In Our Midst

What separates friendships from factions?

In 1954, the same year Lord of the Flies was published, a group of psychologists at the University of Oklahoma performed a Golding-esque experiment. They selected 11 boys, between fifth and sixth grade, to live on a Boy Scouts camp in Robbers Cave State Park during the summer. The boys were all 11 or 12 years old, of similar height and weight; they came from middle-class, protestant backgrounds and were seemingly well-adjusted, with above-average performance in school.

Over the course of the first week, the boys spontaneously self-organized, selecting a name for themselves (“the Eagles”) and forming clear hierarchies. The researchers had expected as much. At this point, having bonded and tacitly agreed on their internal status, the Eagles became aware of an identical group of boys — 11 more, chosen for the same characteristics — who were camping in another part of the park. This other group had called themselves “the Rattlers.”

The psychologists, led by Muzafer Sherif, had designed the experiment to test the hypothesis that “conditions of competition and group frustration” would lead to hostile relations. However, the Eagles and Rattlers — for no apparent reason — instantly viewed each other as rivals. Was a perceived scarcity of resources even necessary to create tensions? As one write-up of the study put it, simply overhearing the other group’s voices or seeing their cups left behind on the grounds provoked “strong territorial reactions, such as ‘they’d better not be in our swimming hole.’”

There’s a richness of detail in the media of suffering that tests the limits of our empathy — if not asking too much, then asking too often

The boys, as though actively seeking conflict, started asking the camp supervisors (in reality, the researchers) to arrange competitions between them. Thus began Stage 2 of the experiment: a tournament between the camps. The winners were promised a trophy and other prizes. At their first face-to-face meeting, a baseball game, the teams shouted invective and finally burned each other’s territorial flags. This led to an escalating series of strikes and counterstrikes. (Lex talionis: the law of retaliation.) The Rattlers raided the Eagles’ cabin, tearing their mosquito nets and stealing comic books; the Eagles in turn raided the Rattlers’ camp during dinner. The boys began stockpiling crude homemade weapons, like socks filled with stones.

The Robbers Cave experiment is a classic example used in Realistic Conflict Theory, a social psychology approach that attempts to explain the behavior of groups competing over the same resources. But the Eagles and the Rattlers weren’t battling over food or fuel or women, like tribes or nations in the real world might. And even before the competitive tournament began, each side saw their peers in the other camp — who might easily have been assigned to their own camp instead — as outsiders. It’s not clear if this antagonism was inevitable. Is the distinction between friend and enemy, as the German legal scholar Carl Schmitt believed, irreducible? Or did the psychologists somehow encourage their warlike behavior?

In his forward to a 2007 edition of The Concept of the Political, Tracy B. Strong notes that Schmitt “identifies as the ‘high points of politics’ those moments in which ‘the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy.’ ” The phrase “high points” recalls a frisson I associate with the morning of 9/11. My husband John, whom I did not know at the time, was woken that morning by a phone call from his father saying, “Turn on the news,” and then, significantly: “We’re at war.” I too remember an agitated excitement around me, a sense of purpose gathering itself — an enemy taking shape. Perhaps the boys at Robbers Cave had a slight tendency toward conflict, the psychologists a slight tendency to foster it, these tendencies compounding each other.

One year after the Robbers Cave experiment, in 1955, the anthropologist K.E. Read published a study in “comparative ethics” in the journal Oceania. It was about the Gahuku-Gama, a native people (or “congeries of tribes”) in New Guinea. According to Read, the Gahuku-Gama do not subscribe, as Christians in the West do, to a form of deontological, duty-based ethics, where certain behaviors are considered inherently good or bad, and should therefore be pursued or avoided for their own sake. Their morality is more consequentialist, with retribution as deterrent: “Instead of saying it is ‘good’ or ‘right’ to help others, they state quite simply that ‘if you don’t help others, others won’t help you’ … disrespect for elders, lack of regard for age mates, failure to support fellow clansmen, incest or breaking the rules of clan exogamy all involve practical penalties.”

However, the tribes do not apply this pragmatic, Golden Rule–like thinking to all people equally; the morals only work inside the group. “Gahuku-Gama assertions of what is right or wrong, good or bad, are not intended to apply to all men; they are stated from the position of a particular collectivity outside of which the moral norm ceases to have any meaning,” Read writes. There is no universal moral law, then, no Kantian categorical imperative for the Gahuku-Gama: When it comes to people outside their tribe, “it is justifiable to kill them, to steal from them and to seduce their women.” The value of a life, its worthiness of our moral regard, is determined by social relations. The other just doesn’t count as much, or doesn’t count at all.

What, in the world, are we supposed to care about, and how much? Do our loyalties belong with our friends first — be it our literal friends or, as Schmitt believed, our nation-state? Or do we, as Emmanuel Levinas suggested, have “infinite responsibility” toward the other, any and every other?

On Twitter, I see arguments over the question of what deserves our compassion almost every day. Some outrages are seen as worthy, and others are deemed frivolous, a distraction from the more important problems. When you’ve been accused of focusing on the wrong issue, the simple shame-deflecting response is that we can care about more than one thing at a time. But I don’t think the problem is entirely trivial — because we can’t actually care about everything equally, especially not all at once. My responsibility may be infinite, but my empathy is not, and there is more evil in the world at any given moment than I feel physically capable of processing, much less addressing with due thought and care.

Many of my friends watched and live-tweeted Barack Obama’s press conference on December 16, 2016. We had been wracked with fear since Election Day, addicted to the news, and were nursing secret, irrational hopes that he would denounce then–President Elect Donald Trump, reveal something to prevent him from taking office, or otherwise somehow save us. Of course, he did not. It was a typical Obama performance, cool as can be — except for one emotional answer, where for a moment I thought he might cry. Mike Dorney of Bloomberg had asked, “Do you, as president of the United States, leader of the free world, feel any personal moral responsibility now at the end of your presidency for the carnage we’re all watching in Aleppo, which I’m sure disturbs you?” Obama responded:

Mike, I always feel responsible. I felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers. I felt responsible when millions of people had been displaced. I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan that’s not being reported on, partly because there’s not as much social media being generated from there.

There are places around the world where horrible things are happening and because of my office, because I’m president of the United States, I feel responsible. I ask myself every single day, is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference and spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer. So that’s a starting point. There’s not a moment during the course of this presidency where I haven’t felt some responsibility.

This answer has stuck with me, in part because the contrast to Trump was so stark — the speech seemed almost directed at his successor. But I was struck too by the comment about South Sudan. My Twitter feed had been full of reactions to the news from Aleppo. Whether the horror was genuine or performative seems beside the point — like those studies that show smiling makes you happier, fake horror probably encourages real horror and drives real action. (I wouldn’t have made a donation to the White Helmets if someone I follow hadn’t tweeted a link, in the midst of the horror.) But as Obama said, hardly anyone was talking about the civil war and famine in South Sudan.

These unspoken algorithms by which we manage our empathy — they are almost “self-care.” But layered together, they have the shade of evil

Maybe we can care about nearby minor injustices, like a sexist commercial or racist casting in a Hollywood movie, and faraway great injustices like the bombings of civilians in Syria at the same time. But can we meaningfully, not just nominally, care about Sudan and Syria at the same time, or does this stretch the capacity of human understanding? We’re not rational robots who always give our money and time to the best causes in order. Maybe Obama is capable of caring, because he knows much more about both situations: comprehension as compassion. But how is the average, ignorant citizen supposed to conjure or ration this level of empathy, and do they have any moral responsibility to?

Social media, with its reach and immediacy, even intimacy, threatens the “us versus them” assignations we make so naturally. It exposes us to people who are suffering thousands of miles away. Moral people don’t want other people to suffer — at least not visibly. But for most of human history, we were sheltered from knowing about suffering outside our immediate in-group. With a lower global population, there was less total suffering in the first place, but our ancestors also lacked the means of communication that now make it possible for us to see total strangers in excruciating pain, whether it’s a video of a man being strangled by a cop in New York or journalistic footage of government-sanctioned murders in the Philippines. When that distance across time and space collapses, the concept of “the other” loses clarity, confusing our moral distinctions.

There’s a richness of detail in the media of suffering that tests the limits of our empathy — if not asking too much, then asking too often. Empathy, I suspect, is a scarce resource; chronic stress has been shown to reduce empathy. Similar to “ego depletion,” a phenomenon seen in psychology studies where overexerting one’s willpower leads to a period of reduced will or control — like muscle fatigue for the self — we may experience empathy depletion when exposed to excess suffering.

As the injustices pile up, and reserves run low, the question of where we should focus our moral attention becomes critical — when exposed to more evils than we can possibly attend to, most of us feel helpless. And what, more than helplessness, excuses apathy and inaction? Rather than confront global suffering, we may cull our feeds, or stop watching the news. Or, worse, we may make of the suffering other an enemy, turning apathy to antipathy. These unspoken algorithms by which we manage our empathy — they are almost innocent, almost “self-care.” (We’re not committing atrocities, just refusing to witness them.) But layered together, they have the shade of evil.

I am struggling to write about evil. I wrote and then deleted some 700 words — about the incoherence of ethics, the failure of ethics to scale from local to global, to work outside contrived philosophical thought experiments — because they sounded too certain. I am not an expert in international ethics, or ethics of any sort, for that matter. But if ethical systems are incoherent, which I believe they are, wherefore my moral certainty? Perhaps I should write instead about my own participation in evil: my complicity and complacency as an American, and my entitlement. I ignore the evils that support my quality of life, which I’ve become accustomed to (access to cheap airfare, a cheap phone, cheap meat). We’ve arranged to make the evils that benefit us invisible.

I was in the midst of writing and rewriting this when I began to see reports of the missile strikes in Syria on April 6, 2017. This is the second time I’ve used the word midst. I always think of a former colleague, who once mistakenly wrote in the mist of our journey. The midst is the mist, the fog of war.

I wished John were home to discuss this new development with me, to help me decide how to feel. He was out teaching a class that night, using as course material Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, a devastating book about a woman whose disfigurement due to jaw cancer is the blight of her life. I felt her suffering no less keenly because it involved vanity. (Grealy died at 39 of a heroin overdose.)

Once home, he sat on the couch with his laptop, getting caught up on what he’d missed during class, and I told him I was struggling with the essay on evil. He suggested I read The Other by Ryszard Kapuściński. When I googled Kapuściński, two of the first five results were about his questionable reputation. One headline, at Slate: “The lies of Ryszard Kapuściński — or, if you prefer, the ‘magical realism.’” Another, in the Guardian: “Poland’s ace reporter Ryszard Kapuściński accused of fiction-writing.” Suddenly I wondered if my essay about evil should cite only evil sources; Carl Schmitt was a Nazi sympathizer. How am I qualified to write about evil? Am I another evil source?

The author and filmmaker Laurens van der Post wrote a book about evil called The Dark Eye in Africa. The title is based on the Javanese term mata kelap, or dark eye, equivalent to what the Malaysians call amok. In English, “running amok” suggests wild and disruptive but essentially harmless behavior; I automatically picture toddlers at a birthday party. The original term is more specific, per van der Post:

It is a phenomenon where a human being who has behaved respectably in the collective sense, obeying all the mores and the collective ethos of a particular culture and people, suddenly at the age of about 35 or 40 finds all this respectability too much — and takes a dagger and murders everyone around before being overpowered.

Van der Post uses this “darkening of the eye” as a metaphor for racial prejudice in South Africa and, by extension, for all the evils of war.

The mistake we so often make, he contends, is self-exoneration: “One culture after another is still running amok and people are still murdering one another in the belief that it is not they but their neighbors who are evil.” It’s not that the other guy isn’t evil, he implies, but that we are evil too: “Evil is a fact,” he writes, basic and inescapable — “There is almost a sense in which evil is not evil!” The mores, of course, are in place not to maintain the natural order but to enforce unnatural order. Horribly, the point is driven home by van der Post’s own biography: after his death, a journalist, originally a fan of his work, exposed him as a statutory rapist and a fraud.

Again I remember the boys at Robbers Cave, who didn’t need a reason to hate each other. Under the right conditions, animosity just emerges, like life from a muck of organic compounds. Schmitt believed that without the threat of being killed, life would be purposeless — that we define ourselves against an “adversary” who “intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.” He seems to suggest that meaning, and therefore evil, is a basic human need.

Sometimes I think evil is merely cumulative, an effect of scale, a swarm intelligence. If it was just two boys who found each other in the woods, wouldn’t they band together, and become friends? Or would they become a group in search of an enemy?

Elisa Gabbert is the author most recently of The Word Pretty. Her next collection, The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, will be out from FSG Originals in August 2020.