Caught flatfooted in a heated exchange? Mining your brain waves for a zinger that leaves all rivals speechless? What you need is that most forceful of put-downs — flourished by good moralists and bad shamans alike, popes and politicians galore, Know-Nothings and literate intellectuals. Whether over festive family dinners, on a date or online, simply impugn the inexcusable as “evil” — nothing else better seals mouths shut. Invoking evil not only spears the heart of darkness but confirms your own probity: only the good know the worst of the worst. “Evil” is the universal default that summarily demonizes any offense that violates all human decency.
It’s not as if evil-doers agree THEY commit evil? The worst villains go to the grave loudly justifying, as the Great Decider, they had no choice. “Evil” is the coup de grace (sans grace) pronounced with such finality that no more should be — or could be said. And yet “evil” (or good) has no place on the periodic table, nor slips into testable methods, resistant to the glories of science. Evil declarations justify themselves, as self-evident truths, like “all men are created equal.” Or all Yankees have the right to amass an arsenal. Hardly any debate on those matters in 240 years.
The rhetoric of good and evil comes from the bowels of old-time religion and theological self-interest, broadcasted by those sects to survived time, intrigue and conflict. In every religion, putative “evil” opposes (and is thus defined by) “good,” fixed in decidedly unambiguous commandments. Like the risible Ten Commandments. “Evil” looms then not just as the absence of good, but for god-botherers the absence of God.
‘Evil’ Tests Tribal Alliance
Thus, the born-again Dubya woke up to indict “evil-doers” as not just heinous terrorists, but moral loyalty tests for allies, per his 9/11 Mount Rubble call to arms: “you’re either with us or against us.” Certifying foes as “evil-doers” makes them instant mortal enemies, then all bets are off when dishing out punishment. Get the circular logic yet? Never address how America causes overseas mayhem, only judge “them” by destructive retaliation? Thus, for pious warriors, “God must be on our side,” for otherwise, oh my, He’d be someone else’s deity. And that confirms right is on our side, more than enough for Christians to ignore Jesus’ hardest teaching, “Love thy enemy.”
That’s why verbal black and white bombshells, obsessed with branding evil, precede real bombs. That’s the mindset behind the Trump’s ban against all Muslims: demagoguery feasts on evil infesting one billion earthlings, despite the dizzying array of Muslim beliefs, sects, geographies, skin-color and continents. By Trumpster logic, the tsunami of domestic terrorism knows no bounds, thus, a tiny minority of fanatics represent the whole. “Us vs. them” allows any two gangs to face off, clinging hard to similarly empty categories. Do not both combatants worship goodness when assaulting evil “over there”? Thus do evil and good coalesce as the most expedient of facile public curses.
Good Metaphors, Bad War Cries
God and Satan, light and darkness, up and down– universal polarities co-exist to clarify legitimate yet symbolic modes of understanding. Only literalism, and delusions of owning the truth, turn good metaphors into bad war cries. In fact, (allegorical) evil doesn’t wander the earth, rape and torture children, nor concentrate in one Satanic person. Who among us never knowingly cause injury to innocents, from revenge or malice or, alas, good intentions? Despite tiresome Judeo-Christian sermons, “bad thoughts” (wrath, envy, or covetousness) no longer qualify as evil-doing. Reason, modern psychology, and jurisprudence insist evil states must act out or threaten immediate harm (harassment, threats, conspiracies).
Such musings return me to Joseph Campbell’s wisdom that absolutes of good and evil do not come packaged like corn chips: that what is bad for someone is often good for someone else. That good and evil loom as self-fulfilling conclusions, when winners write history. Had the Axis powers not lost WWII, determined less by morality than power, we’d be singing different tunes in a different language. That doesn’t mean Hitler isn’t the grand prize winner, alongside Stalin and his 20th C. ilk, for brutal, anti-life evil that abominates humane civilization.
One Man’s Ceiling Is . . .
MOYERS: What about this idea of good and evil in mythology, of life as a conflict between the forces of darkness and the forces of light?
CAMPBELL: That is a Zoroastrian idea, which has come over into Judaism and Christianity. In other traditions, good and evil are relative to the position in which you are standing. What is good for one is evil for the other . . . Heraclitus said that for God all things are good and right and just, but for man some things are right and others are not . . . So Jesus says, “Judge not that you may not be judged.” That is to say, put yourself back in the position of Paradise before you thought in terms of good and evil. You don’t hear this much from the pulpits.
That’s the problem with evil: once one soul (or imagined institutional “soul”) gets tagged as irredeemably evil, redemption and complexity evaporate. An initial indictment designed for one soul, or group, has ballooned to the ends of the earth. That’s why political moralists wield “evil” as a curse, a shorthand for that which they can’t abide (often even understand). Such sweeping moralizing distorts complex institutions, like world capitalism or the US government or the west, guilt-avoiding Americans, slavish Europeans, or western media, the alleged megaphone of evil on earth. Thus do religious residuals demonize complex entities, with all the reductive simplicity of compacting all evil into a single devil. What government or population or human artifact in world history is all bad — or all good?
Nor are good leaders immune from distortions, as when this compassionate Pope castigates large, “monstrous evils” (like abortion, capital punishment, war, poverty, lack of compassion for suffering masses) or endorses Satan’s personhood, not as myth or metaphor. From CNN,
‘The devil also exists in the 21st century, and we need to learn from the Gospel how to battle against him,’ the Pope warned, adding that Christians should not be ‘naive’ about the evil one’s ways. . . The devil is anything but a relic of the past . . . ‘The devil is intelligent, he knows more theology than all the theologians together.’
Yet another, far more nuanced Francis warns against “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”
Evil States & States of Mind
I don’t deny evil actions by malicious abusers horrify the landscape. But not in storms or hurricanes that deluded fundamentalists twist into the “wrath of God.” Nor do abstract indictments of governments or nations illuminate, except when malicious abuse rampages absent any arguable national defense (even if wrongheaded). True, calamities like Iraq, qualify as wicked plus wildly counterproductive. Addressing visible dysfunction is more profitable than trying to cement elusive bad faith or groupthink. Alike in outcome, the negligent drunk killing a child commits a crime yet is distinguishable from a mob hitman who guns down some foe for gain.
The problem with evil is the larger the horizon, the easier it is to apply one’s moral judgment write large. The smaller the frame, the more confident we know enough to say: this abuse is knowable, not forgivable, this human being has forfeited his right to live. Truth is, every value system sets up negative or beneficial standards that measure individuals (and much less well, community) actions in moral terms. “Evil” is no longer about sin (a crime against a deity or a set of commandments), or breaking the law, or guilt-by-association terrorist or tribal identification. Before potent curses of evil are strewn about, speakers should take the big picture, plus investigating what they mean by good: does an action advance equality, opportunity and freedom for as many as practical? In the long run, much goodness has nothing to do with real evil.
In sum, let us cleanse politics of one enduring, loaded term by invoking wisdom from Uruguay’s legendary ex-president, Jose Mujica, “Down with isms! Up with a Left that is capable of thinking outside the box! In other words, I am more than completely cured of simplifications, of dividing the world into good and evil, of thinking in black and white.”