Recognizing the Dark Side

In some works of fiction, evil is often presented as a distinct phenomenon, even having a magical or supernatural dimension. But as naturalists we, of course, approach evil from a cultural and psychological perspective. What is called ‘evil’ has causes that such caricatures can obscure, or even create emotional barriers to true understanding.

We can also look at evil as a class of actions. But focusing on outward actions often breaks down under scrutiny. The same actions can often be called good or evil depending on the context. Ethical theories which try to classify actions and effects can yield important thoughts and insights. But real-time situations often preclude the kind of analysis needed to make use of elaborate ethical theories. This is complicated even more by the limits of our knowledge of all the facts. Therefore, a more intuitive approach is often required to guide us toward the light and away from darkness.

Here mental tools such as abstractions or poetic approaches can be helpful to grasp the trends, patterns, and common traits that often lead to dark places. In this line of thought, one could define the Dark Side as something like a class of memes, mixed with certain human instincts and habits, which tend to be harmful to human well-being; resulting in great conflict and suffering. To our pattern seeking minds, this can appear like a force of its own. For this reason I have opted to borrow the language of Star Wars in discussing how to recognize sources of moral darkness in the real world and how to cope with them.


If the Dark Side were as obvious as it appears in the pictures, the world would be a lot simpler place. But unfortunately, it operates in ways far more subtle than its most overt examples. Worse, the effects of these more vast but subtle forms are often more damaging than the terrors that make national news, terrible though they are. 

But even more importantly, there is a connection between the subtle and vast form of the Dark Side and its overt and extreme form. Horrible events begin in our hearts and minds and start to take root long before it reaches that point, and within all of us who may never reach extremes. The Dark Side is not in any one person and it’s not all or nothing. It is everywhere and in everyone.

Sometimes we think if our cause is good, or our intentions good, or that we are against the ‘real bad guys’ or the ‘worse guys’ – that this will mean we are on “the good side” and don’t need to worry about the Dark Side within. But this is the first delusion of the Dark Side. In fact, darkness often begins with what seems to be love and caring.

That love creates a great attachment and fear that what we love may be lost or harmed (our children, freedom, rights, our old familiar culture, our religion, and so on). From that fear comes a hate and anger for anything we see as a threat. And there you have the seeds of the Dark Side. 

This is why staying clear of darkness and pursuing a virtuous course requires bravery. It requires a trust in the power of goodness and compassion, and it requires a willingness to risk in order to be better than what you’re opposing. In my country (the United States) we sing in our national anthem that we are the “home of the brave”, but there have been plenty of dark times here which continue today. Such times see a lot of people and groups on all sides willing to fight with very aggressive postures, but this is only seemingly strong or brave. In fact, it is extreme fearfulness and lack of bravery.



The most extreme and obvious forms of the Dark Side are found in wars; civil strife; tribal conflicts between groups; xenophobic hatred or opposition to new peoples; criminal and atrocious behaviors of corporations, governments, or other groups; acts of public violence; domestic strife and abuses; and interpersonal aggressions. But usually by the time these are taking place it is far past where things should have been able to progress.

It would be easier to go around pointing “Evil! Evil!” at others, but this is not as useful as the many other actions we can take in the world in response. Rather, the place we have the most personal familiarity and potential control is in ourselves. To find the Dark Side we should, first and foremost, look within

This requires honest self assessment. It also requires we understand the truth of impermanence when it comes to ourselves. That is, our ever-changing nature. We cannot succumb to that crippling idea: “That’s just who I am”. We begin by acknowledging that even profound change is possible. “Who you are” is boundless.


One of the ways the Dark Side hides from our introspection is by disguising itself. It is very common for darkness to be disguised as other principles and virtues. This gives us permission to think ourselves the good guy.

For example, we might think it’s virtuous to be against stealing, or for obeying the law. Or we might think it noble to want to defend our family. These can be very good principles. But people often commit so completely to one interpretation of these values that they become blind to all other values. Our commitment knows so little exception that it leads us to thinking, saying, or doing some harsh things. When this is pointed out, we counter with the notion that our critics are ‘too soft’ or have some nefarious aim to undermine the values that we are clinging to. Yet, some part of us within, if we dare explore it, has the potential to know something is not right here.

In addition to disguising as other virtues, another lure of the Dark Side is the prospect of sublime simplicity and ‘elegance’ in our way of thinking. We have a natural inclination to seek out philosophies or groups that build their approach around the purity of one idea. All things fall under that one supreme principle. Maybe it’s the notion of “property rights” on a pedestal. Or, maybe it’s “rationalism”, or “cultural purity”, or “swift and consistent justice”, or “safety”, or “economic prosperity”.

Some of these are questionable but many may be perfectly decent ideals. Yet, when there is an answer for everything and it is all very simple it feels good. Doubts and confusion are removed and there is a clearness of vision and purpose. So, one of the things to know is to be on the lookout for these clean, pure doctrines which make things too simple and clear. The real world is not simple – it is complicated. It is messy, and the Truth will never be so easily nailed down. No, we are not hopelessly lost without any ability to know things or make sound decisions. But it’s more work than these approaches suggest. It can be frustrating and requires more of you than simply giving you a direction and feeling your questions are answered. When you see elegance, simplicity, or purity in a worldview, political view, ethical doctrine, or economic model, take it as a sign of something fishy. If you’re reading it and you smack your head thinking, “Of course! It all makes perfect sense now!” then be careful; because it really shouldn’t all make sense.

A third disguise of the Dark Side (after other virtues and elegance) is pragmatism. So often, people get the idea that “all this compassion and love stuff” is all well and good, but ultimately impractical, or diminishes our chances of success in some way. As we learn more about the profound effects of love, kindness, and compassion (and as we learn more about true benefit and true harm as opposed to conventional harm/benefit), something else becomes more apparent. We begin to see that the compassionate way to proceed really is the most effective and efficient way to proceed. I can’t prove this in a short essay, but it should be food for thought.

And a final way the Dark Side can be obfuscated is by not recognizing the road you’re on. We can easily see the Dark Side in genocide, murder, war, etc. But all of these extreme forms are but the end of a mass of various roads. We need to be able to recognize the beginning forms of all of those roads, so we can tell when we are on the track that contributes to, and moves us closer to, those more obvious extremes. It begins with the ways we think. For example, if we find ourselves buying into an us/them dichotomy, this is the beginning of tribalism and that road leads to discomfort, fearfulness, hate, rudeness, racism, intolerance, inaction to help, dehumanization, barbaric actions, and eventually genocide. That should all be seen as one connected track. Know when you are on a spectrum of darkness and do not get on – even at the lighter end. Even if you have no intention of going past a certain point, being on these spectrums contributes to moving others and the world further down those roads.


When we recognize the Dark Side in the actions, motivations, and causes of people and groups, it must be confronted in some way. Often recognizing and avoiding is called for. Sometimes speaking up and condemning such ideas or deeds is helpful. And in more severe cases, taking up the fight against darkness can become critical. But remember there are many ways to fight, and fighting darkness with more darkness is never the answer, tempting though it may seem. Fighting obviously requires courage and fortitude, but often fighting also requires love, tolerance, patience, wisdom, and empathy. Don’t trade emotional indulgence or aggression for efficacy. Here are some other tips…

Watch Your Choice of Community Associations
By a community association I mean even things you may not realize you’re doing. For example, ‘liking’ a Facebook page of certain self-reinforcing or insular community can mean you start to see posts only or primarily from one point of view. Either refrain or diversify your associations. At the least, be mindful of what you’re feeding yourself and the possible biases of these sites and groups – in person or online. 

One warning sign: if you see little lies such as playing loose with facts, not providing references, and willingness to exaggerate to make a point. We might think the main point is still true, or the cause just, and therefore be forgiving of minor things. But little liars are also big liars. When someone shows you they don’t care about some facts, believe them.

And lastly, don’t take up allegiances to certain groups (churches, political parties, candidates, social media groups, or other organizations or identities) as though you were cheering for a team at a sporting event. Your first allegiance should be to truth, integrity, love, and these kinds of values. All other friendships, relationships, and associations are only meaningful within the context of principled foundations. Gangsters and crime organizations will often transplant this for a loyalty-based system of ethics – where loyalty trumps all other rights or wrongs. Beware that kind of association.

On the other end, that means when a traditional member of your community (group, organization, city, state, nation, religion, and so on) starts to call out their own for wrongs or hypocracy, don’t instinctively react to their ‘disloyalty’ and turn on them. Listen to what they are saying without being defensive, and try to hear the criticism fairly. Take their actions to be loyal in the sense that they are trying to improve your group. You may fear their words will be used against your group by those who oppose it – but that is Dark Side thinking. It makes people put the ends before the means and refuse to change or adapt. That is the real betrayal.

Let Compassion and Empathy be Your Guide
Learn to trust the power of compassion. Lead by example. Your words (spoken or typed) should be not only true – but kind and helpful as well. Words spoken from the light are never motivated by protecting your ego or in hatefulness. 

Feelings do matter – not just right or wrong. How you make others feel is a part of right and wrong and a part of working against the Dark Side. There are many very worthy lessons about ‘bucking up’ and having ‘thicker skin’ and ‘learning not to take offense so easily’. But those lessons are for the practitioner to apply to themselves. They are for you – they are not a license to purposely offend and emotionally hurt others simply because you think “they should be able to take it”. That is taking a very helpful teaching and inverting it to dark purposes.

Try to put yourself in others’ shoes. Even if you must oppose them or their actions, think about them the way their mother would, or the way you would think about a loved one. When people evaluate their own choices and actions, they tend to judge them in terms of the conditions surrounding and leading to them. But when they judge the choices and actions of others, they instead do it in terms of character. What if you looked at the actions of others through the lens of conditions? What if you looked at your own actions through the lens of character?

Know Thyself
We are often most blind to the Dark Side of ourselves. Part of our ongoing practice should be the effort to know ourselves better, without turning away, suppression, or denial. Learn to examine and see your own Dark Side – what sets you off? What kinds of patterns of thinking or feeling do you often fall into which lead to dark responses?

Through mindfulness training you can become more able to see the subtle impulses arising within you in real-time, and not get swept up in them. You can then start to see all the little judgments you’re making moment-to-moment. And, when you do, you’ll find they are often baseless, impulsive, or irrational.

We are generally uncomfortable with the modern reality that so much of our words and actions online are forever captured for public consumption. But one benefit to this is that most of us can go back and look at our past comments to others or on various sites to evaluate ourselves. As an exercise, try looking back over your old posts and comments and try to read them as someone who doesn’t know you. You will be in a different mental place in that moment than you were when you originally posted them. This will allow you some distance. You will want to look at the posts of which you’re most proud, but resist that and look at the uglier ones. Think about what your motivations were in posting them and what you were really trying to accomplish. Was the impulse behind the words from a dark place or a more enlightened motive? If so, did the comments have a chance of accomplishing those aims? What we find can be revealing and show us places for improvement.

Carry Yourself with Integrity
Integrity means knowing who you are, what you stand for, what your values are, and keeping consistent with that. It means not letting the behavior of others determine how you will behave – but being the master of your own character. You may hear the argument, “Why should we do this when they would never be so to us!” That is Dark Side thinking. It creates a spiral of ever-downward reactions between people and groups with no hope of stability or recovery.

If you aim to be a compassionate person – then be one. The need to fight for what is right does not require your inner hate, ugliness, or meanness. It doesn’t require you to get down in the mud. You can work against someone while still ultimately loving them as a human being. In fact, this kind of integrity can often open up new avenues for more productive reactions. Just don’t let the often lack of appreciation for your integrity be a cause to let go of it. It’s not about them.

Don’t allow yourself to have momentary outbreaks or explode in anger at others. This may seem like ‘venting’ and a healthy release. And though bottling things up is not healthy either, it has been well established that these kinds of venting episodes merely help you practice at being angry (and with practice you get better and better at it). Instead, learn the techniques to allow anger to rise while you are aware of it without being consumed by it, and see it dissipate. This is the third way which is neither exploding or bottling up.

Lastly, a person of integrity does not hypocritically use the tools of the Dark Side. This means, never use fear or deception or anger as a tool. There are very clever ways these can be used to get people to act in certain ways or achieve certain goals. And you may think if your cause is good then why not use these tools? They will lead to darkness every time. Instead, let love, truth, hope, and shared interconnection be the means by which you achieve goals. These will lead to more lasting and meaningful changes in conditions. And, even when they fail to change conditions, they will reinforce helpful patterns in your own character such that you will be more able to live joyfully within those conditions.

Reason and Light are Companions
Often you will find in some of the darker movements a component of anti-intellectualism. Or, you will find cynical efforts to cast doubt on legitimate sources of knowledge or reason. This is because the Dark Side is aptly named – it thrives in ignorance.

To work against the Dark Side thus requires the willingness to learn, to use your rational logic, to think critically, and to continually educate yourself. Listen to many sources and compare. Do not consider any kind of knowledge or thoughts off limits or be fearful that entertaining any ideas might consume you without the power to make a choice about them. Knowledge doesn’t consume – only ignorance does that.

For example: 

  • Be skeptical of either/or proposals. These forced 2 way options are usually hiding something or trying to manipulate you. Look for creative 3rd options. 
  • Seek out facts based on scientifically sound studies that are peer reviewed and corroborated by general consensus of professionals in that field. 
  • Study the pitfalls of conspiracy-theory thinking. Try exercises to get outside your mental comfort zone. Test your assumptions.
  • Beware simplistic memes. Don’t accept pithiness or ‘one-ups’ or scoring points as a substitute for integrity or honesty. Don’t exaggerate to counter an opponent’s exaggerations.

Stretch Yourself
Try little exercises to look at your own ways of thinking from new angels. If you find that you’re on the right track, so be it. But it always helps to think and look more.

For one, try to make human connections across group lines. Even if opponents aren’t – be vulnerable, self deferential, offer olive branches, listen. This may surprise them. Avoid impulses to label or dehumanize people.

Don’t get your beliefs about a group from what their opponents say about them. Go to the source and see what they say themselves, without editing or paraphrasing. If you are countering a point, make sure it is a counter to their actual positions, taken as charitably as possible, and not an exaggeration or distortion of their position.

Experiment with spending a day or limited time period practicing extreme forms of humility, or patience, or kindness. These provide important insights and mile markers to our normal state of being. Keep it small and single-pointed, simple. Don’t try “a year as an enlightened being” but do try one day focusing on humility. Another time, try silence and reservation, delaying in responding, compassion/kindness of words, smiling, etc.

Look for opportunities to be compassionate when it is undeserved and least expected. A true user of the Light Side will become better at altering vectors away from hate/ignorance and toward love/understanding.


* * *

This isn’t all that could be said about the Dark Side, but it seems to me that all sides in our increasingly polarized society could stand to think on things like this more. I hope it may be helpful to you.


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2 thoughts on “Recognizing the Dark Side”

  1. This is a fantastic, balanced consideration of strategies for living for “the light” (understanding) and “the right” (goodness or decency) and avoiding the pitfalls of “the dark side” (arrogance and moral expediency). We live in difficult times. Thank you for your considered discussion of the moral minefield we each must traverse.


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