In an early Shame Day post I called a particularly reprehensible political lobby “what cancer would look like if it were a social movement.” While I continue to stand by that statement (this group was pulling the exact same ploy against Muslims that Middle Ages Christians used against Jews), a commenter did assert that I had gone too far, stating “as wicked or wrong as you think these people are, they remain human beings.”
It’s got me back to thinking on a subject that’s long held my interest- namely the issue of evil. You’d think it’d be pretty straight forward- right is right and wrong is wrong- but let me get right into an example.
Was this guy evil?
No question. Hitler and his followers aren’t simply evil- they’re the go-to example of evil. They’re our baseline for evil. Everything vile and nefarious is measured against either Hitler or the Nazis.
So what about this guy?
Columbus’s long-list of achievements (discovering America not being one of them) read more or less as a chronicle of genocide, slavery, and theft. It’s well known, certainly at this point, that Columbus was a greedy, narcissistic, tyrannical, and corrupt man. Even with streets, cities, a holiday, and even an asteroid commemorating him, surely we can all agree that this guy was evil. Not on the level of Nazi Germany, but still indisputably evil.
But what about him?
Yep, that’s Thomas Jefferson. President. Founding Father. Author of the Declaration of Independence.
Not just a slave owner, but an abusive one- carrying on an affair with one of his slaves (that slave also being his wife’s half-sister), getting her pregnant multiple times, and then promptly allowing his own children to spend the rest of their lives as slaves.
Pretty depraved, eh? If I did any one of these things, I’d be called out as a first-rate ******* (and rightly so). I’d be called evil, and that would be telling it like it is.
But let’s move on.
Is this guy evil?
That’s J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the FBI, which he oversaw with about the same leadership you’d expect from some Stone Age self-proclaimed god-king. Hoover was an egoistical, jealous, paranoid man who used the FBI to advance his own political agenda. In addition to all of this, Hoover was a rabid racist, and struggled long and hard against the Civil Rights movement, targeting MLK Jr. in particular, as well as spearheading a campaign to undermine the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Would you call this guy evil?
Ok, what about them?
Yes, the average American family (not pictured above), or heck, even just the average American? Our money goes to supporting companies that use sweatshop labor. Our money goes to supporting companies that recklessly destroy the environment. Our money goes to supporting corporations that push objectifying ads (especially, but not exclusively, in regards to women).
Our taxes go to supporting dictatorial regimes (such as former Egyptian president Mubarak), racist and apartheid states (such as Israel), and even states that utilize child soldiers.
Where does that put us?
Now all of that is simply to illustrate the apparent complexity of the issue. Evil is evil, yes, but pinning down exactly who is and isn’t evil becomes a little more complex once we look at someone other than the Nazis. Jefferson was instrumental not only to the founding of this nation, but to the establishment and perpetuation of the core concepts of democracy and human rights- even to the point where Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose ancestors Jefferson owned– wound up quoting him in his iconic I Have a Dream speech.
Likewise, there’s the issue with the average American. Almost none of us would actually be able to manage a sweatshop, or put an assault rifle in a twelve-year old’s hands, at least, not in person. Despite this, our economy is built on the backs of Bangladeshi kids working for twenty-five cents an our. Our security (we are told) is predicated on us coordinated with nations whose human rights records are drenched in blood (*Cough*China*Cough*Saudi Arabia*Cough*Columbia*Cough*). The vast majority of us either don’t know or don’t care; not enough to raise a voice in protest, anyhow. Again, what does that make us? We might not be ourselves actively implementing imperialism and violence and despotism, but we still do rake in the rewards and howl for more.
We could try arguing innocence by virtue of not being the ones pulling the trigger on any of this, but the truth that history has taught us over and over is that simple knowledge of an injustice creates moral culpability. To ignore injustice equates with committing injustice. We simply can’t escape it.
And maybe that’s the answer. Maybe we can’t be so picky about where we draw the line between right and wrong. Maybe the answer is sweeping judgment. That’s not meant to be some fire and brimstone-esque statement, that’s simply a fact of the matter. You’re not good and evil only when you embark on a mission of genocide- you’re a participant in a viciously evil system until such a time as you act otherwise. You’re part of the problem until you’re part of the solution.
That’s not to say that you have to be flawless. You’re not going to be able to do that (neither am I, for that matter)- in part because we’re human, and in part because the world we live in simply isn’t going to cooperate. But people, we can at least try. I don’t think making an effort to not totally **** up the planet and all that’s in it is really all that much to ask, do you?
In teaching a recent unit on Wiesel’s novel Night, we had to talk about how the Nazi party ruled Germany and people followed etc. In order to do so, I had to read up on various studies on Hitler, the Nazi party and the church during that time. Lots of interesting reads.
How could people accept that kind of extremism? Because they thought it was the price to pay for restoring the country ravaged by WWI and the rest of hateful Europe. See /many/ Europeans were/are racists, and bigoted, religious types who were confused by much that was being said by the powers that be for the sake of progress or restoration or whatever. So they could overlook or ignore what they knew was wrong to get a return to a sense of peace. Because most couldn’t control the way things were. As far as they could see.
The problem with evil is that it IS everywhere in the world. There are evil people and people who do evil things everywhere. And in our society, we feel we have to overlook or ignore it to get by. After all, we’re not participating in it, and if we do, it’s just to get by. Because we have no other choice or it’s the price we have to pay to move forward. Or avoid pain and punishment. Or to just get by until things “go back to normal.”
But they don’t really go back to normal. In some ways, isn’t evil normal?
I guess that was kinda my point.
We often struggle to draw a line in the side separating the majority of us from a tiny handful of the “truly heinous.” And while I can accept that some people are worse than others- Ayn Rand being a prime example- at the end of the day it’s the “good” who are in the tiny minority- the rest of us are on the other side of the line trying to play innocent-by-comparison.