Lessons from Mistakes Were Made , Dissonance and Evil
I finished Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), and I really enjoyed the book. Anyone who is a student of the human condition would, I think, find the book enlightening. Of course, if you spend ~$10 on it and force yourself to read it, self-justification will help you to believe it was worth it.
The authors have a chapter on evil that puts a fine point on many of the things I thought about as I was going through the book, and highlights why it was a good read for me as a writer. People often become evil, they stipulate, not out of a desire to be evil, but out of a desire to be good. This is really a research-backed way of saying, “everyone has his reasons”. They use, among others, the example of the guards at Abu Ghraib. These guards were, likely, the heroes of their own stories. Especially after they had already done some minor torture and humiliation, they were in a difficult situation and were confronted with two, dissonant, thoughts.
- I am a hero and a good guy
- I have inflicted pain and humiliation on people
The way they resolved these two thoughts was not to stop doing harm, but to come to a place where they understood themselves to be especially virtuous and for their victims to be especially worthy of the torture the guards inflicted upon them. Every act of humiliation only served radicalize them further down the road of self-justification. People can, and do, recoil from this and choose to face their problems, but those are heroes and the topic of a different post. Also, one could probably talk about a bucketful of psychological theories with regards to the soldiers: groupthink, aggression theory, social identity theory, etc.) I’m focusing on dissonance for now.
I imagine some of the best antagonists, especially the mortal ones, start out not only thinking of themselves as good, but also being good in truth. They are moral people who make a mistake that causes them some fair amount of dissonance. The antagonists then justify their mistake instead of facing it. This causes them to reinterpret all past and future events with their new understanding of morality. They operate this way until they find another excuse to slip, or they perpetuate the original mistake again. This further pushes them from being the moral people they once were and edges them closer to villainy. By the time they have become the dragon and the person with the lowest cost (the protagonist) confronts them, their view of the world has become so skewed that when the protagonist doesn’t agree with them then the protagonist must be the villain. My goal, then, is to deliver such a villain, or multiple such villains, in my novels, and to give the reader a tour of the downward spiral. I want to explore not only the fallen, but the sensation of watching the antagonist fall. That should make the final confrontation more gripping and satisfying.