Nobody sets out to be evil. And nobody thinks that they’re evil. But would we even recognize evil when we see it?
I’m no Hannah Arendt scholar, but she is the philosopher who coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” In interviewing the architects of the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews and other undesirables, she was shocked to discover that these people weren’t the garishly sinister figures she expected. Instead, they were ordinary, nondescript, and even kind of boring.
Weird, right? But then again, so few set out to be the villain. Other people use that term. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” might have been a stupid thing to say after 9/11, but it actually describes how people see themselves.
(Now, taken out of context and as a blanket generalization, ignoring questions of who or what is actually right and good, the statement is obnoxiously relativistic, but I digress.)
Evil seeks to come in two main varieties: cartoon evil and beige evil. The former is rare and easier to detect. The latter is, sadly, far more common.
Cartoon Evil is big, bold, and knows it’s causing–and reveling in–mayhem and bloodshed. Think ISIS. Of course, they think they’re doing Allah’s work or whatever, but they totally enjoy the killing and the torture and the rape. Hey, they’re just doing what their Prophet says, so why not have fun?!
The thing is, most functioning human beings recognize ISIS for the evil that they are. They’re an easy one. Both the Nazis and the various horrific communist regimes (Russia, China, Venezuela, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, and so on) are a bit trickier to classify because they cloaked themselves in a mantle of faux-sophistication and academic-sounding justification. But they’re still evil.
Beige Evil, on the other hand, is creepier. It worms its way into you to eat you from within. And Beige Evil is usually pushed on you from without. Comedian George Carlin commented that when fascism comes to America, it’ll be in “Nike sneakers and smiley shirts.” He was on to something.https://twitter.com/daytimerenegade/status/901829516024311808
Beige Evil tells you that doing something, like drugs, for instance, is not only not bad, but actually good. Ditto the “free love” movement of the 1960s. In fact, a lot of the “counterculture” of that era, which is our dominant culture now, can be classified as Beige Evil.
Beige Evil is more internal and it sounds good. So how do you detect it and guard against it?
Look, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be writing for free. But I have my ideas.
- Does the thing go against tradition? This isn’t a catch-all, because slavery was–and is!–a tradition in most of the world. But that’s an extreme; you know what I mean. Think about something like polygamy; why is it frowned upon? What are the greater benefits to the traditional model of monogamy? Obviously, us religious people have our own set of traditions and standards to use, but there are, obviously, others.
- Who benefits from the thing? Are you really the beneficiary of this policy or that product or the “if it feels good, do it” mentality? Does you doing X behavior actually make it easier for person or entity Y to get more money or power or time at your expense?
- Who is harmed by the thing? I’m talking physical, economic, mental, moral, emotional, and spiritual harm here. Is someone else injured or killed? Are you the one going to be hurt? (Think: “It’s actually MORE healthy to be fat!”)
- How easy is the thing? Maybe “convenient” is a better word. Often things that are evil appear rather anodyne on their surface (“I can help you help yourself!”) while things that build character take work. Like the Dead Kennedys album sardonically exclaimed, “Give me convenience or give me death!”
- Deep down, how does it feel? I am convinced we all have an inborn sense of morality attuned to what is really true and good and beneficial to us and to others. Some call it our “gut feeling,” but I think this is deeper than that.
Unlike the people Ms. Arendt studied, and her times in general, we are fortunate to live in an era where cartoonishly evil things are not in our backyards (yet).
There is no telling how any of us would act if the Powers The Be kicked down our doors and asked us if we were with them or against them. But given the luxury of our times, we can at least try to be aware of the other, more insidious kind that seems to permeate the air. Maybe it’ll help us stand up to the cartoonish kind.
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