How Patton Oswalt’s Response to the Boston Marathon Bombings Reflects and is Enhanced by a Ponerologic Perspective

Posted by admin on April 17, 2013

Yesterday, the bombings at the Boston Marathon took place, killing a few and injuring many more. In the wake of this event, there has been an outpouring of thoughts and feelings online.

One response that has gotten a lot of attention is the one posted on Facebook by comedian and actor Patton Oswalt.

I highly doubt that Oswalt has ever heard of the term ponerology. But his response, more than many others, especially from celebrities, actually comes close to placing the event in a ponerologic context.

So first I want to point out the particular statements that reflect a somewhat-ponerologic perspective in his writing.

Toward the very beginning of his post, Oswalt says:

“I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.”

So he is very quickly zeroing in explicitly on sociopathy as a potential factor.

Just two sentences later he says:

“If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet.”

Here, he is already discussing the damaging act in terms of the statistical makeup of the population as broken down by those who purposefully cause significant harm and those who do not. Considering such statistics is one of the central roles of ponerology. Note that Robert Hare, the world expert on psychopathy (slightly different from sociopathy), estimates that psychopaths make up 1% of the population.

Later Oswalt says:

“…every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.”

I’m not sure if he even realizes how literally relevant his implication of “wiring” in the malice of a certain percentage of people really is. But ponerology is deeply involved in attempts to use neuroscience to discover how neurobiology contributes to harmful behavior and we cover that topic frequently on this site.

Oswalt then proceeds to comment on how those who are not evil vastly outnumber those who are. And he invokes an evolutionary viewpoint when he points out:

“We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.”

Overall, for someone who is not a professional in this area and probably has no specific knowledge of ponerology or related subjects, I think Oswalt’s response if full of valuable insights. While there is nothing wrong with simply expressing one’s emotional reaction to a painful situation, as many have done, it’s nice to see social media used to put forth a response to a damaging act that shares some real wisdom.

However, in addition to sharing and offering a bit of analysis of his response, I’d also like to show how ponerology – at least as Andrew M. Lobaczewski and some others have viewed it – might reveal the situation to be a bit more complicated than Oswalt portrays it to be here.

Oswalt attempts to inject some hope into the situation by pointing out that:

“…the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak.”


“…when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’”

Oswalt is correct that, by a huge majority, non-pathological people outnumber the pathological. However, this does not imply that the non-pathological necessarily exercise more power for several reasons:

  1. The pathological demonstrate specific skill at rising in hierarchies, which, by definition, afford much greater influence to those in some positions than others. So even though there may be fewer pathological people, they may be in positions where they have enormously disproportionate influence.
  2. The constant development of increasingly powerful modern technology enables fewer and fewer people, if willing to employ it inhumanely, to inflict greater and greater damage.
  3. As the Milgram experiment showed, a huge percentage of non-pathological people will, despite any qualms, comply with the directives of those they perceive as authority figures, even if those directives involve knowingly inflicting great harm on others.
  4. As the Stanford Prison Experiment showed, systemic factors and contexts can influence even non-pathological people to act in sociopathic and sadistic ways. In other words, as systems thinking often points out, structure can create behavior. And, if even a few pathological people are in positions of power, they can shape systems and structures so as to drive much of the rest of the population to act in ways that mirror their pathological values.

So while Oswalt’s response is quite astute and comes close to offering a realistic perspective about how to approach the fact that we live in this world alongside pathological people, I think the work of Lobaczewski, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo can help modify his advice to make it a little bit more effective.

Outnumbering the pathological isn’t enough. In order to develop a situation in which cooperation overcomes exploitation, non-pathological people must become educated about the dynamics of ponerology so that they can recognize leverage points to resist the influence of even powerful pathological people and reshape systems that otherwise drive them into pathological positions even if they themselves are not pathological.

The real hope comes from the fact that, in Milgram’s experiments, while 2/3 of participants were willing to administer the maximum voltage to a screaming confederate when ordered by the authority figure, and a frightening 90% were willing if they first saw someone else do it, 90% rebelled if they first saw someone else rebel.

That means that, just as pathological people can exert disproportionate influence, so can those who resist them, even when those they resist occupy positions of authority, as their personal resistance generates a ripple effect of resistance.

I hope that Patton Oswalt and those who were moved by his thoughtful response to these bombings in Boston will take the time to do more research about ponerology and the highly relevant work of those mentioned in this article. Perhaps the best tribute we can pay to the people, families and communities suffering in the wake of this event is to use it as a springboard from which to learn more about the actual science of evil. That science may well offer us our best chance for moving beyond relatively helpless hope and prayer to real understanding of how to prevent and mitigate future harmful malicious and neglectful activities.

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