"Evil" = Thought Stopper

What is evil? What are we saying when we call something "evil"?

In Minnesota there is an invasive plant called “buckthorn.” The year that LoraKim and lived in Minnesota, we met a man who devoted himself to curtailing buckthorn. “Buckthorn is evil,” he said. He looked like he meant it.

Evil has been a regularly invoked concept in US foreign policy. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. In 2002, then-President Bush named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “Axis of Evil.” Remember that? Andrew Marlatt was prompted to write a satirical news piece:
“Bitter after being snubbed for membership in the ‘Axis of Evil,’ Libya, China, and Syria today announced they had formed the 'Axis of Just as Evil,' which they said would be way eviler than that stupid Iran-Iraq-North Korea axis. Elsewhere, peer-conscious nations rushed to gain triumvirate status in what became a game of geopolitical chairs. Cuba, Sudan, and Serbia said they had formed the Axis of Somewhat Evil, forcing Somalia to join with Uganda and Myanmar in the Axis of Occasionally Evil, while Bulgaria, Indonesia and Russia established the Axis of Not So Much Evil Really As Just Generally Disagreeable. Canada, Mexico, and Australia formed the Axis of Nations That Are Actually Quite Nice But Secretly Have Nasty Thoughts About" the US.
In traditional theology, the problem of evil is one of the thorniest issues. If God made everything, didn’t God make evil, too – and if so, why? She gave us free will – but she’s omniscient, so she knows how we’ll use our free will. So why did she make us that way? After all, there are a lot of different ways to be good. We'd still have free will if we used it only to choose among various ways of being good. We could all have free will without anybody being evil, right?

"Theodicy" is the field of theology that aims to justify God’s ways to man, that is, address the problem of evil, the cognitive conundrum of the existence of evil given an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God. We religious liberals don’t fret much about those logical paradoxes. We do, in our own way, wrestle with what evil is, and why. The challenge to offer some accounting of evil -- is an issue for everyone. The phenomenal popularity of the TV show “Breaking Bad” has prompted a lot of people to renewed reflection on what it means to break bad, and what causes a person to do it.

So what is evil?

Let's look at the way the concept is invoked. A dozen years ago, when terrorists flew hijacked 747s into the World Trade Center, we heard “evil” invoked a lot, though not very thoughtfully. I was working as a hospital chaplain in North Carolina in 2001. The morning after the 9-11 attacks, the hospital’s five chaplains and our supervisor gathered.

I said I wished I understood better what might lead someone to fly an airplane into a building.

One of my colleagues asked, “You do believe in evil don’t you?”

I stammered, “sure,” but the truth is I don’t know whether I do or not.

I do notice that the word, the concept, “evil” is often a thought-stopper. I see it used to stop thought. We say something’s evil, and we’re off the hook to look into the matter any more deeply. "It’s evil – what more do you need to know? End of story." End of thinking.

Sometimes people cause harm to other people. Sometimes we do so in truly horrible ways. Why do we do it? Do we do it because some – or maybe all – of us are evil? That answer stops further inquiry.

If we call some one "evil," we have dismissed that person. We’ve given ourselves something that feels like an explanation. It actually explains nothing at all, but because we have the illusion of explanation, it can serve to stop us from digging further into the matter. In fact, any further exploration of the matter can be met with outright hostility: "you’re not justifying what they do are you? They’re evil, end of story, nothing further to understand!"

"Evil" has become a word we use when we have become afraid of understanding. When we hate something so much that we become afraid that if we understood it, we wouldn’t be able to hate it anymore, then we call it "evil." Calling it evil is a strategy designed to prevent understanding, so that the hatred we covet will not be threatened. If something is evil, it is not to be understood. It is only to be destroyed.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Evil & Sociopathy"
Next: Part 2: "Evil and Must Be Destroyed"

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