Opinion: The face of the evil
Obama’s comments were very much part of the norm; Journalists, commentators and politicians the world over condemned ISIS as ‘evil’, ‘barbaric’, ‘monstrous’ – being careful to qualify ISIS’ core beliefs as ‘not Islamic’.
It seems natural that evil is invoked to describe heinous crimes; Not only do we search for extreme descriptors when the limits of our tolerance and understanding are approached, but the term also offers to explain why the terrorists had committed those acts: They were evil, and so they had done an evil thing.
But the effect of calling them evil has multiple implications. Firstly, it confuses our mainstream, orthodox moral view, which is not in itself a bad thing, but revelatory nevertheless. Secondly, while it might seem to explain the terrorist actions, it actually does very little to clarify the political, strategic and psychological motivations and consequences of their actions. Is any one of us actually more knowledgeable about ISIS, having called them evil?
Evil hasn’t gone anywhere
In the late 20th Century, the Western approach to morality experienced two major traumas: Firstly, absolutism shifted to relativism in the mainstream, and secondly, psychology replaced moral explanations. It still seems more natural to us as early 21st Century readers to explain motivations outside the terms good or evil, and employ more psychological explanations: People are well-nurtured or disturbed, etc.
But since the language of both systems, the absolutist one and the morally-relative one still exist, we can deploy two lexicons to describe the world around us; Even if they contradict one another.
This has enabled us to describe in medical and psychological terms that which we can understand, and religious/ moral terms that which we do not.
What’s interesting about this, is while we might be witnessing a return of evil, we’re not seeing a corresponding rise in the Good. Without a corresponding belief in evil’s equivalent and opposite, we participate in a starving moral view.
Is it because we are constantly fighting and renegotiating for our version of what is good, or because we tacitly assume that we are – that our society is? Are we simply convinced of our goodness? If our view permits evil, but excludes, or assumes good as an unspoken value, then we are either subject to a deep Pessimism, or worse, become deeply uncritical about ourselves. The problem is always over there; Never here.
ISIS are evil; terrorists are evil; writing in the Huffington Post recently, religious teacher Sana Tayyen outlined the dichotomy underlying descriptions of Muslims: Good Muslims and Evil ones. Obama’s predecessor George Bush launched a war against an ‘axis of Evil’.
But are we good? Obama is one of the few willing to state that he believes so when he delivered this year’s State of the Union Address:
‘We need every American to stay active in our public life — and not just during election time — so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.’
Imagine David Cameron saying that. Or Angela Merkel. Hollande. Somehow, American culture and politics seems more predisposed to moralistic rhetoric than other, less publicly religious nations; but it does not detract from the fact that Obama is in the minority.
It does not mean that the question is not worth asking. Our lives may be stable, comfortable, long – but are they good? Are we good people? Do we do things we know to be good, even in our everyday lives, let alone in a grand political sense? I do not intend to dive into the most contentious issues and contradictions inherent in our society – our wars, our crimes abroad, disregard for the environment etc. I’m not saying that good and evil aren’t objectively real or objectively false – I’m not advocating a position.
What I mean to point out is that not doing bad, not committing evil, is not the same as being good. I mean to point out that our thought framework, since it recognises and applies evil to the Other, and does not discuss goodness, is not sustainable.
We might contend that the fact of ISIS’s evilness and their opposition to us makes us good. This is the kind of argument implicit in statements like ‘we are defending our way of life’, or ‘decent, hardworking people’ should not be exposed to such horrors. Those both may be true, but they have no explicit bearing on the discussion of good vs evil. Since the good is only implied, we are left to an open-ended and flimsy relativism; the rules of which we happen to flout when we use absolute descriptors such as evil.
If the Other is evil, but we ourselves do not ask what ‘good’ is, then we lead impoverished and hypocritical moral lives. But if the Other is evil, and we ourselves are good – then at least we are consistent with our own terms, even if we might be wrong. This does not vindicate the acts: Considering whether we are consistent in our judgements does not endorse terrorism or anything else – it simply brings into focus the lopsided way we think about life.
So the challenge is to become consistent: We either are absolutist, or we are not. There are groups in our societies which are very consistent. Two weeks ago, in Clausenitz, as refugees from Syria and North Africa tried to disembark from a bus, they were met with a group of Pegida protestors – the Pegida group shouted ‘Wir sind das Volk!’ repeatedly, aggressively, viciously even. A frightened child does not want to get off the bus – he is visibly terrified. Yet the protestors continue – they do not imagine what it must be like for that child, for those people on the bus.
Pegida believes they are right. Pegida believes they are good. They believe European institutions which provide protection for refugees and immigrants are evil. In one sense, and in one sense only, Pegida is one step ahead of the rest of mainstream culture: They positively assert a vision of the good life. Their picture of the good life involves racist and xenophobic elements, and the exclusion of people. At least their vision of the world is not muddled. Ours is.
Evil as a good thing for States
Finally, I want to mention the political benefit of employing the good vs. evil lexicon. On the one hand, it’s obvious how it can help politicians make political capital out of tragedies, and build support for themselves: The Other is evil, we are good, get behind me, etc. But it also enables States to cover up the strategic complexities of situations, and therefore, discourages criticism from their own public. As Karl Rove said in the early 2000’s: ‘we’re an empire now, we create our own reality’; The State decides who is good, who is evil, and what their own actions mean – even if they don’t reflect reality.
States cannot tolerate ambiguity for long. Goodness can become implied in the values espoused by the State, to create stability within the State, and therefore create fewer challenges to the State.
Think about it – think about how today’s values are thought of as timelessly good. Indeed, the ways in which values and goodness are asserted as timelessly good are incorporated best into concepts such as heterosexuality, marriage, monogamy, employment and patriotism. These values are seeing something of a revanche in American politics lately, with loudmouth Donald Trump shouting about those as well as increased militarism and policing.
We do not live in closed socieities, and undoubtedly what we have is infinitely and obviously better and kinder than what ISIS propounds. But we cannot pretend that the good life is simply live and let live, while asserting that ISIS is evil. Absence of discussion allows our views to be shaped by perceptions of the Other – perceptions which inevitably harden into prejudices.