"The Devil gets up to the belfry by the vicar's skirts."
Thomas Fuller, 1732
"It is by its promise of a sense of power that evil often attracts the weak."
Eric Hoffer, 1954
“Every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor.”
Emerson, Essays: First Series, 1841
“Much of the important evils…are those which [people] inflict on each other through stupidity or malevolence or both.”
Bertrand Russell, "Unpopular Esays," 1950
Remember the Axis of Evil? It enjoyed brief tenure as the Bush Administration’s boogeyman. Government’s always trying to scare us with something.
Translation of “Axis of Evil:” nations that have nothing in common except that we don’t like them because they are run by despotic or religiously fanatic leaders. To be sure, the individual regimes were evil; North Korea is truly scary. But there's no Axis, no alliance, no secret meeting about how to attack the US. Saudi Arabia and Myanmar, to name just two, are equally evil but didn't make it into the Axis.
It turns out that there is even more to say on this thoroughly explored subject, as I found out after viewing the documentary "Axis of Evil" at a Center for Inquiry event in Chicago.
The visual background of the documentary was an art exhibit of (suggested) postage stamps illustrating evil in its many forms. One of them showed Hitler and Schwartzenegger (nude to the waist and rippling with muscles) face to face, giving each other the Nazi salute. Weird, powerful, provocative stuff.
The various commentators – scholars you never hear on CNN – discussed the way the Iraq War was sold to the American people, via the “Axis of Evil” metaphor, partly in order to enrich the defense and disaster capitalism industries. They also commented on the nature and kinds of evil.
But apparently they weren’t concrete enough, because, as became clear during the discussion, it was hard to pin down, out of context, exactly what was evil. Bush and bin Laden considered each other evil (they were both right), each with complete sincerity. How can we recognize evil when we see it?
I suggested the following formulation as one that Humanists should consider, and one of the participants complimented me on it, so I pass it along.
Evil = inhumane
Evil begins with inhumanity: the disrespect for, the denial and destruction of human choice, individuality, and dignity. Such evil can be psychological and subtle (e.g., the humiliation and disregard for basic humanity that is by and large the rule in corporations and other large organizations), or it can be physical, as with mugging and rape.
Evil becomes more dangerous when it is not only inhumane but insane. (An insane person need not be inhumane, e.g., the harmless eccentric or psychotic.)
If one is really screwed up and full of blind rage, one might take it out on others by becoming a serial murderer or joining the KGB.
Evil = inhumanity + insanity
When inhumanity is pressed into service of irrational, even insane ends, we have true evil. The fuel of religion can take evil to a whole new level.
This is the difference between the mugger and the suicide bomber. When inhumanity is predicated not on personal demons, but on arbitrary, non-fact-based political and religious doctrines…well, that’s when people suffer and die in huge numbers, because any amount of suffering is justified by some god, prophet, political ideal, or holy text.
It takes a particularly vile and potent blend of insanity and inhumanity to wage a Crusade or an Inquisition (there were several) – or indeed, to conduct violence against people for any reason but self-defense.
Why do we so often fail to recognize evil in the world?
(1) We associate it with The Other instead of looking in the mirror honestly and asking if we’re not just as bad (listen up, Muslims and Evangelicals – I mean YOU).
(2) We equate evil with anger. Hitler = angry = evil. But a moron of a President (“I’m the decider.”) who starts a war and tap dances for the camera in the waning days of his hideously incompetent Administration (Dubya did!) = happy = not evil. Evil people don’t have to be grim and humorless, but they usually are.
(3) We mistake conviction for truth. Has not EVERY torturer, mass murderer, Fuhrer, President, Inquisitor, Emperor, military commander, and doctor who conducted ghastly human experiments (and many others I’ve left out)…ALWAYS thought he was doing the right thing? And, people think, if the person were not so sure of himself, how could he be wrong? Politicians play on this error when they sell their Big Lies, like the Iraq War.
(4) We judge a book by its cover. Evil does not look evil. Sometimes it wears the robes of a priest. Or an imam, or whoever it is that mutilates girls’ genitals. Clerical garb is the perfect disguise for evil.
Axes of Evil
To be sure, there is an Axis of Evil – two axes, in fact. One is religion; the other is politics. Both consist of mass action based on shared ideas and feelings. Both can be based on fantasy or reality.
Basing politics on reality means keeping government small and letting people live their own lives, relying on each other for help in our communities and States, because the reality is that the national government is inherently inefficient and coercive and does only a few things well. Our country’s Founders recognized this fact when they wrote the Constitution and created a limited government with enumerated powers.
Similarly, the realist will admit that America, while strong, cannot control the world without further ravaging the planet and bankrupting itself and/or future generations -- but insane politicians continue to waste our blood and treasure in support of their vain dreams and false cojones. When (if ever) we leave Afghanistan, it will dissolve into a failed state of warring tribes, and all that American blood -- and trillions of dollars -- will have been wasted. That is evil.
Reality and fantasy
To base religion on reality…well, others have said this far better than I, but the first step is to recognize that basing your whole life on fantasy – on the directives, characters, and impossible events in an ancient text – is a waste of your life (and you often don’t have a choice), because those events didn’t happen, and those ancient people have very little to say to us. At the very least it is a false life.
Away from reality
Of course, religion and politics are moving, along both axes, AWAY from reality.
Politicians promise to solve every citizen’s problems. The religious body count piles up as people continue to kill each other and themselves over conflicting stories and prophecies.
Where the two axes -- insane, inhumane religion and politics -- intersect and take over whole societies…where people suffer and die for mistaken, horribly wrong ideas – there we find the Nexus of Evil -- and the bottomless pit of human misery.