My sister doesn't think there's really evil people. She feels like people get caught up in a system and it carries them along and the system leads them to do evil things. And when people caught up in that system finally reach the "Oh my god, what have I done?" revelation their response is determined not by anything within themselves but rather on how they are approached. If approached with, "Look at this evil thing you just did," they will respond by doubling down and being even more evil. If approached with, "I really love you and I think you're great and understand all of the pressures that you were under so as a friend let me say that..." they will become good and fix things.
I do think that some of the systems in which we live tend to force people toward evil. But I think there is also a question of what you do along the way, and more than that I think there's a question of what to do to fix it.
Consider BP (British Petroleum which is trying to brand itself as an American company because having "British" in your name in no way implies you might be from a different hemisphere than the Americas.)
First off the disaster didn't have to happen and those people didn't have to die. But that was probably more about the system, there was a demand from on high to cut costs and someone down the line cut costs in the wrong places thinking, "What are the odds?" and then boom people are dead and the gulf of Mexico is on its way to becoming inflammable (which means the same thing as flammable it's just that the first term is in theory more correct and in practice places a lot more emphasis on the bursting into part of "this material could burst into flame").
Now at this point the people at the top know, "Something has gone very fucking wrong," and they are faced with a choice on what to do about it. Generally speaking these choices can go two ways. There are of course room for seemingly infinite variations, very few things can truly be reduced to a dichotomy. But in general the options following, "Something has gone very fucking wrong," are "I need to fix this whatever it costs me," and, "I need to save face."
Now the problem of a giant fucking oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere is not one that we don't know how to deal with. We've had oil spills before and have an idea of how they work. You stop the leak, you contain the spill to the best of your ability, you clean up the spill. Oil is lighter than water so containment is a lot easier than it could be. Imagine for a moment if it weren't. If it could sink into the water rather than float to the surface or travel in plumes underwater. Worst of all would be if it could mix with the water (say the way that salt does) because then containment wouldn't just be impossible, it would be unthinkable.
I don't think BP managed to get the oil to mix with the water, so credit to them there. But they also didn't try to fix the problem, they tried to save face at the expense of making the problem worse and quite possibly impossible to contain.
Oil floats, and so when you're looking to clean up after an oil spill you've got a giant advantage, you know where the oil is. It's on top of the water. That's still a giant area to cover, but at least it's an area, not a volume. And it allows for simple linear containment (containment that is usually much less than perfect, but a measure of containment at least) you just run a line around the perimeter. Changing currents, random chance, chaos theory, and velociraptors might mean that there's more than one perimeter you need to run a line around (the oil might surface at multiple locations is what I'm saying), but the good thing about oil is that it floats, once you've got your line around it you don't have to worry about it dropping down a hundred feet swimming under the line, and coming up on the other side.
My guess is that the major worry would be something like wave action taking the oil over your line, but I'm sure those with expertise in handling oil spills know the biggest worries better than I do. What I don't have to be an expert to know is that all containment plans for handling oil spills, clean up plans too, are predicated on one simple fact that even school children know: oil floats.
If the oil stops floating then all of the experience we as a species have accumulated in dealing with oil spills goes out the window and it's sort of a... how did one of my teacher put it in one of the things he inserts into his translations (and then takes out pre-publication) to make sure people are reading? Oh yes. It's sort of a, "Master, we're fucked," situation.
If you want to contain, if you want to clean up, if you want to fix the situation and make things right, you need to make sure that the oil floats. Which isn't hard because that's what oil does. Do absolutely nothing and the oil will float.
But the problem with floating oil is that it's measurable. People can see the size of the slick. You can get rigorous numbers on how much oil there is.
Now sunken oil going wherever it damn well pleases under the water dispersing itself through the Gulf of Mexico, there's no way in hell you can measure that. There's no way anyone can ever definitively say how big the fuck up was.
So you've got BP, and you've got a choice. We can try to contain and clean up, at the cost of letting everyone on earth know exactly how big we fucked up, or we can spray toxic chemicals that will cause the oil to sink below the water's surface and travel this way and that in ways that will be impossible to predict, track or contain but will prevent anyone from ever accurately saying how big we fucked up.
They chose the second. And that, to me, is evil. Not an evil system, evil people. Faced with the unpleasant reality of, "Oh my God, what have I done?" they decided to make it worse because doing so would introduce enough doubt and uncertainty that no one would ever be able to objectively say how big they screwed up.
BP isn't my preferred example though. My preferred example is the banks.
We don't know most of the stories. We only hear the ones that are lucky enough, for a given value of luck, to get national attention. Those who can't pitch a fit big enough to get the news media involved don't get heard. Even of those it would be naive to think that every story picked up makes it to the national or international stage. A lot of people would be thinking, "Who cares about some mix up in rural [state I don't live in]," and more than that it's reached the point where the stories are probably not considered newsworthy anymore.
So the banks locked another person inside of her house for no reason. So the banks foreclosed on another house that wasn't in default. So the banks screwed over another person who made every payment and did everything right. So the banks committed another round of systemic national fraud. So the banks broke into another home they had no claim on, stole all of the stuff, sold what they could and destroyed the rest, and then treated the family whose lives they destroyed like shit. So what? This is what happens all the time. Heard it, give me a story I haven't heard.
So people such as myself are only hearing a small portion of the stories. Its not enough that the bank hired a group of people to break into a random house, steal everything inside, and vandalize it in the process. We all know that story. It only makes it far enough up the newsline for me to hear about it because the bank's excuse, the excuse that worked and prevented any criminal charges from being pressed for any of the following things that the bank admitted to doing:
1) Hiring local talent to break into the house.was this:
2) Hiring local talent to rob the house.
3) Using the loot gotten from the house as a portion of the payment for the local talent because it's cheaper to pay them with stolen goods than with money.
4) Having the local talent vandalize the house.
5) Doing all of this across state lines which brings a host of federal laws into play.
6) Harassing the people they had just robbed
7) Doing all of this in such a way that it counts as conspiracy in addition to the other charges that could be laid against them
"Uh, we thought it was that house."
"There isn't any house there."
"Yeah, it burned down years ago."
"You thought this well maintained lived in house over here was that non-existent burned down house over there?"
"Ok, that's good enough for me. You're free to go."
"Thank you officer."
When a story like this, or any of the other stories of banks breaking into houses they have no claim to (owners never did any business with the bank, the bank definitely didn't hold a mortgage (in a lot of cases there was no mortgage because the house was paid in full)), comes out we know that those who run the bank know about it. We know because it's bad press, because it has the potential to affect stock prices or public opinion, it might cause people to rethink doing business with them. We know because the press reaches out to them for comment.
We also know because when a story like this doesn't come out, because it lacks the novelty of the bank locking an old woman inside of her house or, as in the case referenced above, claiming to believe that a burned down house had spontaneously regenerated itself, moved, and filled itself with stuff indicating that a family was living in it, all without affecting their claim to be the owner of it, they hear about that too. Foreclosures are a major problem for banks right now, botched foreclosures more so.
They're a problem because properties are underwater, which means that they're worth less than the bank is owed (not that they've been the victim of flooding as you might expect from the term "underwater".) So there is money that the bank claimed it would have, the money owed, that the bank cannot get if the borrower can't pay. Because the plan was that if the borrower couldn't pay they'd take the house and make the money that way. The house isn't worth enough to make the money that way.
There is nowhere for the money to come from. The money doesn't exist. It's fake money, but it's in their books as real. That's a problem.
That's one of the reasons that they're reluctant to do any of the completely reasonable working with home owners everyone wants them to do. If they do that then part of it is to admit that the fake money is... well... fake. It'll save the money in the long run, but in the short run it's going to look like crap on their books.
Now if they foreclose it makes them look like an asshole, has a lot of problems because many of their documents are fraudulent and fraud is a felony (Real Genius taught me that), but it means that they can still pretend that they're going to make the fake money back when they sell the house. It's only when the sale becomes final that they're forced to admit, "Yeah, that money was fake." So, by foreclosing rather than working with the home owners they have to bring out their fraudulent documents, which is always a risk, but they get to put off the day when they have to say, "You know that money we said we had? We don't have it."
Which means that foreclosure is a very big deal for them right now. It's a source of risk, but it's also their means of saving face, and it's a PR nightmare on top of that because a lot of the people being foreclosed on now aren't people who bit off more than they could chew, they're people who got into trouble as a result of the recession these exact same banks started.
First the banks put their customers out of work, then they made them homeless. This is not a winning narrative if you're trying to market yourself as a safe place to get loans and/or store your money.
So we know they're interested in foreclosure for a number of reasons, and any case of a botched foreclosure that so much as threatens to get national attention is going to be coming across their desk. When one actually does make the news, when someone like you or I hears about it, there is no way the person in charge doesn't hear about it. Well, there is one way. If they're willfully negligent to the point that they don't even bother to make a show of going through the motions of pretending to do their job, they might not hear about it. But in that case I think I do them a favor by calling them evil because if that were the case (I don't think it is) there needs to be a new word for the low they've sunk to. The fates of nations depend on the decisions these people make, the livelihoods and in more cases than you'd like to consider very lives of ordinary people hang in the balance. If in that situation they're so negligent as to not even pay lip service to doing their jobs... there are not words to describe.
So, we'll assume that they're not worse than we have words to describe and they do in fact hear the stories we hear.
This is the, "Oh my god, what have I done?" moment.
And it is in response to that moment that we learn whether people are evil or not. Their actions leading to this point have been evil, you don't get an "Oh my god, what have I done?" moment by being good. But they've been evil masked by a system that drives them towards certain things and perversely rewards bad while punishing good. Due diligence takes time. Robosigning (a pretty word for systemic fraud committed with the intent to commit theft using the fraudulently produced documents) is quick and easy. They haven't come face to face with what the system has made them into.
And now they have. It doesn't matter which story of them destroying the life of an innocent person for no reason other than it was more expedient to use a shotgun than a scalpel produces the, "Oh my god, what have I done?" moment. Every CEO, every member of the board of directors, of any of the big banks remaining in America has had one of these moments.
They've had a moment when the system was stripped away, abstraction was cut through, and they've been forced to metaphorically look in the mirror as the literally look at the evil they have wrought.
And this is the test.
This is where you find out is this a good person who lost themselves in an evil system until they didn't realize what they were doing, or is this an evil person who thrived in that same system because they and it were morally aligned.
How do they respond.
Because this they cannot blame on the system, at least not honestly. This is them. This is their reaction. Their character. There ethos, the word from which ethics is derived.
They've had an unpleasant look at what they've become, what they've done, who they've hurt. What do they do next?
If the person is good then they'll do everything in their power to make it right. Driving on autopilot through a perverse system they may have done all kinds of evil, but with a stark crossroads presented to them they're not on autopilot anymore and they can, if they will it, accept the wrong that they have done and work to make it right.
So in the cases that I've been talking about that would involve a halt on all foreclosures until each and every one can be reviewed to make sure that they're not breaking into the wrong house, it would involve personally apologizing to the people wronged and doing what those people thought was necessary as compensation. Not, "Your stuff was kind of shitty so we figure it had a dollar value of [lowball figure] so here have a check," but, "I know that nothing can replace what you've lost, but how much do you think it will cost to get to making your house into a home again?" and then paying it. No haggling.
It would mean reviewing every stage of the process that led to this fuck-up. It would mean sincerely admitting guilt, probably face to face, it would mean saying you're sorry and meaning it, it would mean doing everything in your power to make sure that nothing like this ever happened under your watch again.
And it would probably also mean cutting the crap with, "We'd rather foreclose than negotiate because it looks better on paper," and actually starting to work with the people you do have mortgages on to see if maybe you can find some mutually beneficial arrangement that, while it'll look bad on paper this quarter, will work out better for everyone in the long run.
It means doing all of this knowing it may very well cost you your job (though if you're one of these people you've probably got a golden parachute which says that they company has to pay you millions in order to fire you*.)
As far as I know, that has not happened. I haven't even heard of a case where a bank sent out a letter typed by an intern simply reading "Sorry."
The other option is to take this moment of realization, this unmistakable proof that you have been being evil, and embrace it. Try to blame the victims of your evil if you can. If you can't, write a small check, say that you consider the matter closed, never say sorry, never admit fault, and never take steps to prevent it from happening again.
Write it off as a fluke, just like you did last time and the time before. I'm sure it gets easier every time. Even as the evidence that it's not a fluke mounts, the words come more easily from the practice of having said them again and again and again.
And if you take that option, you're an evil person. Maybe the system made you that way, no one is born evil after all. Maybe the system just helped you. But whatever you tell yourself to convince yourself you're the good guy, you're not. You're evil.
Because when you got the chance to stop, reflect, say, "This is wrong," and put a stop to it, you instead looked at the wrong thing and said, "The only problem here is that it made the paper and I have to interrupt my daily routine to deal with it."
You saw what you had become, the metaphorical filth of all of the evil deeds you committed in the name of expedience or the shareholders, or profit margins, or whatever pushed you toward doing them, and rather than make amends you embraced that image. You looked in the mirror, saw evil staring back at you, and said, "I can live with that." And that's what makes you an evil person.
Because when the pressure was lifted, when you had a moment of clarity and the opportunity to change, you didn't take it. It wasn't a broken system pushing you along without realizing that what you were doing was wrong. It was you. All you.
My sister thinks these decision points are governed not by the people themselves but by the external stimuli if they're approached gently and with understanding, "I know you didn't realize that this is where things were headed, I understand the pressures that led to this happening, but now you can make it right," they will respond by choosing good. If they're approached in anger, "You broke into my house and stole my stuff you fucker!" they'll choose evil.
I don't buy it. Opposition can put people on the defensive, but decisions aren't made the second the problem comes up.
On the margins how people are approached may determine the outcome, but when not balanced on the edge of a knife between good and evil I don't think the manner of approach really matters. First off, most of these people aren't approached by the ones they've harmed at all. They learn about it through other channels and thus there is no way to vary how they're approached.
Second. Let's consider the angry home owner putting the bank CEO on the defensive. After the homeowner is dragged away by security and the CEO retires to his private office, what happens?
Well if you're a good person then however much you might want to lash out at this particular moment, you're eventually going to calm down and look at the facts of the case. Why are you looking at the facts? Because you're on the defensive and you want to prove that you didn't break into his house and steal his stuff. (And his wife's stuff and his kids' stuff.) At which point you're going to come face to face with incontrovertible evidence that you did do just that. Which puts us right back where we started. You did something very, very wrong, you just found out about it. How do you respond? Do you try to fix it or do you double down on wrongness. The first is good, the second is evil.
If you're an evil person then maybe you don't care so much about the facts. Betting you're not going to try to make things right.
So I'm not seeing the way the response is due to external forces on this side.
Let's look at the other one.
Person came up to you ever so politely, brought up the situation, and said that they understood the factors that led to it but understanding doesn't mean thinking a bad situation is good, so they'd like you to make it right. You say you'll look into it and send them on their way.
First off there's a question of whether you'll look into it at all. For the sake of argument lets say you do.
You've got two options, continue as you have been operating while trying to quietly push this under the rug, or try to fix things. The second involves a lot more work for you and less profit for the company. If you're evil I don't see you doing the second no matter how polite the person was, if you're good I see you doing just that even if the person wasn't as polite as they could have been.
I think that some people are, for whatever reason, evil. I don't think that the big banks could operate the way they do without a callous disregard for the lives of ordinary people, and I don't think they could have that callous disregard without it being embodied in the people at the top.
I don't think that BP could have done what it did if they'd placed doing the right thing over saving face.
I also think that some people are good. This is not me trying to argue that the human race is doomed.
The system, whether it's the bank, the need to please shareholders, the drive for profit at the expense of all else, capitalism itself, or whatever else can be blamed for a lot. But at some point people reach a crossroads. They have to make a choice. They have to say, "Do I make this right, or do I act in my personal self interest regardless of right and wrong?" That choice is theirs, not the system's.
When you reach that crossroad, when you make that choice, that's who you really are. A good person, on realizing that they've been doing evil things, is going to want to put things right. That's what makes them a good person. And it's not going to matter much if the messenger is angry or soothing, provided that the facts of the message are right.
People, when getting defensive, will hold onto bad positions stronger, but that wears off. And when it does they can let go, discarding the position like a rotten fish and saying, "What was I thinking?" or they can keep on holding on.
We can recognize that a bad system can make good people do bad things without them realizing they're doing bad things, pushing them in increments further and further in the direction of evil, while still recognizable that people are accountable for their actions.
A lot of people involved in the system aren't even doing anything wrong. The driver of an oil truck isn't responsible for BP, the cashier at the bank isn't responsible for the bank breaking into and robbing people's houses.
Which is where the conversation actually started. My sister and I agree on this. The people most inconvenienced by protesters are usually those least involved in the evil actions being protested. (Of course the point of the protest isn't to change the minds of the people being inconvenienced, it's to be noticed. Because if you're noticed often enough then you become someone worth listening to.)
But to extend that lack of culpability all the way up to the point that it includes everyone in the company... No. Just, no.
When a company is doing evil things it may start as some failure of the system that no one is really responsible for, but if it continues then at some point somewhere someone, someone way above the level of the truck driver and the bank teller, is going to have to decide: do we keep on doing this evil thing, or do we make it right?
A broken system doesn't excuse the actions of those who could have fixed things but didn't.
Here's an exchange from Firefly:
"Only when the job requires it."
"It's why you took the job."
Jubal tries to pull a Nuremberg defense but he's up against a mind reader so she knows that it's not just that he was just doing his job, it's that he chose the job because he wanted to do what the job entailed. This reveals character, but it doesn't change the question of culpability.
If River hadn't had that comeback it wouldn't make Jubal a better person. There is nothing particularly wrong about being a bounty hunter, but what we've seen of Early shows what River said earlier (I think it was earlier) "You're not right. Not righteous."
He hurts people, physically and psychologically. Taking out Book was probably just a smart move. Two threats of rape and punching Inara, that was just evil. As was not caring that he was delivering (trying to deliver) someone to be tortured. It doesn't matter if he did these things because he thought the job required them or because he enjoyed them. Either way, he's evil.
And that brings me to another thing. Some people can't be excused by the pressures put on them by the system. Taking the job might not necessarily make them evil, but the way they do it does.
I made the mistake of turning on the TV and watching the news after my sister left. Certain types of flame retardants cause cancer, lowered IQs, other disabilities. They are in our couches and chairs, but more than that they're in our baby supplies.
Flame retardant making is a very profitable business and who cares if some kids end up with their IQs in the toilet and cancer as a result?
So a group was formed for the stated purpose of furthering the business of chemical companies. They don't say that except on their tax forms. They say they're an organically created group of people in the fire related business who got together to try to make sure flame retardants were kept legal everywhere because they couldn't bear the though of people dying by fire.
Before I go any further this is important: The flame retardants in question don't work. They do not retard flame. If someone died in a fire in a chair without flame retardant they still would have died in that fire had the chair been full of the cancer causing IQ dropping flame retardant. It doesn't do anything against fire. It is a failed product. Other than hurting people, the only thing it does is make a nice tidy profit for the company that makes them. (Three companies actually.)
Whenever a state starts thinking that maybe they shouldn't have this cancer causing IQ dropping stuff all around everyone, especially babies, a doctor is sent. He tells the heart breaking tale of a little girl he treated for more than a week, covered in burns, trying desperately to keep her alive until finally the injuries became too much and she died. He then tries to convince whatever committee that he's testifying before that banning the cancer causing IQ dropping flame retardant would mean more children like her dying by fire so anyone who votes to ban the stuff is voting to burn children alive until such time as they are dead.
Moving stuff. Except:
1) He never treated the girl in question.
2) It was determined that flame retardants wouldn't have saved her
3) The flame retardants he's testifying in favor of are the ones that, as previously noted, don't work. So they definitely wouldn't have saved her.
4) He tailors the story to each committee, changing the "facts" here or there to try to illicit the maximum emotional impact.
5) Did I mention the fact that everything he says other than "A little girl died by fire" is a lie?
There's nothing inherently wrong about having a job going around the country testifying in defense of something. And unlike Jubal we can't say whether he lies because the job requires it or he took the job because he likes lying. But the fact is that this man lies for money so that parents will think their children are safer from fire when they emphatically are not but they are at higher risk for cancer and at higher risk for having their IQ drop and there's some fear that these problems, once caused, may be hereditary.
He lies to hurt children while providing no benefit in exchange so that his employers will not see a dent in their profits.
This man is evil.
You can't blame the system he finds himself in for this fact. He's not unaware of what he's doing. He knows he didn't treat the girl. He knows the flame retardants don't work. He knows that the investigation of the death of the girl he never treated showed that flame retardants wouldn't have helped. And that wasn't qualified by saying, "the already known to be defective ones he's shilling," so apparently effective ones wouldn't have saved her either. It's right there in the name "Flame Retardant" not "Fame Stopper" even ones that actually do work only slow things down, and there are plenty of situations where that simply isn't enough to save a life. The baby girl whose story he's stolen and twisted to meet his own ends is one of those who wouldn't have been saved. And he definitely knows he's lying because he changes the story to whatever he thinks will work best this time, no matter how many contradictions that introduces with past versions.
I don't know his life story. I don't know whether he gradually became evil or he had a sudden change of heart, I don't know if outside pressure was involved. But what I can say is that he would not be in the job he's in right now, and certainly not doing it the way that he's doing it, were he not evil.
Even in the presence of corrupt and corrupting systems, personal responsibility plays a role, there are good people, and bad people, and people who are a little of each, and people who are mostly neutral. And in the end we can't let recognizing that the systems within which people find themselves push them to do less than moral things stop us from calling out evil when we see it. Sometimes you should just say, "That jackass is evil."
So I said that I made the mistake of turning on the TV and watching the news. There were parts of that story that should give me hope, like the fact that someone bothered to factcheck evil jackass' story about the dead little girl. Sometimes it feels like we live in a post fact checking world. But the thing is that the story made me angry, very angry, but there's nothing I can do.
Anger with a proper outlet can be a powerful force for good. Anger can fuel change for the better. But there's nothing I can do to stop the cancer causing IQ dropping flame retardants that don't actually retard flame. So it just made me angry with no productive thing to do with that anger, and that's something that's never good.
* True story, assuming I haven't been lied to. The CEO at the company my sister used to work for was running the company into the ground. His every decision just accelerated the decline. So he was let go. But, because of his contract, the "Leave and never come back!" had to be accompanied by paying him more than 200 million dollars. He got more than 200 million dollars for being fired. Seems like it was worth it too, since here we are years later and the company is still in business. But what kind of a perverse reward system is that? I'd love to get fired if it'd get me a check for 200 million dollars. Hire me now, I'll do everything wrong.
I bet my credit union would love it too since they'd be the ones who would get to hold on to the 200 million dollars for me. I don't think they're exactly small, but an extra 200 million couldn't hurt. And the more they have on hand the more loans they can make which means the more money they can make.