Thursday, June 12, 2008

Evil not-so-shorters

(warning: long, geeky, and debatable post ahead)

To begin with, I'd lose my membership card in the Nietzsche fan club if I didn't mention that, whatever the current popular usage, the very concept of evil comes from and depends on Christianity. The ancient Greeks did not have a concept of evil. Yes, they understood there are incredibly bad, malicious people in the world, but they also understood at least half of the point behind Arendt's wise phrase "the banality of evil". Evil doesn't really exist, it's what we call the horrible effects of stupid and/or hateful people. George Bush is too fucking retarded to be evil, and Dick Cheney probably genuinely believes helping himself and his cronies is good for America. (I don't mean he fools himself like Bush into thinking his every move is golden, more that Dick likely thinks his "heart" is in the right place.) I digress, to be sure, but I had to do it before we see what Megan thinks about a word she probably knows nothing of the origin and history of. Evil is a fiction added after the fact, helpful and harmful are terms that more accurately describe reality. The very word evil is a value judgment, based on the belief that being anti-Christian is so wrong that it's inhuman.

A herd, not a pack: Calling something evil makes it unthinkable, and tries to put the evil deed in a kind of impossibility box, creating a secondary problem where we have to figure out an actual deed in an abstract sense. This is a category mistake. Megan, and her lecturer, almost get this in this first post, yet still are trying to define evil and penetrate the impossibility field.

We all sort of believe that we'd have been hiding Jews in our basement during the Holocaust. But of course we have never been afraid that our government would put us in a dungeon and rip our fingernails out while sending our families off to forced labor camps. Worse than that, most people probably didn't even go along because they were afraid. They went along because everyone around them seemed to think it was all right.
No, Megan, they went along because they had direct orders to perform the horrible deeds they committed, and because eventually an atmosphere was established that made the sadistic into the commonplace. Normal people were told to do these things by leaders they were trained to obey. There's no mystery, no impossibility field, no difficulty in understanding how and why these things happened. That, Megan, is the banality of evil. There's nothing special about it, it's simply the negative side of a collection of human traits and customs. When Megan callously dismisses the concerns of the not-her people in the world, as she does regularly, she is being evil. At a much smaller scale, perhaps, depending on how you evaluate the negative effects of globalization and free market policies, but evil nonetheless. People who act shocked by what they call evil are either disingenuous or ignorant. Humanity is a cruel, brutal species, and while we can and should feel revulsion when reminded of this, we cannot pretend to be confused.

More on evil: No, Megan, it's not the situation, unless by the situation you mean existing on the planet earth as a member of the human species. Evil is in all of us, at all times. It is not a special antimatter that creates horror movies when present. It is us failing ourselves. Game theory and simulations and blahblahblah have fuckall to do with it. It's not the system, it's us. We created the system.
Plus, of course, evil is in the eye of the beholder, and the evils of Abu Ghirab aren't even bad to the people who actually ordered those deeds from the comfort of the VP's office. In the original Christian formulation anyone who isn't Christian is evil. The torture at Abu Ghirab was wrong, but is it really in the same category as atheism? According to the terms on offer, it is. Yes, I'm hewing to what's now a somewhat archaic definition of evil, but it remains the basis, the beginning, of the concept. Evil is someone who disagrees with you. That's pretty fucking banal.

Oh, the humanity:
We often hear that in order to wreak evil, we have to dehumanize the enemy--hence the political propaganda that painted the Japanese and Germans as inherently degraded races, fundamentally different from and less moral than ourselves. Zimbardo, however, makes an interesting point: in order to do evil, we also have to dehumanize ourselves. He points to research showing that warriors in tribes that kill, mutilate, and torture their opponents almost all change their appearance substantially before they go into battle. Tribes where the warriors go into battle in their day clothes, so to speak, are considerably gentler.
And now, maybe, if I'm lucky, the two of you still reading see where I'm going with this.
This assertion is completely, absolutely wrong, precisely because it depends on the idea that evil is some sort of bizarro world that requires specific conditions to arise, including a denial of self. Using examples like Nazis encourages our self-delusion that the elements of "evil" behavior are rare and bizarre, something not present in each of us at every moment. We have to be induced into being evil by the system, we aren't simply fallible and human. Evil isn't man's inherent capacity for cruelty given a hoity-toity name, in this formulation, but some sort of separate, independent phenomenon which happens to others. Megan is trying to use the language underlying the idea of "the banality of evil" without accepting that there's nothing special about the things we call evil. The problem of evil is that the whole concept is made-up, and it gets in the way of self-comprehension. We're not evil, no sir, so how is it others can manage to be?

Wrong questions: And now Megan pretends to agree with me, while still missing the whole goddamned point.
Zimbardo makes another interesting flip point. We often hear about the banality of evil, but this also means that heroism is banal. Disobeying evil orders is not something that requires special, amazing personal characteristics; it simply requires a willingness to honestly attempt to assess what the right thing to do is, and the will to do it even when everyone else is going the other way.
... actually, no. Overcoming the worst of our nature in a situation where it is being encouraged is not banal. It is the precise opposite, because it isn't about right or wrong but being true to the self we want to be. Heroism is mankind actually being more than what we had been prior. If I disagree with Nietzsche on anything, it is the value of altruism, and the degree to which we can avoid being defined and dominated by our brute animal selves. Stepping outside the herd can be the most difficult action a person undertakes, even for those who, by nature, aren't that social. Heroism might be retrospectively celebrated by others, but in the moment it requires stepping outside the herd and functioning as an individual, which the basic instincts of all pack animals long ago recognized as inherently dangerous.
Megan doesn't understand this most likely because, to her, heroism is mistaken for (somewhat) enlightened self-interest and something you do to feel good about yourself. Eating humane meat is, ultimately, a net good for humanity, yeah, but it sure as shit ain't heroic. I'm not saying Megan would claim it is, but she was excessively proud of it as a lifestyle choice. Heroism is the individual standing out, whereas evil is, as Megan acknowledges but doesn't recognize the full implications of, the individual going along to get along with the all too commonplace doings of mankind. Hitler wasn't evil, he was the craziest, most hateful, most 'successful' asshole in modern recorded history. Calling him evil valorizes evil and elevates it to a point where it actually is comparable to heroism, making being an asshole like Hitler somehow attractive to certain other assholes.
Hitler was not special, except in that he rose to great heights while remaining a very small man. The folly in the Godwin rule is that many small minds, especially on the right but by no means exclusively, do think like Hitler did. They think they know everything, that they should be able to literally dictate the terms of reality, and that their enemies deserve to suffer and die. To think like this is not to be inhuman, sadly, it is to be human, all too human.
To deny the validity of the concept of evil is not to deny the harmful, hateful, terrible nature of the deeds and people normally called evil, but to challenge how they are understood. Megan might say she's trying to do just that, but she doesn't seem ready to chuck the word out, so I'm not about to give her any credit.

I realize this isn't my clearest and most concise post. Sorry. Trying to mix snark and philosophical writing is probably not wise, and neither is combining a response to Megan's less than consistent and coherent ramblings with my own pet peeves about the issue while trying not to turn it into a paper on Nietzsche. I just couldn't help myself.


rickm said...

Yes but have you ever heard this band Arsis?

I'm pretty sure they're evil.

rickm said...

Also, do go see Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure, his new documentary about Abu Gharab.

Megan wrote: "I can't even imagine how you would think up the idea of forcing prisoners to get into a naked pyramid, much less actually execute it, so the photos feel like some sort of elaborate internet hoax, showcasing the wacky imagination of some crazy prankster."

Is she serious? Is she that deluded into thinking that she is completely divorced from her very base and animal self? I'm reading Nixonland right now, and I'm quite certain that if I were a young adult then, I would surely be rioting in the streets and most likely blowing shit up. Same goes for Frantz Fanon.

Fortunately, I can blow shit up in Halo 3.

Clever Pseudonym said...

The thing that strikes me about that series of posts is just how utterly shallow, simplified and redundant Megan's thinking and writing is. Not to mention how easy it is to sit back with the benefit of history and be shocked and appalled at past human behavior. How could all those people let that plague spread so far and fast? Hadn't they ever heard of indoor plumbing?

Don't worry, Megan. Some day, when the machines rise up (when you will welcome your robot overlords at long last), there will be volumes of essays written on the horrors of mankind believing they had the right to own cars.

(Not to compare car ownership with slavery, but that's just as vague and stupid as any of Megan's thoughts.)

M. Bouffant said...

Owning & using cars is evil. I know it's so because I do neither. Unless getting a ride w/ someone...Never mind.