The definition of evil


EvilI try to choose my words carefully. Words have power, words can create emotions, words linger and stick with us. Words matter. Words can be tools of great precision and effect. So when I hear or read them being abused, misused or simply inappropriately chosen, my hackles rise. I want to make corrections. I want to insert my idea of the better choice into the sentence. My Facebook followers know how I react (and react too often…) to misplaced apostrophes, misspellings and improper verb tense.

It’s the aging editor in me, I suppose, plus my passionate love of writing and of language. I grant that my skills in writing and editing are rustier than in my halcyon days, but my inner editor still raises its head from time to time, demanding recognition. So I try as best I can these days to choose my own words in part to avoid hearing that shrill voice.

I don’t, for example, swear casually very often. Not from some prurient reaction to “bad” words, but simply that swearing has potent emotional impact and if you use it casually, it loses its power. People cannot recognize whether you’re angry or happy if you toss frequent invective into your everyday word salad. Swear only when you want to express very strong emotion and it’s very effective. Swear constantly and you simply show bad language skills.

I also don’t use the word evil casually. Far too many people use it when they mean inconvenient, annoying, abrasive or controversial. Sometimes it’s something accidental or unintentional they label evil. That’s just hyperbole, part of the social media trend use superlatives to grab attention.

I’ve heard it used in relation to natural disasters like tornadoes and floods, but while the results may be tragic and appalling, weather is neutral; neither good nor bad. I want a more precise use of the word.

Evil, to me, means something deliberate, profound; a conscious malfeasance. Malevolence. It’s when you choose to do wrong, you choose to do something bad to someone else. It’s when you know your actions are morally, socially and ethically wrong and will cause another harm, yet you still do them.

Evil suggests a gravity to the act that merely “acting bad” doesn’t have. Simply having a vice, simply breaking a law, being immoral, or engaging some social taboo isn’t per se evil. Most of those are self-directed, acts of rebellion. Evil is directed towards others.

Evil in inextricably associated with intent. You have to intend your action to hurt, to debase, degrade, damage someone else for an act and the actor to be called evil. Evil is a conscious act, not a reaction or response, not an act of nature or a reflex.

Why evil exists is a thorny question that has occupied philosophical and religious thinkers since the dawn of history. The debates range far and wide over the nature of morality, personal responsibility and faith. Plato wrestled with it. Epicurus, too. Augustine, Nietzsche, Kant, Gautama Buddha… many hundreds have tried to explain it.

Why does evil exist only in our own species? Why do some people knowingly and deliberately do something they know will hurt another person, something about which they know and understand the consequences of?

Why do some people dedicate their lives to doing good while others dedicate theirs to doing harm? In more than six millennia of debate, no one has come up with a one-size-fits-all answer.

It’s a topic I think about relatively often, as it crops up in areas I study and read about, especially the histories of the countries under dictators like Stalin, Mao and Hitler. It arises in the political biographies and in the religious histories. It arises when I read daily headlines about another beheading, another mass shooting, another gang rape.

Now I’m not a religious person, so I don’t associate supernatural beings with morality. I don’t imagine evil as imaginary demons guiding our hands, whispering depraved ideas in our ears. What we do is our own responsibility. Evil is a choice humans make for themselves.

A piece in the New York Times, from 2012, reviewing a recent book on the problem of evil, noted that evil…

…shatters our trust in the world… Evil is both harmful and inexplicable, but not just that; what defines an evil act is that it is permanently disorienting for all those touched by it… It hints at dark forces, at the obscure, unfathomable depths of human motivation.

Evil, it goes on to add, is absolute. It brooks no colorization. You can’t be a little evil, or just temporarily evil. You can’t be unconsciously or inadvertently evil.

Well, you can have a sliding scale. Context has to be considered, and, inevitably, comparisons made.

ISIS is evil on a truly vast scale that almost defies description. The Taliban and Boko Haram are similar collective evils. Mass murderers are evil. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot were evil individuals. Their regimes were collective evils. Anyone or any group involved in genocide is evil. Mass shootings at clinics, schools, hospitals or nightclubs are evil. We all understand that definition: the sheer size and scope of the actions make it easy to label them and their perpetrators as evil. Few would disagree. There is no us-them, good-bad, their word-our word dichotomy here. We can all see the intent and we can all see the harm.

Fifty people were shot dead this week in an Orlando nightclub, one of he many mass shootings that happen in the US on a regular basis, but certainly the largest to date. And it was clearly a hate crime. Hate crimes slip easily into the definition of evil. The killer intended to do harm, to maim and kill. It was an evil act. The killer was an evil man. Or at least the majority of us would agree.

In response to this horrific act, some of America’s most deranged, hate-filled right-wing, fundamentalist Christians crowed about it being “God’s will” and tweeted how there were “50 less pedophiles in this world.” And the vile, hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church boasted how their vicious, narrow-minded, homophobic “god sent the shooter…” No wonder people are fleeing from Christianity in record numbers. Such hatred. Such evil.

I think most of us would call the shooting and shooter evil, but I’d call these so-called Christians evil as well. And I would be hard pressed to label either as less evil than the other. I haven’t the slightest doubt that, given a similar weapon, these so-called Christians would happily slaughter people in the name of their religion. Their hate-fuelled intolerance is simply waiting for the opportunity to act. So, yes, I’d call them evil, too.

It is a sin to believe evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake.
H. L. Mencken, A Book of Burlesques (1924)

But what about something on a smaller scale? Where do we draw the line between egregiously bad and evil?

George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Florida in 2012. He claimed he was acting in “self defence” and was acquitted by a jury of second-degree murder. Was Zimmerman evil, or simply a bad person? To gun-loving white Floridians, he was likely a hero. The poster child for those who love their state’s “Stand Your Ground” law that encourages residents to resolve disputes through gun violence. But to the parents, relatives and friends of the murdered Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman must seem the epitome of evil. It depends on context.

Few will deny he did a bad thing, or that he was, by common standards a bad person. But evil? Can a single murder be called evil? Or should we call it a tragedy? What was his intention?

Evil, as I said, is related to intent. A person or group has to consciously and deliberately act to cause harm or misfortune, to destroy, degrade, debase, damage others for them or their acts to be called evil. But it doesn’t have to be murder or rape. There are other acts, even acts of governance that fit the bill, acts that can even be performed on a small, local scale. Evil isn’t restricted to acts of bodily harm or killing.

Which is why I cannot think of a more appropriate word to describe the Block on our council, except evil. Don’t mistake my use of the word: I am not equating them in any way with mass murderers or genocidal tyrants. I am not trying to use hyperbole to make a point. I refer back to the matter of intent.

The Block has chosen, deliberately and consciously, to go down a path that they know will hurt others and benefit only themselves. They have intent. And even if it’s only on a small, local scale, that’s evil.

Simply calling them bullies doesn’t explain the malicious intent. Yes, they are bullies, but the word alone doesn’t expose the malevolent ideology that binds their cabal. I am at a loss to find a more suitable word that captures them as completely and elegantly as the single word: evil.*

And, frankly, I don’t understand it at all. Why would anyone run for public office and not do good when they get in? Not work for the community? For the greater good?

Would a good person actively and aggressively pursue a policy of malevolent attacks on the town’s reputation, its facilities, institutions, organizations, and its staff? Would a good person go out of their way to publicly humiliate and belittle our mayor, and show flagrant disrespect for the office? Would a good politician skulk in secret, conduct public business away from public scrutiny, avoiding public consultation?

Of course not. Those acts violate our sense of morality and ethics. But that’s what the Block has done. If that’s not evil, then I challenge you to come up with a better description.*

Of course I realize that some of you will think I am just being inflammatory; I suppose I have somewhat of a reputation for that. But after Monday night’s council meeting, I think the conversation changed. I think the deliberate destruction has become blatantly public and has accelerated. I think that the evil is showing through the cracks and you’d have to be blind to miss it. The intent is visible to all of us.

How we now look at council – in particular the Block – and how we measure its actions have been irrevocably altered. And I think for the worse. No one can look and not see the intent to do harm there, out in the open. Boasting of its power, its entitlement, its anger.

No one who bothers to consider the actions can fail to see the naked ambition, the vicious personal agendas and the vendetta-fuelled ideology at work. No amount of willful blindness will change the fact that what this council is doing is morally reprehensible. Nor can anyone say this isn’t a choice, or these are not deliberate acts.

My signature as a councillor used to contain the line from Galatians 6:10: Dum tempus habemus, operemur bonum, which is translated as, “While we have the time, let us do good.” I believe in that, passionately. To serve the greater good, to do my best for the community as a whole was the reason I was in politics. To do good. Many enter politics with a similar conviction.

GoyaNot so the Block. They have focused on themselves and their narrow ideology from the beginning. Their hungry weltanschauung demands to be fed; it demands sacrifices. Into its gaping maw they shove our facilities, our institutions, our community, our reputation, our partners and our trust; lubricated by the careers and morale of both staff and their imagined political opponents. And they won’t stop.

They know, all of them must know, the damage they are doing to others, to staff, to morale, and to the town. They know because everything they do is and has always been a deliberate act. It’s a choice they made. They have their ideology and the intention.

I imagine that, should one day they venture that far into learning, the Block’s signature motto would be Dum tempus habemus, operemur malum: let us do evil.

Collingwood deserves better. We can only hope in 2018 we can elect a new council before the damage is irreparable. That something is left to save and rebuild. But the evil will remain in our memories for many years after.
* I did spend some time rifling through dictionaries and thesauri trying to find an adequate synonym; failing that, then at least some complementary terms. I found several which seem appropriate, if not complete substitutes for the simple appellation ‘evil’ … tell me if you think these words apply:

  • Anomy (also spelled anomie): lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group; social instability caused by erosion of standards and values; a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals.
  • Arrogate: to take or claim something, such as a right or a privilege in a way that is not fair or legal; to attribute or assign to another without justification or in an unwarranted manner.
  • Cozen: to deceive, win over, or induce to do something by artful coaxing and wheedling or shrewd trickery.
  • Dissimulate: to hide under a false appearance; a form of deception in which one conceals the truth; concealing the truth, or in the case of half-truths, concealing parts of the truth, like inconvenient or secret information.
  • Iniquity: gross injustice or wickedness; a violation of right or duty; wicked act; sin.
  • Maleficence: the act of committing harm or evil; harmful or malicious nature.
  • Mountebank: a boastful unscrupulous pretender; charlatan.
  • Purloin: “steal” or “take,” especially if it’s done in a sneaky way; to appropriate wrongfully and often by a breach of trust.
  • Suborn: to persuade (someone) to do something illegal; to get false testimony; bribe or otherwise induce someone to commit an unlawful act such as perjury.
  • Vitiate: to make something less effective; to ruin or spoil something.
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