A story posted a while back by a friend on Facebook got me thinking.
The story’s here, and the headline pretty much sums it up. Campus police on a prestigious American university seem to have been siding with the perpetrators of rape against its victims, a mix of the “it wasn’t really rape” and “she was asking for it” attitudes that don’t belong in any society that thinks of itself as civilised.
What struck me wasn’t so much the fact that there were students who’d commit rape – sad, but hardly surprising – or police officers that would condone it, or wouldn’t care, which was also, on an individual basis, inevitable. That there are people out there with attitudes that are at best socially unacceptable, and at worst downright evil, is a regrettable fact of life.
But what did surprise me was that within an institution, people like that can find out about each other and discover they have a mutual interest in something the rest of the world thinks is sick. I can’t figure out how that works. Surely people with an attitude like that are embarrassed by it, or at least aware it’s not likely to play too well if they go around boasting about it. So what the hell happens? How does it come out?
“Hi, my name’s Bob, and I don’t think rape’s that bad”.
“Hey there Bob, I’m Mike, and I like your attitude. I’m not even sure rape really exists”.
“Well would you look at that, Mike, turns out we’re partners”.
All I can think is it must be something gradual, something institutional (in much the same way the Metropolitan Police was famously described in the Macpherson report as “institutionally racist”). An atmosphere of compliance is fostered by people at the top not really caring that much, people at the bottom getting away with things, other people noticing this and thinking if everyone else is doing it maybe it’s not so bad after all. The culture of institutional complacency and corruption I wrote about a while back here.
But that’s only half the answer. Institutional behaviour of this kind can only be solved one institution at a time, and only after the event, when there are enough victims out there or the crimes are so horrific that the whole thing spills beyond the borders of the organisation into the outside world. And it’s not just institutional, anyway. How do people with horrific attitudes get together in general? What about paedophiles? One paedophile, sure, it’s awful, but they’re out there. Two paedophiles, same thing. But a ring of them? Linked not by the internet (and in many cases before the internet even existed), but by living in the same town or drinking in the same bar?
I’ve asked the question but I really don’t know the answer. I’m sure the cleverest psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are trying to crack it. How do these people find each other? What’s the magnetic attraction between a Brady and a Hindley that causes them to seek one another out, to rummage through the haystack and pull out just the needle they’re looking for?
It’s not so much “why are people evil?” but “how does evil socialise?”