situation, the bad barrel – even
The Stanford prison experiment, left, and the haunting image from Abu Ghraib, right
though the outcome was predictable. I am not going to describe Zimbardo’s accounts because, if you have any interest in the nature of evil, you will read this book. Indeed, without doing so you will find it hard to credit his conclusions. If you do, you will, like me, suffer a number of sleep-disturbed nights. I will just whet your appetite by mentioning the account of the teacher who told her class that she had discovered that blue-eyed children were naturally superior to brown eyed; and then, the next day, told them she had made a mistake and the facts were exactly the other way round. You can laugh or cry at the outcomes. Zimbardo is not merely recording academic accounts, he is specifically challenging us to look at our behaviour, and in what ways we are affected by the different barrels in which we live. So let me muse, without blaming Zimbardo for any implications I may make. I start at the comfortable historical distance of the Inquisition and the Marian persecutions. How could we, with the gospels at our side, have tortured and brutally killed those who sincerely disagreed with us? It was the context, the assumptions of the system within which we lived, and our rationalisation that made this seem virtuous. We were only doing our duty. Shades of Eichmann? Let’s take a broader span of history. Anti-Semitism has historically been a feature of the Church, and still exists in pockets. Here, the traditional rationalisation was
deicide. And of course the failure of the Jews to accept the true Messiah was evidence of their inferiority as human beings. De-humanising other groups has always made their persecution easier – just as de-humanising black people made the slave trade possible, and indeed acceptable in many parts of the Church. (In another part of the woods, dehumanising babies in the womb has served its utilitarian purposes.) Let’s get nearer the bone. The original excuse for not taking imperative action against paedophile clergy, but simply rapping their knuckles and moving them on, was excused by our ignorance, and rationalised by fear of scandal. Arguably, it was our closed system which allowed the authorities to be naive about the nature of paedophilia, and imprudently optimistic about personal reform. Who would put a known fraudster in charge of the treasury? And the fear of scandal (protecting the group) is so often the stimulus for wishful thinking. Where was our vaunted wisdom of 2,000 years? Religion is particularly prone, and ironically so, because its different forms so often emerge from the best intentions. But those who share these best intentions tend to form a group, large or small, which creates its own norms. The temptation to become exclusive and to look at those outside the group as inferior is strong. Think, for instance, of the Puritans or, within Catholicism, the Jansenists. It is not unknown for smaller, exclusive, groups to form
within a larger community – a sort of church within the Church, if you like. Often their very exclusiveness and rigour attracts devotees who are low on personal autonomy and high on need for the identity given by membership. Their own moral sense is replaced by the norms of the group. Despite their worthy inspiration, group members can become as those who have enough faith to move mountains but have not love, and are therefore nothing. As I write, a survey comes in which tells me that less than half of American troops in Iraq believe that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and that a substantial proportion support torture as a means of getting information. Bad apples? Bad barrel? But there are far less dramatic instances. Anyone reading Zimbardo is likely to be spurred into considering what aspects of our belief and our behaviour emerge from the several groupings, including the purely secular, to which each of us belong. And then to judge, as individuals with independent consciences, whether we sincerely reject or confirm them. Having both written and broadcast on this subject for many years I find myself still getting caught out. But I find it helps to admit my own vulnerability. And every day I try to commit at least one, perhaps mild, act of disobedience to the norm to keep the muscles of my autonomy in good trim.
Jonathan Wright is dismayed by a bizarrely speculative approach to Shakespeare’s life
Shakespeare Revealed: A Biography by René Weis, John Murray £25 There is no good evidence that William Shakespeare was lame, or that William Davenant was his illegitimate son. There is no clinching evidence that Shakespeare fled Stratford because of troubles provoked by a poaching misadventure. Not that this stops René Weis from discussing such theories at length, thus lending them a credibility they do not deserve. Yes, it is frustrating that we have so little biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Very tempting, then, to recruit references to disability in the sonnets and dredge up the conclusion that Shakespeare might have had a limp. Tempting, but bizarre. Weis believes that Shakespeare’s writings contain endless clues about his life: he takes up Keats’s old notion that “Shakespeare led a life of allegory: his works are the comments on it.” It isn’t such a bad idea. The trouble is that, as the basis for a historical method, it can never prove anything. There is also a risk of pouncing on a pregnant phrase and assuming that, because Shakespeare wrote it, it must directly relate to something he experienced. Take his relationship with Anne Hathaway. Weis quotes one of Shakespeare’s female characters lamenting how “Young men will do’t if they come to’t, / By Cock, they are to blame” and remembering how “Before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed.” Apparently, says Weis, “without a doubt this is Shakespeare recalling his own teenage sexual encounters” and “it is clear… that [Will and Anne] had sex during the summer of 1582, before they were married.” Really? Of course, Shakespeare might have been recalling his youthful indiscretions but, equally, he might not. For the most part, Weis concedes that his speculations are precisely that, and we get much hedging as a result. Words like “perhaps” and “possibly” appear with alarming
Shakespeare: A biographer’s worst nightmare
frequency in these pages. Sometimes Weis seems to raise possibilities just for the sake of it. On the issue of whether Jesuit missionaries visited the house of one of Shakespeare’s Stratford neighbours we get: “There is no evidence of [Edmund] Campion and [Robert] Persons passing through the Badger house during this period, but none that they did not.” What exactly is that supposed to prove? On Shakespeare and the Jesuit John Gerard, both living in London at the same time, we get: “It is possible that Shakespeare and Gerard sometimes passed one another in the Strand.” Entirely possible, but so what? Such distractions are frustrating because, in his more focused moods, Weis offers rewarding readings of Shakespeare and he does an excellent job of bringing early-modern Stratford and London to life. The reconstructions of the neighbourhoods Shakespeare inhabited and the accounts of the capital’s theatrical life are extremely well wrought. Ultimately, though, what Weis refers to as “decoding” the works is a perilous enterprise. Surely someone of Shakespeare’s genius was more than capable of writing about things that had never happened to him, or portraying pitches of emotion that he never experienced. Shakespeare will always be a biographer’s worst nightmare. We can approach consensus about
some things –the identity of the Dark Lady of the sonnets, for instance –but other issues (Shakespeare’s religious sympathies and sexual leanings) will doubtless remain obscured. A surprisingly handsome Shakespeare (with not the slightest hint of malepattern baldness) recently made an appearance on Doctor Who . At one point he flirted with the Doctor; a bisexual advance that, as the Doctor commented, would delight some sectors of the 21st-century academy. What works on prime-time television is less well suited to academic study. There has never been a lack of curious theories about Shakespeare; that recent business about him supposedly spending time in a Lancashire recusant household, for instance. Perhaps we will eventually accept that we are never going to know much about Shakespeare the man, and that literary texts are a phenomenally unreliable source of biographical information. Until we do, old and new theories will continue to fester. René Weis is an accomplished Shakespearean scholar, someone who knows the texts intimately and has the sensitivity to interrogate them in fruitful ways. He should know better than to employ a couple of stray lines from the sonnets in order to convince us that Shakespeare probably had a limp.
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Decoding Early Christianity: Truth and Legend in the Early Church, edited by Leslie Houlden, Greenwood World Publishing £19.95 It’s obvious from the title that this is a response to The Da Vinci Code . But, as Houlden’s introduction stresses, it isn’t intended to deliver direct refutation of every allegation Dan Brown recycles. This, Houlden says, has already been done in, for example, Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code . Houlden concedes that Brown’s book is fiction: nevertheless its author makes some claims for factual accuracy that don’t stand up. He also recognises that much of the territory in dispute is unknown, probably unknowable, which doesn’t mean that all theories regarding it are equally valid. The New Testament is “the literature of the winners”, says Houlden, but it’s undoubtedly our earliest account of Christianity, and it reflects “a wider range of ideas and groups than has often been supposed”. Houlden claims that all the contributors are happy to adapt theories to fit emerging facts. The Dead Sea Scrolls changed our ideas about Judaism at the time of Jesus –not about early Christianity as Dan Brown pretends –and the Nag Hammadi codices modified our thinking regarding some of the earliest Christian groups.
The first chapter stresses that although the gospels are broadly reliable about life, culture and politics in firstcentury Palestine, they were written 40 to 60 years after the events described and each is couched in what Houlden calls its own “poetry”. He’s right; all narratives are. But this truth must also apply to the present work. The writers all seem impartial, and are no doubt trying to be, but we’re all human. It might have been ideal if they had all been totally bereft of religious belief, either pro or anti, but no thinking person can be. Unsurprisingly therefore where there’s doubt you sometimes feel they give the benefit of that doubt to mainstream Christianity. An example: Stephen Need, without sufficient justification, concludes that John the Baptist wasn’t an Essene. But it’s tempting to wonder whether Jesus was baptised into the Essenes by John and later rejected that sect. We’re told that the Essenes stressed the importance of hating outsiders and enemies. Was Jesus making an explicit rebuttal to the Essenes when he told people to love their enemies? And why, incidentally, are the Essenes not mentioned in the gospels along with other Jewish sects of the period, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees? And on what grounds is the apocryphal literature regarded as being completely unhistorical, as in Houlden’s assertion that
“the four New Testament gospels are our only source for the historical Jesus”? There’s a lot to think about. According to Need, the Greek word translated as “betray” properly means “hand over”. Jesus doesn’t stop Judas from handing him over. Was the whole business pre-arranged? When Jesus seems to foretell his own betrayal (Mk:14) is he actually giving an order no one wants to carry out? There’s fun to be had, especially in Lionel Wickham’s chapter on heresy. The heretic, he thinks, is always the other person, never you. And the modern heretic is “usually a bishop or professor of theology, who weeps all the way from official condemnation to the TV studio and thence to the bank”. Wickham is also uncomfortably provocative: “If in doubt you can always tell which is the Catholic Church: it is the one that persecutes because it invokes the force of the State and prosecutes under the law”. The writers, all C of E, make you feel that Christianity is nothing to launch Crusades for or even agonise about; rather, it’s ideal for ruminating over in the privacy of your own study, preferably with a single malt to hand. One already knows a lot of this ground. But it’s nice to have it all in one hardback, written (for once) by academics rather than journalists.
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