Evil in the Name of Good

Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good.

Maya Angelou

Now, more than ever, it is imperative to recognise these two facts of human psychology: We are all capable of malevolence and the majority of us defend ourselves from that ego crushing notion through various forms of denial, to such an extent that the very notion we could be capable of evil seems anathema to us.

Telling ourselves the simple story that the world is composed of “good people” and “bad people” may be comforting, but it is as inaccurate as it is childish. Today we see this story being told and played out in the form of “the oppressed” vs. “the oppressors”, as if we all are not capable of, and have not experienced to some extent, both. But to admit that is to admit evil, and so many will persist in telling themselves and insisting to others that they could only possibly exist on one side, and that the solution is to rid the world of the other.

Sound familiar? It should. It is the logic defying, dehumanising, shallow compulsion behind every mass murder in human history. Switch off your brain and become a cog in a magical machine that will bring about utopia, just don’t ask any questions. You don’t have to think about it, we’re the good guys, just follow our orders. Focus on how great the world will be when it’s just the good guys left.

Anyone who wants you to feel oppressed rather than empowered does not have your best interests at heart.

— Konstantin Kisin

Of course, that’s not possible, because a world with only good people in it is a world with no people in it. None of us is so pure. Some questions, a few seconds of thought and honesty, and you will come to this. That is why people and movements that lead to acts of evil demand no questions asked, no debate, no thought, no responsibility, just compliance. We are good, they are bad, that is all. Now shut up and do as we tell you.

Hannah Arendt rightly described this aspect of human behaviour in her report on the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem, with the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. She does not describe evil as banal as in commonplace, but as in so lacking in depth and imagination that anyone can do it, so long as really thinking about it remains impossible. This is where language and debate become vitally important in resisting the worst in us. We must have the words to even think about something, and we must have the openness of debate to think together, with those words, in good faith about that something. When something becomes unspeakable it becomes unthinkable, and we must be very careful what we chose to make unthinkable, as it seems to be from here that evil springs.

The word ‘Evil’ itself has become somewhat unthinkable, rendered meaningless by the postmodern abuse of the notion of relativity, for some reason now understood as abstracting rather than making very specific, as it should. If anything can be evil then nothing is evil and the word is meaningless. And powerless. Rendering words and thoughts about a concept as potent as evil powerless is one of many big mistakes the modern world has made with its general abuse of language that has, and unfortunately will, lead to violence and death. Of that which we cannot speak (with precision) Ludwig Wittgenstein would have advised we remain (poetically) silent; but we should know all too well by now that of that which we cannot speak it seems far more in human nature to become violent.

The way you set the world straight is by constraining the malevolence in your own heart.

Jordan Peterson

Resentment, justified or not, is poisonous. When people have not felt heard, understood or dealt with fairly, or when they are overwhelmed with insecurity, instead of coming to terms with their position and trying to find constructive ways to deal with the hand life has dealt them, they can seek to pass their pain on to others. Populists and demagogues rely on this to win power. When you dehumanise your opposition, when you refuse to view them as anything other than wrong, stupid, evil, and the enemy – when you cannot see that they too have a flawed human perspective, just like you – you are not looking for a peaceful outcome. To claim the moral high ground, that you are the “good guys”, while doing this is both hypocritical and evil, no matter what the “other side” is doing.

In any case, our responsibility should be to ourselves and our own behaviour; it is our duty to get, and have, our act together, not theirs. As part of this, honestly facing desires to harm, conquer, subjugate or even obliterate the other, in order to master these desires, would be advisable. You may not wish to have such desires, but wishing does not make it so. You are only human, just like everyone else.

The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instil convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.

— Hannah Arendt

We are living in a highly emotionally illiterate world, in which projection seems to be the go to defence for most when confronted with difficult feelings: “It can’t be me, it must be them!”. We have become so concerned with looking good to group judgement that actually being good may threaten our fragile egos too much. It is hard, but one must strive to, as the Oracle of Delphi wisely said, “know thyself”.

This is a lifelong journey, but a person who is at ease with an honest and clear view of themselves and their flaws, a person who knows and owns their malice and darkness, a person who mainly finds validation within, through an internal and empathy based moral philosophy, is not a person likely to seek to do evil. If we truly wish to do good in the world, if we truly wish to rid it of evil, then we would do best to turn inward.

Perhaps you have managed to read this far still believing that there are “good guys” and “bad guys”, that to be good you must be seen to fight for the “oppressed” against the “oppressor”, and be on the “right side of history”. When you yourself are labelled oppressor you will realise that this was all a lie, and, mark my words, in the current political climate you will be labelled sooner or later. The only one who can truly know where you stand is you. Know thyself. You can, if nothing else, be at peace with that, and no one can take it from you.

11 comments

  1. People are hell bent on fixing the world, but can’t be bothered to fix themselves. Mugshots of recent self-proclaimed revolutionaries come humorously to mind, wall-eyed and with poorly-planned facial tattoos, mullets, and neck beards.

    How can anyone change the world for the better if they can’t change themselves. And if you can change yourself, the world changes along with you.

    I agree with you about the problem of placing all blame on the evil other. There’s quite a lot of that going on right now. And, as you say, when you blame some other group — perhaps the unprotected class — you take no responsibility for yourself.

    Peterson was right. If you want to extinguish the evil in the world, the best place to start is with your own heart.

    • “How can anyone change the world for the better if they can’t change themselves. And if you can change yourself, the world changes along with you.” You hit the nail on the head.

      It was Peterson that got me really thinking about the concept of evil as a worthwhile notion again, rather than just “relative” in the postmodern sense. I could hope to effect the heart of another, maybe, but I can definitely effect my own, so that seems the best place to start just in practical terms, let alone for any other reason. Then there’s the way that looking to control “out there” rather than “in here” mostly just seems to cause strife.

      • Right, and “control” really is a big part of it. Even while people will be well aware that they don’t have self-control, they will seek to control others.

        Just a note on Jordan Peterson. Much as I like him, I find myself disappointed that he succumbed to addiction to over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. It’s similar to how I have a hard time fully trusting Alan Watts knowing he died of alcoholism. And at one of my workaday jobs we paid a motivational speaker who was morbidly obese, and couldn’t motivate himself to stop engorging himself.

        I’m not saying I’m right to be disappointed, just admitting that I am.

      • That makes sense, though I think it says something for Peterson that he does seem to be trying to get his own act together. He’s going to have a dark side to match the side he presents and it’s going to be something to contend with. Especially given that what he does show comes across as arrogantly strong.

        Alan Watts is definitely an odd one as he seems to have not exactly been a very nice person in his private life and then, yes, there is the alcoholism. Again, definitely a strong dark side, but possibly not as well handled as many seem to believe. I’ve liked plenty of what he had to say but best taken with a pinch of salt. People like Ram Dass and Thich Nhat Hanh come across to me as more respectable examples. Both seem to be able to handle their dark sides quite well, though not living in the everyday world with the rest of us might be helpful with that, being monks. Carl Jung seems to have handled having a strong dark side fairly well, and if Robert Anton Wilson had one, which he almost certainly did, it didn’t leave much of a mark on his life. It is worth noticing if actions match words, especially when it comes to people explicitly presenting themselves as good examples.

      • Right, Peterson is the tough intellectual father figure that tells everyone to stand up straight, clean their rooms, and get their acts together. As a trained psychiatrist he’s helped scores of patients overcome their problems. And yet now he seems himself to be broken, and not even entirely honest about his addiction. He acts as if he didn’t know the risks of taking the drug, when a Google search will instantly reveal that information, and he may have prescribed such drugs himself and warned his patients of the risks.
        And it may just be that standing up to massive resistance, criticism, and demonization wore him down. But I also find his diet of only “beef, salt, and water” perplexing. I keep thinking he sees himself as a predator, and thus has convinced himself his body can only process meat, which seems utterly ridiculous. Apparently, he has some rare condition where he can’t eat fruit, vegetables, or grains, and so does his daughter. I don’t really believe it.
        All this reminds me that we are all imperfect, partial, vulnerable, and flawed. My favorite artists certainly had some serious issues, and I can’t use any of them as role models.
        I didn’t know, or forgot, about Watt’s personal life. I only remembered the alcoholism bit. Ram Dass strikes me as spirituality-lite, and I never could get into Thich Nhat Hanh. OSHO is a massive fraud, and I can’t take Eckhart Tolle seriously.
        You talk about the dark side. I was thinking more about the weak side. Circumstances in which people are mostly on the receiving end of evil prevent us from seeing our own potential for cruelty and injustice were the tables turned. I usually have a very hard time seeing myself as evil, but I had a glimpse just yesterday. I forget what it was. And when I watch some documentaries, I find I can identify with all the people to some degree, and can imagine being in the role of victim or victimizer. It’s quite easy to imagine being a witch burned at the stake, or the person orchestrating the event.

      • Interesting, I hadn’t really seen it very clearly until this conversation, but for me the weak side and the dark side seem linked. I seem to feel evil as having something to do with “giving in” to animal instincts. Did you ever read the Dune books? Early on in the series the character Paul is given the test of the box, it is a test of humanity, ultimately a test of self control. If you can endure intense pain without losing conscious control, giving in to instinct, then you pass. But I suppose a stone cold psychopath could also pass such a test. There is also the litany against fear in that book series, which I like very much:
        “I must not fear.
        Fear is the mind-killer.
        Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
        I will face my fear.
        I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
        And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
        Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
        Point being I feel I tend to associate evil with lack of self control. But there is a lot more to it than that. Something to think on.

        Peterson and his daughter’s diet thing never really appealled, and I’m not a super fan of his or something, I was actually quite put off him for a while there when he got famous and started talking politics. I got into him a little while before as a fan of his Jung lectures and Maps of Meaning. So it’s not like I swallow what the guy says whole, I’m more looking for anything useful, which I do with a lot of different thinkers. He did seem like he was getting worn down and I can imagine he could talk himself into doing something dumb just as much talk himself out, being a persuasive speaker. That’s why therapists have therapists and why therapists can be necessary: the need for an outside voice for perspective. I wonder if he wasn’t quite isolated for a while there and possibly not willing or able to get such perspective, being famous and arrogant. Probably still so.
        “We are all imperfect, partial, vulnerable and flawed.” For sure, we’re only human. Robert Anton Wilson, who I may actually be a bit of a super fan of (rare for me) had Polio and post polio syndrome and took a lot of drugs, in part because he was often in pain, but that seems to have given him perspective and insight that I find worthwhile (along with a few dumb ideas that I don’t, but nobody’s perfect). If he’d been a “strong”, “healthy”, “alpha predator” like Peterson seems to admire, he’d probably have been just another arsehole.

        I’m glad I’m not the only one who can’t take Eckhart Tolle seriously 😂 I don’t really find Dass to be lite myself but YMMV and Hanh is certainly not for everyone. OSHO is a massive fraud, yes. Give a person power over others and you will see how evil they can be, and he’s a small example of that. I forget who said it but there is also the saying that “a true test of character is how you treat someone who can do you absolutely no good”, which is not so much about power as it is about motivation. I too find it interesting and educational to imagine being on both sides of the line of victim and victimiser. I know I could be evil, and certainly a bit of an arsehole, and find it interesting to look at the why and the why not in myself and others, especially when it’s not clear.

      • I also listened to Peterson’s “Maps of Meaning”, and I think a whole other series of his (but not the Bible one). I’m a little hard on him right now, but he did a lot to stand up to the radical left idealogues of academia, who are also rabidly anti-painting and anti what we might call traditional artists. So, I’m quite grateful for him, even if disappointed in his current crash landing.

        I don’t really equate weakness with evil, though there’s certainly overlap, such as in the “banality of evil” you mentioned. On the other side of the spectrum, weakness and subservience are often mistaken for the good.

        I once went to a documentary about Ram Dass, so I must have thought he was more important at some point. That would have been during my psychedelic phase, and I may have gravitated much more to Terence McKenna because of the specific nature of his trips. I couldn’t get my hands on DMT, and thus made use of the equally potent, but darker, salvia divinorum. That gave me a lot of insight and subjective experience which, if various psychedelic gurus didn’t hint at, I kinda’ lost interest.

        I’ll have to look into Robert Anton Wilson. I know of him, but haven’t looked into any of his material in recent years that I can remember. For the straight up spiritual stuff, I like Nisargadatta Maharj the best.

      • I have also been very interest in Terence McKenna, for similar reasons by the sound of it. He’s been quite an inspiration in the past. I’ll look up Nisargadatta Maharj.

      • Oops. Typo. Nisargadatta Maharaj. His most famous work is a transcription of his interviews with visitors to his home: “I AM THAT”. As far as I know he didn’t take any money. No luxury at all. He just talked to people who came to see him. There’s a free pdf of “I AM THAT” online: http://www.maharajnisargadatta.com/I_Am_That.pdf

        He’s pretty hardcore Advaita, which is the same strain of Hinduism that Tolle tried and succeeded at repackaging for the new age market, but he’s as close to the real deal as you can get.

        Advaita is the “diamond path” which attempts to speak directly to the intellect. It’s straight up philosophy.

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