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.