On Evil
by Ken Arneson
2011-11-14 21:13

There are few characters in all of literature more evil than Shakespeare’s Richard III. In the very first scene of the play, Richard comes right out and declares that he is a villain. He then proceeds to spend the rest of the play alternating between describing the evil he’s about to do, and doing that evil. He cares nothing about the damage he does to the people around him. He murders anyone who gets in his way: his enemies, his friends, his closest ally, his brother, his wife, and his two nephews–both children. He’s a monster.

Yet he’s also intelligent and, in the hands of a good actor, both charming and funny. I recently saw Kevin Spacey perform in Richard III at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. At times, Spacey’s impeccable comic timing had the audience in stitches.

It was both an amazing and a disturbing performance. The play would have no life, no value, if it were just a laundry list of evil actions. But, thanks to the genius of Shakespeare, and the talents of an accomplished actor, we find ourselves entertained by evil, impressed by evil, charmed by evil, laughing at evil, laughing with evil. We, the audience, can’t help ourselves.

What does this say about us? Does our ability to enjoy evil condemn us as evil ourselves?

* * *

What, dost thou scorn me for my gentle counsel?
And soothe the devil that I warn thee from?
O, but remember this another day,
When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow,
And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!

–Queen Margaret, in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act I, Scene III

Only one character in Richard III recognizes from the start that Richard is a bad man: old Queen Margaret. She had suffered this kind of treachery before. But when she tells people about the evil before them, nobody chooses to consider she might be right. They dismiss her as just a crazy old lady. Nobody really wants to confront such an uncomfortable idea. And so an evil man continues to roam free, to do more damage to people’s lives.

Sound familiar?

* * *

“You manage things. You lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership.”

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was one of the pioneers of computer science. She is credited with coining the computer terms “bugs” and “debugging”. One of the bugs she felt had crept into late 20th century society was that our educational institutions stopped teaching leadership, and started teaching management instead.

If you think about her quote in relation to the Penn State scandal, you can easily see how this thing went wrong. When organizations get large, when millions and billions of dollars are at stake, human beings become abstractions. People aren’t people anymore. They’re assets, or resources, or targets, or obligations, or liabilities, or potential lawsuits.

This thing at Penn State went horribly wrong because this thing became a thing. It became something to manage, an issue to deal with. And every time the buck got passed along the management chain, the issue became less person-like and more thing-like.

Penn State failed because they had management, not leadership. They had managers, not leaders. They failed because they didn’t have anyone who could tell the difference.

* * *

It’s very de-motivating to work in an environment where you can see all the brutal facts, but those in power are not confronting those brutal facts. And you want them confronted because you want to be part of something great.

Jim Collins, on “How the Mighty Fall”, his study of how great enterprises unravel.

Evil is repulsive. So it’s natural to want to repel it, to look away, to ignore it, to hope it’s not really there, to hope it will go away. Shakespeare recognized that human behavior 500 years ago. We’re still just as human today.

But the only way to defeat evil is to not repel it too quickly. If you dismiss or rationalize away the brutal facts you face, you only displace those brutal facts temporarily. They’re still there, lurking in the background.

Wise leaders must have the courage to let that evil in, just long enough to examine it, to understand it. That’s dangerous. You don’t want to be seduced by the temptations of evil yourself, and you don’t want to become a victim of it. But it must be done. It is wise, not evil, to want to study the likes of Richard III. It is wise to try to take lessons from the failures at Penn State. Otherwise, there will certainly be more victims whose hearts are split with sorrow.

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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