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Evil is like Love - it's all around you

"The past and the present is full of evidence of humans being capable and willing to do incredible evil for the most trivial reasons. Why on earth do you think that's different for us? Its the same people."
I found myself giving this tad dramatic advice to a friend a couple of weeks ago over coffee. He's one of nicer people I know, and was finding it hard to reconcile some of the behavior he was dealing with at work. For reasons he couldn't fathom a few of his colleagues were making his life a lot harder than it needed to be despite his best intentions and actions. As far as I could tell, there wasn't a good or rational reason for this, and he'd acted incredibly professionally and even with great kindness towards them. They'd chosen to make his life miserable.

So... why? Despite his best intentions, why were a couple of folks actively making his life harder at work, and acting with spite towards him? We chatted for a bit and I couldn't help thinking "Why the heck is this surprising to us??" 

The past and the present show plenty of evidence of how humans are capable for great evil (wars, slavery, torture, denying other humans the most basic rights etc. etc.) - this isn't just one or two people, at various points in history entire civilizations have displayed incredible cruelty, and haven't hesitated to treat other humans with incredible brutality and unkindness. Kids are pretty cruel, and high school can be a pretty brutal place for some people - so why do we expect things to change as people grow up and why do we think humans have changed their basic nature?

What started out as a pretty casual chat about a workplace situation, which I thought I might be able to help him with by understanding the true source of the conflict and suggesting techniques to handle/befriend his nemeses (I couldn't), led me to a different place. The reason this was particularly painful for him was that it was surprising - he was expecting to be treated fairly and with kindness by his fellow human beings, but isn't that unreasonable? 

I've come to realize

  • Some people are just evil - I use the strongest version of the word - but mean/petty/cruel/jackasses all work. They're prone to thinking badly and delighting in damaging others in some way. This is a non-trivial section of the population and while good environments may limit them, they're always there. They delight in treating some people (even a lot people) badly.
  • Some people turn evil - Even people that are capable to being good can be pretty evil under stressful circumstances (Stanford prison experiment). The right set of circumstances can easily make large populations of people behave incredibly cruelly - there's a reason genocides happen even today, entire populations have been wiped out by others and incredibly cruel social practices (burning people, slavery etc.) persisted for eons. Closer to home, I've seen the nature of teams and companies influenced by "evil" leadership or bad culture. 
  • Some people, while not evil as a rule, will still dislike you for no good reason and seem evil to you - I think this summarized my friend's situation. The people tormenting him had decided he was someone to be treated badly and it would take a seismic shift to change that. 
In other words, the rational person should anticipate that some people will just be evil - either just to them or to most people that they can be evil to. 

Forewarned is forearmed. You're better prepared to deal with this when you're expecting. How to deal with it...that's a post for another day. :-)

P.S. - Some referenced in the post title embedded below :-)


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