Identifying Evil

Sometimes the worst evil is done by good people who do not know that they are not good. — Reinhold Niebuhr

Via Avedon — David Gerrold has written a post reflecting on the nature of evil. One of his points is that the way evil is usually portrayed on television and in the movies is phony.

People like to pretend — they like to pretend to be vampires and monsters and princesses and Vulcans and whatnots.

And that’s what most Hollywood evocations of evil are — people pretending, because they have no sense of the reality. That’s what was wrong with this particular recreation of the Manson Family; they played it like a bunch of teenagers giddily enjoying their own awfulness. …

… in this show, evil wasn’t portrayed as evil, but as a bunch of Hollywood actors pretending to be evil, chewing the scenery, baring their teeth, flashing their eyes, and practicing their wicked laughs — bwahahahaha. It was pretense.

Real evil looks very different from Hollywood evil.

Hannah Arendt, in her book about the trial of Adolf Eichman, the architect of the Holocaust, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil writes of how she sat there day after day, trying to understand how a mild-looking human being could have authored such monstrousness. Ultimately, she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the essential thoughtlessness — ie. without thought, without feeling, without compassion — that results in evil deeds. The monsters of the Holocaust weren’t monsters, they were acting without regard, without conscious awareness, without empathy, without connection to the larger spiritual realm of humanity.

For a long time I’ve noticed that when racists are portrayed in films they are nearly always depicted as people who are scowling (or smirking) and disagreeable all the time; think Rod Steiger in The Heat of the Night. Yet in my experience — I grew up in an all-white redneck zone — racists can seem to be lovely people in any other context; they can be soft-spoken, considerate, and reasonableness itself except on the matter of race. It’s as if some part of their conscience were missing. It can be hard to grasp that nice Mr. Smith who voluntarily cuts the grass on the church lawn, or sweet Mrs. Johnson who bakes pies for the old folks’ home, would be capable of evil. Yet history tells us that a whole lot of “ordinary” people have taken part in evil acts in the past.

Gerrold writes, “I think evil occurs as a complex cocktail of forces.” I suspect most people are capable of evil if they get caught up in these forces. This is not an excuse for evil, but a warning to take care to recognize those forces and avoid them. People fall into evil because they don’t recognize evil as evil. They mistake it for justice, or righteousness, or even God’s Will.

“Evil does not see itself as evil,” writes Gerrold. “Those who commit evil acts do not see those acts as evil or even malicious. They see themselves as justified.” This is exactly right.

Osama bin Laden and his 9/11 flunkies believed their terrorist attack was righteous and justified, as did Tim McVeigh when he blew up the federal building. Even the all-time great evildoers like Hitler and Stalin and Mao no doubt rationalized their actions as serving a greater good.

A couple of years ago I argued that most of us think of evil as an intrinsic quality that some people have and others don’t, or at least have very little of. If you see evil that way, the next step is to assume that “evil” people are so dangerous and corrupted that “good” people are justified in whatever they do to get rid of them. Thus, “evil” and “good” people are different not because of what they do, but because of who they are. But when you start thinking that way, you’re opening the door to evil and inviting it in.

There’s no question that what took place in that prison was horrible, but the Arab world has to realize that the U.S. shouldn’t be judged on the actions of a…well, we shouldn’t be judged on our actions. It’s our principles that matter, our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember: just because torturing prisoners is something we did, doesn’t mean it’s something we would do. — Rob Corddry, The Daily Show

How many times have you heard a rightie say something like this

The difference between you and me is that, deep down inside, you cannot accept the fact that there are truly evil people in the world. The difference between the liberal and conservative viewpoints boils down to this: you think that, deep down inside, the Islamic nutjobs really only want to have a nice house and a yard, and raise their children in a loving and safe environment, just like all the people you know. Whereas I think that they are truly evil people, like the Nazis, that want more than anything else to destroy all that we hold dear. And they are more than willing to sacrifice their lives, their families, everything in their hatred of all that is good and beautiful.

What most righties don’t understand about evil is how seductive it is. The seduction begins with the notion that “his hatred of me is evil, but my hatred of him is justified.” The fellow who wrote that paragraph may not yet be completely besotted with evil, but he is sure as hell flirting with it.

I say evil is as evil does. It’s not who you are; it’s what you do, that is evil. Or not.

Again, I’m not saying that evil acts should be forgiven, or that people shouldn’t defend themselves from evil or seek to apprehend or even destroy dangerous people before they can harm others. I’m just saying that as we do these things, we must take care not to be seduced by evil ourselves. And that’s hard. It takes a lot of self-honesty and self-discipline.

And it takes recognizing evil as evil. Evil doesn’t wear a big E on its T shirt. Evil can seem to be virtuous. It flatters your ego. And it can feel really good.

See also: Jill at Feministe, “God and Abortion Rights.

26 thoughts on “Identifying Evil

  1. Wow. Well written.

    We typically as humans hate the things in others that we turn a blind eye in ourselves.

  2. Once upon a time, a dad dropped his young son into the tub’s hot water. The lad went “YOW!” and then went “Ahhh…” His father thought about this and said, “Taking a bath is the exact opposite of committing a sin. When you take a bath, first you say ‘YOW’, then you say ‘Ahhh’; but when you commit a sin, first you say ‘Ahhh’, and then you say ‘YOW’! “

  3. Whenever anyone uses the phrase “hatred of all that’s good and beautiful” in a non-ironic manner, I figure their own potential capacity for doing evil is pretty high.

  4. This tackles a very important subject. I knew Bush was nuts, or at least infantile, or his supporters were, (or all three) when he, out of the box, started painting the world as good or evil. Anyone who can’t acknowledge the evil in themselves, let alone the ways we’re just thoughtlessly evil, as you wrote, needs to go back to grade school.

  5. Exactly right. We are all of us The Heroes of our own personal stories. That’s why there are no real-life Faithful Sidekicks out there … every human being on the planet thinks THEY should have a Faithful Sidekick of their very own.

    It’s amazing how far we’ll go to justify our own actions. Not to start an argument here (as in, if anybody wants to argue this, please don’t), but for example, it seems to me that the entire political theory/party known as libertarianism, particularly the objectivist variety, is just an attempt to be able to not want to pay your taxes, and feel virtuous about that.


  6. Your comments on evil are on the button.

    I think I detect some Buddhist influence here. Buddhism takes a very different view of evil from much of Christianity in that it separates the act from the person. Seems a healthier and more realistic view, in my opinion.

  7. Thanks for the post Maha. You do a fine job of defining the fuzzy line between righteousness and evil. Add religious certitude and reasonable discourse takes a total beating.

    I am also the product of a racist community of otherwise very nice, kind, decent people. They did not consider their disdain of black and hispanic people racist. I can remember family discussions where the “good ones” were discussed as opposed to the others over running the neighborhood. Fear of the other seems to feed into evil attitudes and behavior.

  8. Exactly so. When the villagers grab their pitchforks and torches to destroy the evil vampire, nine out of ten times they just kill some innocent. But they thought they were doing good.

    There’s a famous case in Scotland where some people found out that a convicted sex offender was registered at a local address. So they went and burned the house down. The alleged offender wasn’t there, but they managed to kill a child who was in the house.

    And so it goes in Iraq.

  9. What most righties don’t understand about evil is how seductive it is

    That’s because evil is total selfishness that feeds on desire. Evil is people like Ted Bundy whose utter selfishness will destroy anothers life to satisfy their own desires. The same applies to child molesters, people who destroy the spirit of a child to feed their own selfish desires. Bush is another example of evil…He’s willing to destroy other human beings to satiate his desire for power. Seductive ? ah, yeah….I kinda figure that Tommy Franks wasn’t the only one walking around Central Command with an erection on the night they launched their infamous Shock & Awe campaign against Baghdad.. I can’t concieve of dropping 1500 cruise missles on a civilian population as anything near righteousness or justifiable, it’s closer to evil in my mind. But God bless America!

  10. If I wanted to be a successful evil-promoting demon, I would whisper suggestions into the ears of those frightened of unknowns, “Hey, those folks who are so different than you…..they must be wrong, the way they live and think and do things.. You better go attack and control or kill them them before they attack you.” What evil I could promote once I got that ball rolling….. first I could whisper in Osama’s ear…..then I could whisper into the ears of frightened Americans…
    Hey, folks this IS the most efficient demonic way to counter that Jesus guy who said, “Turn the other cheek.” [hate is more fun than love, anyway….yippee!]

    I think evil always, always gets its foot in the door preying on fear.
    Fear creates contraction. Contraction does lots of nasty stuff, like shorten one’s very breath, and tighten the musculature and limit the brain to a role as sentinel….as this condition progresses over time into a chronic state of affairs, the ability to directly enjoy pleasures of life diminishes and then disappears and is even forgotten. Sometimes then, the pent-up desire for pleasure marries itself to the muscular contractions which ache for movement….. and if chosen, there’s explosive titillating activity to break through the contracted defensive tightening….. at that point secondary evils are born ……. abuse of self and others, ranting hate-filled diatribes and pursuit of power over others are some of the pathetic actions which substitute for a long abandoned simple enjoyment of life.

  11. I think what people on the left need to do is when a rightie doesn’t like what we say and tries to attribute what we say to “us hating Bush,” we need to protest such comments. I don’t hate Bush. I think he is an incompetent fool, but I don’t hate him. I hate that he is President, but I don’t hate him. I hate that seemingly smart people give him credit he doesn’t deserve; but, I don’t hate him. Nor do I hate the Bush lovers. However, they do seem to truly hate me because of my opinions; but, I still don’t hate them. They project their own hatred on to me trying to make me the evil one. I think we have stop letting them get away with that. Take it from there everyone; I’m tired and need to get to bed.

  12. As I wrote that last comment about evil….I was thinking about the movie, The Pawnbroker. Remember him piercing his hand with the paper spindle to try to feel again?

  13. Off Topic…But the Hammer just dropped…Tom Delay’s corner just threw in the towel…How about a chorus of Milli Vanilli singing…” I’m gona miss ya” ( I’m delighting in my evil)

  14. Maha, you are a fountain of truth.

    My mother, grandmother, and I were having dinner. My Gma, as kind and generous a person as you could meet, said a terrible racist thing about hispanic illegal immigrants. My Gma (!), who worked side by side with them on the farm and made sure they wanted for nothing in the cottages they lived in during harvest season.
    My mother, as shocked as I was, gently reminded her, “But mom, dad was illegal.”
    Gma shot back, “But I wasn’t.”

    The fruit may be evil, but at the root it is fear and ignorance. I try to remind myself of that to keep my compassion intact and my spirits up.

  15. #16, I disagree with your statement that religion is the root of all evil.
    Expressing faith in, and connection to God [the basic essence of religion] is not evil. But, yes, because religion is so central and important in most peoples’ lives, it does become a tool of evil when the ‘faithful’. in powerful organizations, grow by twisting reality to ‘limit God to themselves’ [sort of like sibling rivalry gone amuck]. It is the twisting that is a root of evil.

  16. Wow. Good discussion. I’d only like to add that from the Buddhist perspective, evil is the product of delusion. Christian fundamentalists teach that “Good” is stronger than “Evil”, but secretly seem to have their doubts. Buddhism teaches that evil is inherently weak, and is based on the fundamental illusion that selfish action can bring positive results, at least for “me”. Instead, only an enlightened person is truly selfish, as he works to increase his own happiness and satisfaction in the only sure manner: by working to raise the happiness and satisfaction of the people around him.

  17. I think I was evil this morning when I saw Bush on TV and instantly, without thought, thrust my middle finger in his direction.

  18. About the recognizing good and evil thing… I recently saw a comment on a discussion about rape that said “I could never be a rapist.” That immediately struck me as odd. After some thought, I realized that although I had never explicitly codified it, I have always had some certainty that I could be a murderer. It would be unlikely, especially given that currently I have trouble killing insects — but as a human, I have that capacity. My only defense against one day, in some as yet unimaginable situation, becoming a murderer is to live thoughtfully and conscientiously — basically to keep a sharp eye on myself.

    Oh, and I loved the quote about “we shouldn’t be judged on our actions.” Brilliant.

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  20. I had the pleasure of seeing a presentation from Seymour Hersh yesterday at Northern Michigan University. Mr. Hersh is an investigative journalist, for those who do not know. He broke the story about the My Lai massacre back in vietnam, and lately has been doing his most notable work on prisoner torture. That presentation matched up very well with this beautiful post, maha. Mr. Hersh is convinced that despite recent controversy about if Bush knew about the lack of WMD in Iraq prior to invasion, he truely believed in what he was doing. He called bush a revolutionary in respect the the fact that he changes the world. But he will not listen and will not change his viewpoints despite evidence that he is wrong. This blind devotion to his beliefs has caused him to frighten us into all sorts of things since 9/11. What started out as hunting down the responsible parties (we still never got the leader) has turned into invading whole countries, declairing war on abstract ideas such as “terror”, occupying a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack, and now we seem to be moving on to Iran while there is still no end in sight for our occupation of Iraq. We have vilified an entired culture, shamed and humiliated them at Abu Ghraib, openly supported torture, conqured one country and left it in the hands of warlords, conqured another and leave it with an unstable government and open to civil war, and created an anti-Middle Eastern racist undercurrent in national politics.

    Sorry, im starting to rant. Many of those points were brought up by Mr. Hersh, a few i threw in there myself. But the point was that it would be much easier if our president was simply evil. If he fit that villan profile, with a black shirt and hat and an evil laugh. If we could look at everything he does and say that there is a master plan behind it all… some secret agenda. But Hersh is afraid that what we see is simply what we get. Bush, and the neocons behind him, believe that what they are doing is for good, and nothing will change their mind. And that is the truely frightening and dangerous part.

    I personally loved the part where he said that what we really need is to create a parliamentary system that can get the guy out today, because that is what we seriously need. And then he told the crowd not to applaud these remarks because this is too serious and he does not want applause. He really is an amazing speaker.

    Mr. Hersh said that there are (I think) 1022 days left in the reign of King George the second, and that is the bad news. The good news is that when we wake up tomorrow, there will be only 1021.

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  22. Former Florida Governor Reubin O’D. Askew did a delightful but too short interview for the April 06 issue of Florida Trend magazine ( in the “Icon” section. What he said about ethics was very astute, and I think it also explains how “good” people become “evil”:

    “I look at life as a continuum on which one side is dark and the other side is light. What happens to a lot of good people is that they get marginalized. They will rationalize that one decision in the very lightest gray. The next time its a little darker. Then the next time its imperceptible. Then one day they wind up in the dark, and they don’t know how they got there.”

    What a wise and decent man he is; how dramatically a man of character contrasts against the background of the cast of characters we have available to elect as our “leaders”.

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