Browsing the Quora lists, I stumbled on a thread about whether the death penalty was ever justified. A former FBI agent related a case of a family murder that haunted her. Just her dry recitation of the facts chilled and nauseated me. I thought she would conclude with support for the death penalty, but she didn’t. She came out against retributive justice.
In his Power of Myth series, Joseph Campbell related the tale of a samurai who stalked an evil man and had him at bay. As the samurai prepared to kill him, the man spat in his face, and the samurai sheathed his sword and left. His code of honor forbade him from slaying in anger.
Suspending judgment and action when we’re worked up is civilized behavior. And in this age of addiction to social-media outrage, it bears examining in light of what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung taught.
Our visceral reaction against evil is an encounter with our own, unconscious potential for evil.* Likewise, we unconsciously recognize our latent powers in those whom we admire. The deeper our emotional reactions, the closer to the most primitive, collective reach of the psyche, the realm of gods and monsters. Jung observed that we naturally become cocooned in our projections, increasingly rigid and limited. The hard task of breaking this cocoon, of becoming more fully your Self, is to make your projections conscious, to recognize and own up to them. Every genocidal campaign represents a failure of this personal responsibility on a monumental scale.
If you’re addicted to outrage on social media, like I have been, you are distracting yourself from a challenging self-encounter. It’s only natural. We evolved to selfishly appropriate the grievance of our tribes and to lay the burden of our own weakness on the shoulders of heroes. But we also evolved a higher function of mind, a capacity to reject the easy path. To pursue our own greatness. To own our own shit.
*I do a thought experiment on myself to test my projections. I call it the Evil-Robot Test, or the Terminator Test. Imagine a crime that gets you worked up. Consider your thoughts about the perpetrator, your construction of their personality and motives. Then consider your probable feeling toward an emotionless robot that performed the same deeds. Our theory of mind — our ability to relate to our non-robot construction of another person — is an essential survival tool. The better our theory of mind, the better we can befriend, seduce, exploit, overcome, or avoid others, as necessary, but it is always incomplete and a reflection of our own capacities.