To understand evil, we must set aside the comfortable belief that we would never do anything wrong. Instead, we must begin to ask ourselves, what would it take for me to do such things? Assume that it would be possible. — Roy Baumeister
Many people consider monsters like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin somehow uniquely evil. They imagine them as malevolent, abominable, nearly inhuman entities who spent their days scheming to inflict misery on other humans for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it.
The truth is much more terrifying: human beings as evil and ruthless as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are so common that we pass them on the street daily, see them on TV, and may even have the misfortune of knowing them personally. The real difference between these notorious butchers and the guy in a federal prison is not so much the degree of depravity, but the unchecked power needed to make his darkest desires reality.
Once you set aside Hollywood’s caricatured portrait of evil and accept the normalcy of villainy, you see how a “normal person” just like you or me could embrace evil. Moreover, sometimes the shift from human to fiend can have murky beginnings. Some people step over a line and come back. Others follow that tragic path described by C.S. Lewis,
The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
Here, at least, are a few signposts that will alert you to stop, pause, and take stock to make sure you’re not on that gentle slope.
1) I/You vs. I/It.
We’re all sometimes guilty of treating others like objects instead of human beings with families, feelings, and dreams, just like us. Without that ability to objectify other human beings, pornography couldn’t exist. It’s also one of the reasons for Internet rudeness. When we type something cruel to janeeschmoe8765, we don’t see the crushed look on her face, watch the tears roll down her face, or know that her brother died last week so she’s feeling particularly vulnerable.
Oftentimes, the “morally challenged” among us tend to see themselves as real people, but they look at most others as “things” to be manipulated in any way that benefits them. The thief views a house the way you’d view a gold nugget you found underfoot in a stream instead of thinking about how he’s taking things that another human being may have worked for months or years to pay for. A man who tells a woman he loves her just to seduce her and then never call again only thinks of her as an object for his gratification as opposed to a person. A professional hit man looks at the targets he kills as a pay day. Ultimately, the perpetrator looks at himself as an “I” and his victim as an “it,” like a coffee maker. Few people have moral qualms about what they do to a coffee maker.