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People Seem Evil Because the World Has Gotten Better (And Then a Bit Worse Suddenly)
You are the villain of someone else’s story. No matter how kind, caring, and just you feel, YOU are what’s wrong with society according to someone, somewhere…
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you think. Maybe you have traditional religious and family values, and make sure to follow God’s commandments? You’re the villain of some secular progressives. Maybe you’re an anti-racist, dedicated to rectifying injustice. You’re the villain of some conservative defenders of liberty. Maybe you’re a political moderate, committed to seeing the reasonableness of both sides. You’re the villain of many who deeply identify with their party, who see you as a moral coward. Maybe you are totally apolitical and try not to listen to the culture war at all, well you’re the villain of many who do care, who believe that your apathy is destroying America.
That you’re someone’s villain should not be surprising, because you have villains too. Even if you explicitly argue against hate and are dedicated to bridging divides, there are at least a handful of people whom you still villainize, and whom you see as morally culpable for destroying our country and imperiling our future.
Did we always see so much villainy in the world? Yes and no. There have always been villains in the world. The Adolf Hitlers, Pol Pots, and Idi Amins. But we haven’t always been so quick to use “Hitler” to describe other Americans. Why do we see so many villains today?
The reason why calls of villainy are rampant today is because…bear with us...society is getting better. Your first impulse is probably to scoff, shake your head, and then close this tab. You think that this can’t possibly be true. How can society be getting better when we’re in year two of the pandemic with skyrocketing rates of loneliness? Just last week, David Brooks wrote an op-ed titled “America Is Falling Apart at the Seams.” It contained a litany of bad trends in America: crime, misbehaving kids, traffic accidents, and hate crimes. Brooks admits to not knowing what has caused this terrible constellation of catastrophe but is convinced it exists.
The problem with constellations, however, is that it’s all about connecting the dots, and when humans look at patterns, we tend to be myopic. We look at America today and see misery, but the world is generally getting better and has been for a long time now. Global poverty has been plummeting, children have been dying less, hunger has been disappearing, education has been spreading, renewable energy is now the cheapest form of energy, working hours have been decreasing, and global democracy is near an all-time high (a great place to learn about these trends is (https://ourworldindata.org)).
The large-scale improvement leads us to see more villains in the world—and in our universities, and neighborhoods—through the creep of harm, the steadily increasing perception that more things are harmful, threatening, and dangerous. Yes, the reason that people are yelling and pointing fingers, whether at soulless politicians, insensitive professors, disruptive students, is because the world is better than it used to be. At first glance, this seems all wrong. How can it be that a better world makes things seem worse?! We’ll explain.
The Creep of Harm
Let’s start with the creep of harm by considering a question: What counts as bullying? If you were a parent answering this question 50 years ago, a clear picture might form in your mind. A group of 9th-grade boys surrounding a crying 7th grader, punching and kicking him until bloody. When parents answer that question today, they usually picture something different. Bullying is now social ostracism, underhanded insults, or nasty comments on social media. (To be sure, 9th graders beating a younger kid until bloody is still wrong, but that’s no longer bullying, that’s aggravated assault.)
The idea of bullying has “crept” from direct intentional physical harm to less direct social and emotional harm. To be a bully, you no longer have to put someone’s head in a toilet bowl, you only have to disrespect their feelings, or invalidate their perspective. Although we weren’t alive 50 years ago, one of us (Kurt) has seen this creep of harm in bullying firsthand.
When I was 13, I spent the year living in England, when my dad was posted there in the Navy. Because of a set of arcane rules governing military postings, I found myself at a local private school. It was a rather posh school, the type often portrayed in films, where kids wear grey wool sweaters. They were always damp and itchy in the rainy British winter. One of the games that we played was called “headers, volleys, and beats.”
Ten to twenty boys would play this soccer-type game together. The aim of the game was to score three times in a row on the same person by either heading or volleying the ball into the goal. If someone gave up three goals in a row, then the game paused, and everyone playing lined up for the opportunity to “beat” the unlucky goalie, punching him as hard as possible in the arm. It was a very orderly display of aggression (how British). Although I was often the recipient of beats (targeted because I had the soccer skills of a Canadian), it was never clear to me whether this was bullying or just good posh fun.
Now that I’m a parent, if the same thing were happening to my kid there would be no ambiguity. If I saw an eighth-grader of mine come home bruised and beaten, I wouldn’t hesitate to make a phone call about bullying. Harm has crept. (I don’t think I even told my parents about the beats at the time.)
Six years ago, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, Nick Haslam, noticed the creep of harm across concepts like abuse, addiction, mental illness, trauma, bullying, and prejudice. Historically, the meanings of each of these words were relatively constrained, but over time they have expanded to include less severe phenomena under their umbrella. Haslam referred to this semantic shift as concept creep.
Haslam has documented this trend across age groups. The kids today see more things as harmful, consistent with claims about “kids these days!” But adults also see more harm. Take bullying. There are many adults who claim to be victims of workplace bullying after getting teased repeatedly. Haslam argues that concept creep occurs both vertically to include less severe examples than before (bullying goes from violence to teasing), and horizontally to include categorically different phenomena (first only kids could get bullied, now adults can too). As more proof of the creep of harm, Haslam and colleagues find that people are using harm related words more and more over time in books.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt sound the alarm about the creep of harm in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure. They argue that our collective good intentions to protect people (and especially kids) from harm are making them more depressed, lonely, and ultimately too fragile to handle the ups and downs of life. I sympathize with their claims. The statistics make clear that kids today do suffer from poorer mental health, and I find myself—as a parent—worried about things that my parents would have shrugged off.
But both of us (Kurt and Will) want to be careful not to blame a specific segment of people. It’s not just parents and their kids who see the creep of harm. It’s everyone, even those arguing against the creep of harm. Think about it. Imagine telling someone from the “Greatest Generation”—perhaps a veteran just returning stateside after surviving the beaches of Normandy—that one of the greatest threats to America is the semantic expansion of a particular set of harm-related concepts. Would he agree, or instead have a hard time believing you? Would he think that the greatest threat to America is the advance of harm, or the advance of armies led by the totalitarian leaders of the Axis Powers, who literally just tried to take over the world, and who killed many of his brothers in arms?
We bring up this example not to trivialize concerns about the creep of harm or other modern social problems, but to highlight that what you see as threatening or harmful is relative. The safer you generally feel, the easier it is to see milder events and trends as harmful, and this is the key to understanding why concept creep happens.
Explaining Concept Creep
There is no doubt that concept creep is happening, but the question is why.
Like many—Haslam wonders whether it might reflect a “liberal moral agenda.” In an Atlantic piece, Conor Friedersdorf, suggests it might be an arms race between wrongdoers and enforcers: “As fights against crime or bullying or racism intensify, crooks, bullies and racists try to hide their misdeeds; enforcers react—if a thief starts “innocently forgetting to pay,” a crackdown on the tactic is needed; if a bully starts kicking his victim under the table rather than punching him in the face, a definition of bullying as “open aggression” is shown to be flawed and insufficient.”
Although both these explanations have some truth, we think concept creep occurs because obvious, severe harms are less present than they used to be.
Ultimately, our perceptions of harm are near-sighted and self-focused. They are based upon our own experiences and are colored by our expectations and our comparisons. Cass Sunstein in his book “This Is Not Normal” explains that what people are willing to tolerate and what they abhor, depends on what they see as normal. In our case, we have all gotten used to a society in which safety, freedom, and tolerance are for the most part “normal.” When we experience small deviations from this normal—small increases in local harm—we react strongly.
Take the case of homicides which, as Brooks notes, have recently been climbing in the US (see graph below.)
Any rate of murder in society is concerning, and more murders are certainly concerning, but rates still have yet to reach the levels of the crime wave in the ’90s. Our perception that our society “is increasingly violent” right now is colored by what is seen as normal. In the broad scope of history, homicides are way down. For example, our increase in homicides would likely be imperceptible on this chart of homicides in Western Europe from 1300 to 2016 (if measured).
Another example is the democratic recession we are currently experiencing. In 2015, in the Journal of Democracy, Larry Diamond, in a piece entitled “Facing up to the Democratic Recession,” warned that democracy was in a stage of stagnation and decline. “Since 2006, the average level of freedom in the world has also deteriorated slightly, leveling off at about 3.30.” This trend too, though alarming, is a result of decades of remarkable democratic progress around the world. “In the 19th century, there were few countries one could call democracies. Today, the majority are.” (Quote from https://ourworldindata.org/democracy)
As safety and freedom become normal, then we begin to notice—and worry over—even small deviations from this normality. If you worry about rocket attacks hitting your train on the way to work, then you might not be worried about the person sitting next to you listening to loud music on their phone. But if all you have to worry about is an upcoming presentation, then that loud music seems more of an important issue. Likewise, if you are an office worker used to having a delicious latte and a cookie at 9:15 sharp every morning, then even small hiccups in this routine seem abnormal and noteworthy (It’s 9:20! The cookie is stale! The milk is tepid!). Conversely, if you are homeless and hungry and forced to scramble for food every morning, you likely wouldn’t notice if a barista slightly over pulled your latte’s espresso shot.
There is a technical term for the expansion of our worries when we have less to worry about—prevalence induced concept creep, and it occurs even in banal and uncontroversial circumstances, like seeing colors. In a set of elegant experiments published in Science, researchers asked people to find all the purple dots in an array of blue and purple dots. It’s an easy enough task, but the researchers started making the purple dots more and more scarce. The participants, now living in a world with almost no purple dots, but still motivated to find them, started seeing blue dots as purple dots. The concept had crept.
Replace “purple dots” with “harm to people” and you can see the relevance. As there are fewer severe harms in our lives (less murder, home invasions), we begin to worry over milder harms (callous online comments) and see them as more severe. We begin to see examples of Hitler-esque villainy in non-Hitler cases. Some American Republicans see Australian COVID restrictions (e.g., lockdowns, stay-at-home orders) as creating “concentration camps” in part because of the historically exceptional freedom they’ve experienced. Likewise, American Democrats see immigration detention centers as “concentration camps”.
Despite the eerie sound of the term “concept creep” and its many detractors, we suggest that its presence signals something good—moral progress. We have grown less tolerant of the suffering of others, and we now recognize the variety of ways that others can be harmed. A hundred years ago, veterans who returned from war and suffered psychologically were sneered at and called “moral invalids” for their weakness. Now, we recognize the existence of PTSD and seek to protect those who protect our country, even if their wounds are invisible. Of course, we don’t always protect those who need help, and the creeping perception of harm does have has drawbacks.
The Hitler Effect
One of the biggest—and underappreciated—drawbacks of concept creep is that it causes us to see more people as villains. The more harm there is, the more people we see as suffering victims, and—in turn—we see more people that should be held responsible for those suffering victims.
These villains are created by our perceptions, but they are not “invented” in the way that skeptics might think. People aren’t disingenuously making up victims where they don’t actually see them, just to prove a point or make an ad hominem attack. Instead, the creep of harm compels our moral minds to see villains because of a phenomenon called moral typecasting. Moral typecasting is a result of our human need for coherent narratives. When we see harm in the world, we don’t see an array of random accidents. Instead, we assign people into enduring moral roles (e.g., villains, victims, and heroes) to explain the harm we perceive. In the same way that Alan Rickman consistently played the villain, and Harrison Ford consistently plays the hero, we typecast people and groups into these relatively fixed roles.
But not all typecasting is equally likely when we encounter harm and injustice. When we see harm, we first see a victim. After all, that’s what harm is—making someone a victim. Once we have a victim, our moral mind needs to see a villain. And that is easy to do. Almost any adult standing next to a victim can seem like a villain. In the moral narrative taking place in our head, if you are not a victim, or a hero standing up to injustice, then you are easily typecast as a villain.
As harm creeps, we are collectively recognizing more people as suffering victims, and that means that we are seeing more people as villains. Moral progress means more perceived evil-doers. You might call this “The Hitler Effect.” As we become motivated to protect an ever-expanding set of victims, we end up creating Hitlers—one-dimensional villains—out of complicated people. We become blind to the fact that many villains can be seen as victims too. For example, child abusers may be comparatively more likely to have been abused themselves, and victims of genocide are more likely to pass down anti-social coping mechanisms to their descendants. Even Hitler was abused as a child. Of course, victimization does not excuse evil deeds, but it does complicate how we make sense of evil-doers.
One of the keys to increasing moral understanding is to recognize that moral typecasting is a heuristic and not a perfect representation of the world. We are all people, each of us with some history of good, evil, and victimization. Admittedly, some people seem to lean one way or another, but it may help us understand others if we can grasp that doing evil is often a reaction against personal victimhood. No one understands this better than Hollywood storytellers, like the writers of “You” the Netflix series starring Penn Badgley as “Joe” a serial killer bookstore clerk. Initially, you feel totally repulsed by Joe, but over time, you see a broken human being with a traumatic past as an orphan. You come to see that Joe is more complicated than pure evil.
Of course, serial killers and Hitlers are still evil, but most of us are not, despite what people call each other on social media. All of us are imperfect mixes of good, bad, and suffering. But just because you have experienced suffering and see it in the world, does not mean that the causes of that suffering are villains. Instead, the causes of societal suffering are much more complicated and stem from imperfect people doing what they think is right in a messy web of imperfect institutions. If we’re thinking about late Alan Rickman, people are less Hans Gruber from Die Hard, a money-hungry kill-happy mastermind, and more Severus Snape from Harry Potter, good-hearted but misunderstood and heartbroken.
Is the world better than it used to be? Yes. Is the world bad right now? Also yes. These two trends combine to make us see harm everywhere. As severe harms become less prevalent, we see milder harms as worse. The price of moral progress is the creep of harm. But as we experience flare-ups in harm—minor regressions to the danger of the past—we connect a few dots to see the ending of the world. But the world will not end, and even if it does, it won’t be because 50% of Americans are evil-doers bent on the destruction of order and kindness. It may be true that the creep of harm combines with our moral narratives to see more victims and more villains, but other people are not Hitlers. They are people.