Friday, June 24, 2011

Some Thoughts on "Evil"

Quite a few years ago, Shelly Berman, who was a fine comedian, published a little book called “Cleans and Dirties.” You probably have not encountered this interesting work, but it had to do with the complex interaction between language and culture, such that certain words, phrases, or ideas appear to be intrinsically “dirty,” whereas other somewhat similar words or phrases do not have that connotation. Some examples from here where I live might be, “Sanitary Landfill” is a clean whereas “sanitary napkin” is a dirty, or “Entering Sandpoint” is clearly a clean whereas “Entering Elmira” could be seen as a dirty. “Fightin’ Creek” is a clean whereas “Bloody Dick Creek” might well be seen as a dirty. Anyway, you get the point and see the subtle interplay of language with culture. This has nothing to do with the question of evil, except insofar as I think the perception of evil involves the same complicated interchange of language and culture, as well as someone’s particular point of view.

First, does evil occur in nature, sans humans? I don’t think so. Terrible things occur in nature all the time, lions attack and kill their prey, alligators do likewise, as do virtually all living things. That is, all species live on the death of other species. Their behavior, almost entirely instinctive, does not involve an evil intent, unless survival is considered an evil intent. Human behavior has a very different dimension in that it can and does sometimes involve a distinctive evil intent to kill you on the part of your attacker. If, for example, you kill someone because you are defending yourself from their evil intent you are not considered to have performed an evil act (undesirable, to be sure, but not evil). But if you deliberately set out to kill or maim or destroy someone, or even someone’s reputation even if you have what you believe is a good reason, you are pretty obviously involved in doing evil. It would appear to me that evil could be eliminated through the elimination of the human species. As nature may eventually take care of that we can leave it for the moment.

“Evil” is one of those words that if you try to turn to the dictionary you will find little or no help. It will be “defined” as “morally reprehensible,” “sinful,” “wicked,” or something similar. These terms, like the term evil itself, depend entirely upon your point of view. We could doubtless agree that the attack of 9/11 on the twin towers that killed thousands of absolutely innocent persons was intrinsically evil. The same is true of all terrorist acts that involve the killing of innocents. But what about our attack of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/ll and was not realistically a threat to us (or even their neighbors)? What about the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, in general or specifically in Gaza where the motive is to keep them poor and defenseless if not to eventually destroy them entirely? Surely this must be evil. Some believe that Iran is trying to secretly build a nuclear weapon, but given the constant threats they have endured from Israel and the U.S., why would that not be considered a perfectly reasonable action on their part, surely they should have the right to defend themselves? How can that be considered evil? If one nation has the technology to build and employ unmanned drones to fly over and kill targets in other countries (often including innocent civilians) that do not have the means to reciprocate, is that evil? I believe so.

It would seem to me that to determine if something is truly evil or not one must consider the motives. There are many cultural practices that would ostensibly appear to be evil, at least to Western observers, but do not involve evil motives. Female circumcisions might be an example, (or perhaps even male circumcisions for some). The sexual exploitation of boys in Afghanistan or Ancient Greece was fairly commonplace, but did it occur from evil motives? In some cases of ritualized male homosexuality, as in parts of New Guinea, it was firmly believed the homosexual rites were absolutely necessary if the boys were to grow up to be successful warriors. Similarly, the serial sex with newly married brides that occurred in a few places, were believed necessary to insure the fertility of both the people and the gardens. These kinds of magical beliefs may be terribly ignorant but does that make them evil? Going a step further, headhunting was fairly widespread among various human cultures at one time, and again, it was believed to be necessary for various reasons. We might all agree it must have been evil but those who engaged in it did not consider it evil. But then we always must return to the most classic case of evil we have ever experienced, genocide. Everyone (with the exception of obvious lunatics) seems to agree that the Nazi extermination of the Jews was an ultimate evil act. Many Germans believed this to be necessary, however misguided and horrible it might have been. If they truly believed in it were they evil, or just mistaken? Of course those Germans who participated even if they knew better might well be said to be evil, and those who forced them into compliance with such a program must be perceived as absolutely evil.

Clearly matters of good and evil can be complicated. So what would you conclude about those who would deny people health care (unless they were wealthy), or those who would deny women the basic health services of Planned Parenthood, or the right to have unions, employment, unemployment insurance, housing, or food stamps, or the right to marry, or exercise control over their own bodies? How about those who support unsustainable fishing or lumbering, or harmful agricultural practices, or mountaintop mining, or myriad other acts clearly related to global warming and harmful to the environment? How about those who for purely political motives are willing to sacrifice the well-being of the nation itself, along with the well-being of a majority of its citizens, for their own political and financial gain, who are willing to stand in the way of any positive attempts to improve our current crises? There may be a few Republicans who are ignorant or stupid enough to actually believe this is the way a society can operate (there certainly seem to be) and they perhaps cannot be considered really evil, but most of them must know full well, when they receive those lush payoffs and do what they are expected to do, they are obviously doing the devil’s work. In any case, welcome to the current (and evil) Republican Party.


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