You know when I started this blog I never imagined I’d write a single post, let alone more than one where I defend a Nazi. Life’s funny like that
So, the other day I finally got to do a youtube hangout with a couple of people I personally really admire. Kristi Winters and Steve Shives. Youtube, as I’ve said elsewhere, is a horrible desolate wasteland filled with assholes– both the creators and in the comments– and honestly it’s worth its own essay why– but Kristi and Steve are two excellent humans and I was excited to talk to them and their audience.
It would have been incredibly easy for me to sit on that chat and feed meat to the lions. All three people on the screen agreed about I imagine almost everything, and I could have used that opportunity to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear.
But as my wife constantly reminds me I’m addicted to strangers hating me on the internet, so as I was talking about empathy and its importance I pointed out that this is a problem for we on the “left” as well. I talked a bit about this in my blog, “You Don’t Actually Want to Punch a Nazi” and I made the point in the moment that despite his flaws, Richard Spencer is a human being. He’s a guy with a family and while we can find his behavior abhorrent, while we can certainly try to stop him from influencing and harming other people, it is equally important that we acknowledge his humanity and understand that he is not in fact evil
The comments section…was not pleased.
And I was more than a little surprised at the reaction. I mean, my job, every day all day, is hating things. I hate bad movies, dangerous public figures, stupid laws, even the occasional crappy book FOR A LIVING but I’ve never been under the impression that any of them were evil. I’ve certainly used the shorthand commonly understood term “evil” when talking about things I don’t like, but I’ve always assumed, perhaps naively, that people know that what I’m actually doing is applying broader social pressure through art to bad ideas in order to change minds. I don’t actually think those things and people are evil and neither, I thought did anybody else. Because EVIL doesn’t exist.
Ok, I should explain There’s a couple of premises you’re going to need to grant for me to make any sense so we should probably start there.
Hard materialism is true. The universe and everything in it is made of tangible, non magical stuff which is measurable, detectable, subject to natural laws, and otherwise real.
With my audience I doubt that’s a hard ask but I just lost a couple of you I’m sure
As a result of premise one because you are made of the aforementioned stuff, every thought you’ll ever have, ever action you ever take, good or bad, is the result of the chemicals in your brain and the interaction those chemicals have with the world.
If the first two premises are true. Nothing you do is ever “your” fault and there is no such thing as evil
I feel like that should be obvious but in having this conversation you’d be amazed how many people are ready to buy premise one and two as a t shirt are ready to tell me to take a leap on premise three
Now I want to say right at the outset that if you believe in the soul or an intangible nonphysical non material version of consciousness than evil is very much possible. I’m not going to lie and pretend to understand the notion of the soul. What it is. Where we’re supposed to keep it. How it interacts with the material etc. But if you believe in it then it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that some people have EVIL souls and some people have good ones. Well maybe reasonable isn’t the word but it’s logically consistent
I also wanna admit to many of my listeners the premises I’ve laid out above will not be new territory and I don’t want anyone to think I’m claiming these ideas as my own. Philosophers have been talking about the notion of good and evil for thousands of years, Sam Harris covers this subject far better in his book “Free Will” and if you’re a high minded make it through the first two chapters forgive him for some of the things he’s said since 2010 kinda person like I am I can’t recommend it enough.
I should also admit that the illusion of free will is perfect. I am not suggesting that every time you do something bad you look heavenwards and scream BRAIN CHEMICALS!!! Quite the opposite. No this essay is about how I believe we need to change our thinking about when OTHER people do bad things.
To understand that bad ideas aren’t magically evil doesn’t mean we can’t criticise them. To understand harmful behavior doesn’t come from a magical poison of the person doing the hurting doesn’t mean we need to fight it any less hard or that we shouldn’t still seek to contain or control it. We would put tornados in jail if we could but we wouldn’t call them evil.
And you and me, Donald Trump, and yes even Adolf hitler ARE, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, Tornados
Look, we need to stop operating under the delusion that the people we disagree with want the world to be a worse place. Donald Trump DOES want the world to be a better place. He lacks education, he lacks empathy, he lacks insight, but if you think people like Donald Trump go to sleep at night wondering how they can make the world worse tomorrow you fail entirely to understand them.
And yes there is an incredibly small percentage of our population that ACTIVELY want bad things to happen to people. Your Ted Bundys and your John Wayne Gacy’s. There are people who because of a defect in their brain chemistry are unable to control their bad behavior or worse still don’t even want to.
But let me remind you that the gaps between illness and evil have grown ever smaller as our knowledge of mental health grows. A hundred odd years ago someone with schizophrenia was called a lunatic and was thrown in prison. A few hundred before that they were considered possessed by demons and burned at the stake. Hell 80 years ago depressives like myself just needed some milk and fresh air.
There are days when my depression means I can’t get out of bed. There are days when my depression makes me think about suicide. Were I totally in control of my thoughts and feelings at all times, there is no more abhorrent thing I could do to the people who care about me than to end my life and yet we understand that it is my illness that drives this behavior. If I did end my life nobody who understood my condition would think…what an asshole! any more than if I died of cancer.
And none of this excuses the behavior these conditions cause. I’m not suggesting that the victims of Ted Bundy would feel any better or be any less dead knowing that he was ill and not evil. Understanding the humanity of the worst among us is not somehow apologizing for that behavior. I just know that we will not be a better happier world condemning people to a magical irreparable diagnosis of Evil. And I’ll point out this is a universal construct. The problem is, it’s a shortcut. An easy way out of that hard work of empathy. There are people right now who think YOU are evil. There are people right now who want YOU to be punished for who and what you are. Right? Members of ISIS through brain chemistry, culture, and upbringing DESPERATELY want to kill me and you because they believe we’re evil. How can we expect them to understand and empathize with our humanity if we, the so called “good” people can’t do it ? Or to be harsher still how arrogant to be SO sure that you’re right about the core of another person’s being that EMPATHY is a bad DECISION. How does one even become an arbiter? When does an evil person turn good? Can they? Is there a spell? Does their heart have to burst through cartoon frames. If we believe in evil when exactly do we grant people back their humanity
And look, lI get it. There WAS a time in history when we thought that tornadoes were angry gods– but just as understanding their true natural causes helps us to predict and to minimize their damage so too will our acceptance that we can’t improve the world by pointing at people and dismissing them as pure evil.
So what does this mean? What can we DO with this information? Well, honestly quite a bit. Think about our current prison system which is almost entirely punitive and non-rehabilitory and the changes we would make with a deeper understanding of “evil” as illness; as cultural training; as something complex and fixable.
And look you are not obligated to do anything with this information. If you want to give your emotional and physical energy to victims, to the oppressed, to the downtrodden and broken more power to you. If that’s where you where you want to put your empathetic energy good on you but all I’m asking is not to pretend that not having any empathy left over for those among us so broken that they’re doing the hurting is somehow virtuous. Its not. It may be where you are but recognize it for the limitation of empathy that it is. And ask yourself, what would change about your own behavior if you were to transform all your hate into empathy? How would you behave to those you think of as your enemies? How would your enemies change how they treat you?
What would this mean for all of us? If I may be so bold, I think we would find ourselves in a truly transformed world. A world with more understanding and less anger would be a better world. A kinder world. Ironically, a world without “evil.”
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