We are, as a species, obsessed with evil.
Mobsters, demons, and psychos feature prominently in a great deal of our mass entertainment. The most horrifying and demented historical figures—ranging from Adolf Hitler to the Roman Emperor Caligula to Lucretia Borgia—are the subjects of our keenest interest. Whether we look for our answers in religion, art, or modern science, we have devoted an incredible amount of human energy to parsing out the causes of evil in our world in the hope that understanding it will help us to better prevent its re-occurrence.
Nonetheless, many times we simply find the devils infinitely more interesting than the saints. Whether this attraction is born of fear, wonder, or jealousy, we often cannot look away no matter how hard we may try, but perhaps this is just the result of our immutable human nature. As William Shakespeare observed in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Goodness and good works might simply be, as The Bard wryly observed, intrinsically boring when compared with their more colorful and appalling polar opposites.
Because the criminals and cuckoos will always occupy center stage in our daily lives and histories, it is perhaps worth our while to carefully consider the varieties of evil that we must face and try to better understand them. At the risk of seeming foolishly simplistic, it seems to me that evil, in all of its mythical, religious, cinematic, and real-life manifestations, occurs in three basic forms.
First, many people engage in reprehensible behavior simply because they have the ability and means to act on their worst impulses. The employer who sexually harasses an employee, the adult who abuses a child, and the official who accepts a bribe all take advantage of the power imbalances that are a part of our daily lives. These and many other instances of what could be defined as “opportunistic evil” are responsible for a great deal of our misery, and because they are diffused throughout every society without a central and controlling mechanism of oppression, they must be addressed on a case-by-case basis, which makes these horrid episodes impossible to ignore or eliminate.
The only possible counterbalance to evil of this nature is a pervasive and strictly enforced code of morality, so the “anything goes” behavior that prevails in America today leaves us vulnerable to grinding injustice and abuse that produces a tidal wave of anger and betrayal.
In addition, individuals and groups also engage in malicious behavior because they need to do so, and this portion of our planet’s devilry might be termed “compulsive evil”. In times gone by our ancestors attributed this desire to harm others to demonic possession; today our psychiatric priesthood labels these individuals who are devoid of consciences psychopaths or sociopaths. The terminology is different, and instead of burning these damaged and damaging people at the stake, we ply them with pharmaceuticals and therapy, but throughout human history we have recognized that some of us are just born bad.
Whether we are dealing with a child who tortures small animals or an adult animal who revels in inflicting physical and emotional pain on others in order to bolster their sick self-esteem, the reasons for these behaviors are the same: Some people just enjoy hurting others, and those who are seriously mentally ill often find encouragement in the exploitative and excessive media coverage devoted to the terrible actions and attitudes of the sadists who stalk the world among us.
Both of these first two types of evil are responsible for a great deal of the individual-on-individual horror that has pervaded our collective time on this planet, but it is the third category of evil that has caused the most widespread and long-lasting pain that humanity has been forced to bear: the evil that is disguised as virtue.
One of the truly perverse oddities of our species is that so many of the worst among us truly believe—and, worse yet, have been able to persuade others to believe—that their terrible actions are both justified and good.
Hitler and his minions firmly believed that their plans to exterminate the Jews and others they deemed to be undesirables were both proper and laudable. Slaveholders and other oppressors throughout history have excused their actions on the grounds that some races and ethnicities are simply inferior and richly deserve their maltreatment. Poison gas was at one time considered a legitimate weapon of war because its use would reduce battlefield slaughter by keeping opposing armies at bay. Even those American government doctors who supervised the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which finally terminated only in 1972, were convinced that withholding treatment and allowing Black men to die horrible and painful deaths from an entirely curable disease would somehow benefit the body of medical knowledge.
The evil that men—and women—do is shockingly easy to justify and continue simply by convincing oneself that it serves some greater and larger purpose, and we see an incredible amount of this “well-meaning evil” throughout our nation and world today.
Those who advocate that we allow babies who are right on the verge of a full-term birth to be carelessly and callously aborted are a puzzle until one realizes these individuals and groups are absolutely—some might say fanatically—convinced that only through cold-blooded infanticide can the rights of women be fully secured. There is no room for argument with those who would kill a viable baby with as little care as they might give to licking a postage stamp because they are certain that their beliefs and actions are serving a greater good. Examining the ongoing slaughter of very-soon-to-be-born children whose existences are being snuffed out is unworthy of their further concern.
Likewise, those who insist that they are doing something great and good by discussing sex and sexuality with children—Why is it always our children who must suffer so?—are implacable in their belief that these intrusive and inappropriate conversations are saving those who would otherwise later be trapped in the wrong bodies or grow up to be insufficiently proud of their own sexuality. Therefore, anyone who might be appalled at their advocacy for cross dressing, genital shaming, prepubescent masturbation, or cruel hormonal blockers are bigots whose questions can be readily and airily dismissed. Debate is impossible because that which is objectively evil now can be considered subjectively praiseworthy.
It is much the same with those who believe teaching Black and Brown children, adolescents, and adults they live in a country that hates them—and which is populated by White supremacists who revile their very existence in America—is to be adjudged an unarguable good. Those who preach the tenets of what is often called Critical Race Theory are utterly convinced they are helping people of color by equipping them to face a racist nation. How engendering their fear and paranoia—while simultaneously convicting every one of their White colleagues and co-workers of unrepentant racism without any proof—is expected to produce more harmonious classrooms and workplaces is actually a bit of a mystery, but to fail to believe in pervasive racism is the worst of all possible sins—and proof positive of malice and bigotry. One cannot but notice their peculiar reasoning, but that is beside the point: Bigots and bigotry are apparently everywhere, and no contrary evidence is to be either considered or allowed.
Opportunistic evil and compulsive evil are to be feared; however, well-meaning evil is often the signal mechanism for societal strife that destroys both the present and any hope for a better future. The wolves in sheep’s clothing that have plagued us throughout history are often the progenitors of civil war, genocide, and the most revolting cruelties imaginable—because they are convinced that they are too good to be wrong.
The medieval inquisitors who were blindly breaking the bones of their screaming victims were, in their own minds, both saving souls and protecting the faith. We should always remember that the most dangerous people in the world are those who believe they are surrounded by evildoers that must be endlessly punished by those who have found the one true and good path to our salvation.
Those who do evil rarely recognize it in themselves, which is perhaps the most frightening of their characteristics. In a liberal democracy that can thrive only upon reasoned debate and compromise, those who engage in well-meaning evil are the worm eating away at the bud, and we fail to recognize this threat at our own peril.
To believe is a strength; to hate others who believe differently is the path to destruction.