Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Understanding Evil

In a recent article distributed by CNN, human rights author James Dawes suggested that calling the actions of ISIS "evil" was counterproductive.

"We only call people 'evil' as a pretext for killing them," Dawes said.  And there is, without question, truth in that.  Once you have affixed that label, it's far easier to radicalize your perspective, to see only a caricature of a person.  You shroud them in your own image of them, obliterating their humanity, seeing only everything that justifies your choice to hate them.

It's how we approach our falsely binary political "system," certainly.  The Clintons were not a left of center political couple.  They were murderous jackbooted liberals who were taking away our freedoms!  George Bush was not a genial, straightforward guy with a gladhanding way.  He was a genocidal monstrous tyrant who secretly engineered 9/11!  Obama is not a centrist intellectual.  He's a socialist crypto-Muslim traitor!

It's the easiest way to engage in conflict.

Once we decide someone is evil incarnate, that becomes all that we see.  And because it is all that we see, we can fail to go deeper.  We become so focused on destroying that personification that we do not see what shaped them as a person.  So we slice away at the surface, shaving at it, poking it.  We don't go to the heart of it.

That's not to say, of course, that ISIS is not evil.  They are.  Their actions, their ideology, and the fevered mockery of faith that rules them?  All of those things must be called evil, because they are the inverse of good.  Of course, you can always putter around with academic deconstructions of the idea of the Good, but...dude.  It's compassion, love, grace, patience, kindness, and mercy.  Those things are good.

The danger of naming things "evil," according to the article, is that it causes us to view things in a binary, absolutist way.  And I'm fine with that, up to the point where Dawes uses that observation to make a binary, absolutist statement.

"There is only one good reason to denounce a group as evil--because you intend to injure them."

This is not so.  Calling out a group as evil can also mean you intend to stop them from engaging in evil.  It does not mean you are going to seek their harm, but rather, that you're still willing to ascribe moral agency to them.  Only sentient beings can engage in evil, after all.  And it is not an "injury" to prevent a person or group from engaging in monstrous actions.

Naming actions as evil, though, demands that we go deeper.  Why is this happening?  Why are individuals acting in this way?  Why is an ideology so monstrous finding fertile ground?  Dig deeper, and we find that hunger, poverty, ignorance, and oppression are the poison that brings up that bitter crop.  The more desperate or purposeless a life feels, the more likely evil is to flourish.

And when we try to understand evil, we aren't saying "tolerating" evil.  Seeing through the eyes of hate only deepens love's horror at that state of being.

That is not love's end, as it pushes to the heart of the broken other.  Compassion seeks to truly understand the heart of evil, so that we can turn it, and heal it, and end it.