Saturday, July 14, 2007


I recently watched The Last King of Scotland, which tells a partly-fictionalised story about Idi Amin, the president of Uganda throughout the 1970's. He was a totalitarian dictator who killed a horrific number of his own people during his rule and is still remembered as a symbol of cruelty and brutality. The film did a good job of exploring the character of such a figure – the actor who portrayed him got an Oscar for his efforts – and gave me some interesting impressions.

First, that he was absolutely paranoid that everyone was a threat to his position; he considered the things he had to contribute to Uganda to be very worthy indeed, and anyone who got in the way of him doing those things was an enemy. As the film went on, his fear of betrayal came to overpower his desire to good. That seemed to be the main reason he killed so many of his fellow countrymen. Second, the film showed a character who was extremely jovial, fun-loving, and just great to be around – half of the time; the other half, he shouted at people, hit them, accused them, and was just awful to be around.

Based on these impressions, I concluded he was a sick man, with some serious mental diseases that may be easily treated medically (the other main character was his personal doctor, so I wondered why he didn't give him that kind of treatment). Well, in discussing this with friends, I've realised that not everyone thinks that that was a good idea. Why? One possibly obvious reason would be that it might be unethical because it could involve sneaking such drugs into his regular medications. Another reason is that it might not have made much of a difference.

But when it really came down to it, I think it was a question of motivations. Would drugs have kept him from doing what he wanted to do – murder, pillage and abuse? Or would drugs have kept him from doing what he did not want to do – helping him to be the reasonable person he wanted to be?

So I've been pondering this the last few days, and I think that I'd rather expect good motivations of people and be disappointed, than expect the worst and be surprised. I'd rather assume that Idi Amin didn't want to be the awful person that he was: that he lost control of himself, rather than that he was just out to do evil. From the perspective of my beliefs about God, I have to admit that everyone does evil and has evil in his heart – but I've concluded that this doesn't mean that I need to expect that everyone wants to do evil. After all, I don't think my own motivations are evil!

The same way of thinking can apply to any political leader. Saddam Hussein did many awful things – why? Many people in the world see George Bush as doing some evil through his foreign policy – why? What about when a close friend of mine does something that's just plain bad?

I wonder whether it actually makes a difference to have a stance on this issue. I think it does because it informs our response. Just like with Idi Amin the question became whether to try to work with him or just kill him... If I think George Bush is doing something awful, what should I do? Should I try to convince him to change his mind (ok, I'd probably have to be buddies with him to do that, but ignoring that for a moment...)? Or should I just get him out of office as quickly as possible? Or, in the case of a leader who is not democratically elected, should I get him killed?

These questions work with people we know on a more personal level, too, of course. If I see my friend do something bad rather than trying to force him/her to be unable to do this bad thing, I will try to convince and persuade him/her that it is in fact wrong. That's actually in the Bible: first try to convince him/her, then get help trying to convince him/her, and only if none of that works try doing something punitive.

I just think there's a real danger in assuming people are just plain evil. There is great evil and many people do many evil things. But if we start thinking that's what they're out to do, we'll probably just plain give up on them, and they're probably the people who most need a good friend! I also worry because I really strongly believe that the people I know best and love the most have good motivations – the bad things they do are more mistakes. So if I think others are motivated by evil, then it becomes an us and them thing: we are motivated by good and they are motivated by evil. And that's what puts up illogical barriers that are impossible to cross: racism, wars, and fear of people just because they're a bit different.

1 comment:

tony said...

I suppose another way to think about it is that since people aren't inherently evil they also contain inherent good. So the questions might be not how do we stop people from doing evil, but how do we get people to do what is good?

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