People of the Lie

Tags:  non-fiction, religion, psychology,

Scott Peck’s People of the Lie proposes that psychology should begin a formal scientific study of evil, and that evil should be added as a diagnosis in American psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Peck mentions along the way that when he made this suggestion to an audience of psychologists and theologians, both sides disagreed with him. Though this book is full of interesting ideas and valuable observations, I agree with Peck’s audience.

People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck

If you’re going to undertake a scientific study of evil, you first have to define what you’re studying. Peck does a good job of this. In The Road Less Traveled, he defined mental health as a commitment to spiritual growth, a commitment to truth at all costs. Mental illness that isn’t genetic or inherited, he said, comes from avoiding legitimate suffering, from refusing to face and accept aspects of reality that are painful. Mentally healthy people continually adjust their world views to incorporate new lessons and experiences, even though doing so requires the painful letting go of old models of understanding.

Emotionally ill people, by contrast, do all they can to avoid accepting lessons and experiences that threaten their world view, or that cause them to look critically at themselves, to acknowledge and correct their shortcomings. The evil, according to Peck, take this refusal a step further. They don’t just reject realities they don’t like, they actively deny them in order to preserve the sense of self threatened by those realities.

They refuse uncomfortable feelings like guilt and shame, feelings that cause emotionally healthy people to mend their ways, and turn those feelings outward on the world around them.

The evil deny the suffering of their guilt–the painful awareness of their sin, inadequacy, and imperfection–by casting their pain onto others through projection and scapegoating. They themselves may not suffer, but those around them do. They cause suffering. The evil create for those under their dominion a miniature sick society.

If emotional health is a commitment to truth at all costs, and love is the process of nurturing spiritual growth, then evil is opposite of both. The evil actively thwart spiritual growth in themselves and in others. The evil are opposed to truth and committed to lies. They lie primarily to protect a self image that reality threatens. They cannot bear to be examined closely, because they know that close examination will reveal them for who they really are. They blame, gaslight, manipulate and hurt others to keep them from growing and being healthy. They sow confusion on purpose and are deliberately destructive toward themselves and others.

In the end, evil is an extreme form of narcissism. It’s a form of self-centeredness so extreme as to be willing to destroy anyone and anything that threatens its inner sense of perfection. For this type of narcissist, even the mildest criticism or contradiction threatens annihilation of the self. However calm they appear on the surface, the evil live in constant terror of being exposed, and when provoked–even mildly–behave like cornered animals.

Peck gives examples of evil individuals he’s encountered in his psychiatric practice. He notes that people who meet his definition of evil generally avoid psychotherapy because they cannot tolerate close examination, they cannot face the possibility of uncovering anything ugly inside themselves.

The people who show in therapy then are the victims of the evil narcissists, usually their children. Reasonable adults generally recognize and avoid malignant narcissists, but if you happen to be born to one, you can’t get away, and you’ll be stuck with a lot of work trying to undo the damage they inflicted.

Not all of Peck’s “evil” examples are compelling. A long section of the book concerns a rare “evil” person who did seek counseling, an infuriatingly difficult patient named Charlene. She’s manipulative, for sure, and deceitful, but she doesn’t seem to inflict on others the kind of harm that some of the narcissistic parents inflicted on their children in earlier chapters of the book.

Charlene does, however, prove instructive as a study of the inner workings of the evil mind. She refuses to accept even the most obvious truths, and she presents elaborate and impenetrable justifications for all her selfish manipulation of others. Peck notes that one characteristic of evil people is their immunity to love. Appeals to goodness and offers of genuine love simply cannot reach them. They have willingly hardened themselves against love, and in Charlene we see the elaborate layers of lie upon lie required to construct such fortifications.

Every lie, when it’s in danger of being exposed, demands the creation of another lie, until finally, the evil person must stand against reality itself and anyone aligned with reality in order to protect the falsehoods they’ve built. The person behind the wall of lies is so deeply sick, and so deeply fearful of truth, they cannot bear to look at themselves.

Peck spends part of the latter half of the book discussing exorcism, the Christian religious process by which evil spirits are cast out of “possessed” individuals. This part of the book is frankly not very enlightening. Peck says early on that he’s not going to try to describe possession or exorcism, because it’s been well described in other books, particularly Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil.

Peck’s book would have been more instructive if had spent some time describing the two cases of exorcism in which he participated. Instead, he uses the section on exorcism to introduce Satan into the narrative, whom he insists is a literal, real spirit roaming abroad in the world at all times seeking to undo us.

If you don’t already buy into this belief, the book won’t convince you. Once Satan appears, Peck takes a deep dive into Christian theology. He’s not trying to convert the reader. He’s simply offering a model of understanding of the struggle between good and evil that comes from people who have spent thousands of years thinking about it. Why should a scientist turn to them? Because modern science has spent zero time thinking about it, so what the hell can it teach us?

The second-to-last section of the book, which is very enlightening, discusses group evil. Peck was a member of the US military in the late nineteen-sixties and was assigned to examine the causes of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. He digs into this in some detail in Chapter Six, tracing the abdication of responsibility from the individual soldier, to the small group (Task Force Barker), to the larger group (the US Army) to the even larger group (the United States government and its citizens).

There’s too much here to summarize, but Peck notes what many other psychologists have noted: that often when individuals join a group they relinquish their sense of personal responsibility to the leaders of the group.

Two key elements of evil that Peck sees again and again in evil individuals he also finds in the aforementioned groups as he goes up the ladder of responsibility. One is the narcissist’s commitment to lying. Lyndon Johnson and the US government had escalated a conflict they shouldn’t have been in in the first place because they were beginning to be embarrassed. They doubled down on a bad decision to avoid exposing the fact that they had made a wrong decision in the first place.

The second is laziness. The citizens of the US were given knowledge of what their army was doing overseas, but they simply didn’t care until around 1970, when the draft started plucking young men from people’s homes and the matter became personal.

The sin of laziness appears in The Road Less Traveled as a key cause of mental and emotional illness. People who don’t want to do the hard work of revising their world view and their understanding of their own identity often wind up sick and miserable. Among the general population, avoiding this work is often a matter of simple laziness. Among the evil, it’s also a matter of fear, because the evil instinctively know that when they turn a light on their innermost selves, what they’re going to find is not pretty. Evil people, like the devils of the Christian tradition, cannot bear the light of truth because what it reveals is so painfully ugly.

Peck spends the final chapter of the book defending his assertion that evil should be a legitimate subject of scientific study. Along the way, he presents a number of arguments against this assertion, and then shoots them all down.

I actually find the arguments against to be more compelling than the arguments for. Why add “evil,” with its negative religious connotations, to the DSM when narcissism and antisocial personality disorder are already there? And how can science, with its precise terms and measurements, effectively study anything so imprecise and immeasurable?

While this book is well worth reading for its insights and observations, and for the way it will challenge you to think, I ultimately agree with Peck’s skeptical audience of psychiatrists and clergy. Let the preachers and theologians approach to problem of evil from their angle while the doctors do what they can with the narcissists and sociopaths and antisocials. The problem of people bringing unnecessary suffering into the world is complex enough to warrant multiple approaches.