Evil and the Responsibilities of Language

Shortly before September 11th this year, I read this article by Christopher Hitchens. He argues, with gusto as usual, that the term simply evil “remains the best description and most essential fact about Al Qaida.” To my mind there’s nothing simple about evil and it’s a useless and dangerous description for Al Qaida. About two weeks later I had a bit of a Twitter battle with a friend of mine, David Gormley. Admittedly, he’s a self-proclaimed Hitchens fan, so I think we’re doomed to disagree. It went a bit like this:

David: Why do many people think pacifism is a virtue? Pacifists advocate non-resistance to evil. It’s an immoral position.

Me: What’s evil?

David: Evil being totalitarianism, fascism, nihilism, genocide, etc.

Me: Other examples: the West, liberalism, homoexuality. Pacifism is about humility in your beliefs and real commitment to another way.

David: Ah, I’m afraid I have to admit I’ve never found the arguments for relativism to be even a little bit compelling

Me: Okay. You’re confident that if a Western state wages war on “evil” that what they’re attacking will be pure, unquestionable evil?

David: Well, in the case of Iraq, for example, I think the Ba’ath regime was very obviously evil

David: Do you not believe in objective evil?

Me: I don’t. I think the word evil is always loaded, reactionary and used to incite.

As I remember David responded to my final tweet by saying it was best to use the plainest possible language to describe atrocity, but I haven’t been able to find the exact phrasing. After that I grew tired of character limits and decided to develop my argument here instead.

Now, I aspire to pacifism and I disagree with David’s characterisation of it. It’s not about non-resistance. It’s about non-violence. But that’s not the issue I want to look at. I want to look at evil as a linguistic concept. Note that David doesn’t answer my questions directly. He doesn’t even attempt a definition of evil, he provides examples of what he considers evil. He doesn’t answer the question about the West waging war, he defends the condemnation of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime. And in the midst of all this obfuscation he says that relativism isn’t even a little bit compelling. As Socrates put it to Euthyphro (for piety/pious, read evil):

Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious. ..Tell me what is the nature of this idea, and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions.

Of course there is no standard measurement for evil, which is why, as I pointed out, from day to day it is used by assorted leaders, bloggers and organisations at complete cross-purposes. The common thread is that in every instance it is a dangerous word and its use is irresponsible.

Most of us have heard more times than we can count that truth is the first casualty of war. Entwined with that is the notion of language as a casualty of war. In the last ten years we’ve seen this process taking place, language being used not as a means of accessing or communicating truth, but as a means of insulating ourselves from truth (“enhanced interrogation”) and creating a simulation of reality to suit our ends. It’s not a new phenomenon, of course. The hijacking of language was a central concern of the trench poets. They found themselves facing the horrific reality of the First World War which in England was literally being written out of existence through the use of patriotic euphemism – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

The word evil is euphemistic. No, let’s go further. The word evil is fundamentally dishonest. It’s used to divide, to insulate, to dehumanise. To make people believe that a crime, a person, a regime, a belief is beyond understanding, so they shouldn’t try to understand. That something is so anathema to all that they believe that they should be willing to die for it, yes, but also to kill for it. If another person is “evil” then your duty of care for that person no longer exists. They’ve sacrificed any entitlement to your understanding.

David tells us that the Ba’ath regime was “very obviously evil”. Yes, many people believed that. And that characterisation, effectively manipulated by President Bush and his associates, allowed the U.S. to rush headlong into a conflict that had no hope of real success and that harmed thousands upon thousands of innocents. That characterisation was a contributory factor to the atrocities in Abu Ghraib, to the bombing of civilians, to the crimes against humanity that were committed by the Americans in Iraq. The characterisation of Al Qaida as “simply evil” allows the bleeding of concepts that prompts the villification of moderate Islam in the U.S. and Europe. It also justifies, it probably necessitates the activities that have taken place and continue to take place in Guantanamo Bay.

I recently watched Gay Byrne interview Martin Sheen on morals and spirituality. He asked if Sheen believed in hell, if there would be a comeuppance for the Mugabes, Hitlers and Gaddafi’s of the world. And Sheen answered by saying of Gaddafi: “he doesn’t look like a happy guy to me. Doesn’t look like he ever realised that he was loved. And if he had it’s doubtful that he’d be doing the things he’s doing. I can’t judge, I don’t know but I believe like St. Teresa of Lisieux – it’s incredible but everything is grace. Go figure.” It really affected me, as an instance of a person holding to his beliefs, even in the face of atrocity. Our values are more important than our hatreds.

The word evil takes those most basic values from us. It is used to make other people so distinct from us, to make them so repulsive to us that we forget the reality that we’re killing or maiming or destroying the home, life, or livelihood of another person. Because we’re not fighting people. We’re fighting evil. 

Both David and Hitchens rely on this idea that we have to say it like it is, we have to use the plainest possible language, we have to recognise Al Qaida as “simply” evil. However, in reality there’s nothing plain or simple about the word evil. It’s an incredibly emotive term, and one that’s vastly loaded with historical, religious and social connotation.  When I say that it can be applied with equal force to facism and liberalism, to genocide and homosexuality I’m not making a stock argument about moral relativism. I’m arguing that whatever the application of the term its impact is the same. It insulates, it separates, it stops communication.

I am obviously not trying to argue that genocide is a morally relative issue. There are things that I believe are unquestionably wrong and morally unjustifiable. The reason I aspire to pacifism rather than calling myself pacifist is that, for instance, I was relieved that NATO violently challenged Gaddafi. I am glad that the Allies fought and won the Second World War. But if we have to fight wars, and maybe we do, we should have the strength of mind and character to face the reality of each circumstance and justify that reality to ourselves. Stamping a regime with the word evil is a short-cut to declaring war, to executing, to assassinating, to condemning, to bombing, to attacking. In the last ten years, the word terrorist has served a similar function.

Lately I’ve been reading Iris Murdoch’s excellent Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. She finishes a chapter on Structuralism with the following:

“…the limits of my language which are the limits of my world fade away on every side into areas of fighting for concepts, for understanding, for expression, for control, of which the search for the mot juste may serve as an image. Everyone, every moral being, that is every human being is involved in this fight, it is not reserved for philosophers, artists and scientists. Language must not be separated from the individual consciousness and treated as (for the many) a handy, impersonal network and (for the few) an adventure playground. Language, consciousness and world are bound together, the (essential) aspiration of language to truth is an aspect of consciousness as a work of evaluation.”

If, with language stripped to its clearest meaning, we faced the reality of the last ten years, of blood spilt and lives lost and values betrayed in the name of fighting evil, we “would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory” that old Lie, that certain people and actions are “simply evil” and we have a duty to fight them.


10 thoughts on “Evil and the Responsibilities of Language

  1. hello!

    This is an incredibly social media-ish interaction, but still, hello and hope you’re well!

    I don’t really agree with this post. I agree that moral absolutes don’t exist in an objective sense, but I am happy to believe in my own moral absolutes, and to act accordingly, as I believe many people are. Extending that, I do think some things are evil, and rather than just give examples as that seems inadequate, I could use a metric – something that is dehumanizing, something that is inherently cruel, something that goes against that core of empathy I feel in my gut. How’s that for subjective! But then most words are subjectively defined – dehumanizing, a word both you and I used, is probably similarly tough to pin down.

    The point here though, is that I don’t see my use of the word as being bad in and off itself. In fact, it’s power (though I’ll argue about that in a second) can be used for good – like in a campaign slogan to collect signatures against the death penalty, in a campaign speech to end discrimination. You yourself agree that the word can be utilised for different causes, and so I don’t think your arguments about it’s use (or misuse?) in the case of Bush and Iraq is a fair attack on the word itself. It is a tool that can be used to divide us, but I know that I don’t lose all human duty with someone I understand to be evil. I think the people of Norway probably don’t either. That decision to revoke their rights comes after the use of the word, and is a much bigger problem. I don’t think we need to change the label we apply to those we view as the worst, as moral monsters or whatever. At a basic level, the vitriolic reactions that are more likely to lead to that abandonment of any last shred of empathy probably aren’t guided by language. We need to change the actions that result from the judgement of evilness, and have empathy in spite of it.

    The points about the language of the wars on terror are well made, and I think you’re entirely right. The problem is, we can’t place the responsibility on the word “evil” and not on the use of the word. Just because Al Queda, or anyone, is labelled evil shouldn’t be a cause for war. The change has to happen in the second part of that – we can call Al Queda evil, but we shouldn’t allow a label be cause for war.

    There have always been short hand ways of labelling enemies – evil, terrorist, communist, dissident, heretic etc etc. There always will be. We don’t need to get rid of the labels, we need to change our reaction. (actually, if we were being really ambitious, we’d just stop reacting to one word labels and actually evaluate things based on facts.)

    from the length and probably incoherence of this post, I’m sure you can see why I do agree fully, however, that there is nothing simple about evil!

  2. Thanks for the response. I figured that this would meet some disagreement. If nothing else, soon after posting I watched an interview with Mary Robinson and she said the words “evil definitely exists”. It took all my willpower not to delete the post right away!

    While I obviously wouldn’t claim that the blame for wars or atrocities can lie solely with the word evil, I don’t think it you can argue that we should call things evil but then not act in the manner we have always acted in response to ‘evil’ – which is to crush it by whatever means necessary. I think it’s a word that is almost exclusively used for a purpose, which is to rouse people’s emotions to undertake an attack of some sort. When, in many instances, that attack may be violent and destructive, I think we should stop rabble-rousing. If, as you suggest, we use the word evil but respond differently to it, what is the positive value of the word? I do think that language plays a vital role in manipulating our emotions and I do think that in this instance language can be used to chip away at our empathy.

    Regarding the question of different applications and the power of the word to be used for good. Firstly, I think that if you’re arguing for the removal of the death penalty of the prevention of injustice there are many more less aggressive terms that can be used to draw a community together and towards justice. I also think that by changing the linguistic currency, rights advocates can distinguish themselves from the discourse of the other side. Otherwise, again to take the example of the death penalty, it becomes a battle of contrasting definitions of evil. One side argues the person of death row is evil, the other side argues his accusers are. The same terms of argument aren’t going to make anyone switch sides, for the exact reason you outline: that most people are happy to believe in their own moral absolutes and act accordingly. Everyone continuing to employ the language of moral absolutism just feeds the idea that one’s beliefs can be, even should be entrenched. As I said of pacifism, I think that it is perhaps necessary to let go of the terms of moral superiority and, as I say of pacifism, exercise humility in our own beliefs. I still think that things like human rights and anti-discrimination will shine out as being good, but I’d like if they were seen as inherently, rather than oppositionally so.

    Finally, you say “I know that I don’t lose all human duty with someone I understand to be evil.” I am genuinely interested to know how you can understand another person to be evil.

    I hope you’re well too!

  3. Hello Niamh

    Hope you and China are well.

    Being very argumentative, normally when I read an article seek out the parts of it that I disagree with and then respond often with reference almost entirely to them, which makes this response weird cause I agree everything you’ve said.

    Me and Stephen often disagree about the word evil, I think most things that we describe as evil are often people being misguided and painting them as evil leads to a lack of understanding and engagement. Your completely right about dehumanisation and moral absolutes.

    Even if something is bad enough to fall into what to me is still an arbitrary category like say Nazi Germany we shouldn’t need sweeping words like evil to convince people they’re wrong, we should be able to justify our actions based entirely on theirs. The reason the word is negative Muireann is because it then becomes easier to lead people into things like Iraq as Niamh said or to justify ignoring people and their problems. The idea that many criminals are “evil” is whats lead to a lack of rehabilitation in our prisons, when a murderer is considered evil why would we try to educate them or have them learn from their mistakes. With regard to the death penalty example, I think it would be better if one had to engage with people signing signatures and convince them fully of why capital punishment is wrong, instead of using strong and emotive language to gain an emotion based reaction from them which happens to be favour what you believe. That’s really no different to the way Iraq was justified except that your beliefs are different. Using the word evil seems very much like an ends justifies means approach, personally. Also I’m not sure that it works that well in US states where the death penalty is an issue campaigners who say X who killed Y is evil tend to gain more weight then those who have to explain why we should be just when dealing with said criminal murderer, and as Niamh said it just becomes a debate about the definition of evil.

    When I started reading it I thought I would disagree with you on the pacifism point but you point about aspiring to pacifism is very well put and I don’t think I’d ever heard it phrased that way. We shouldn’t be afraid of intervening in things like Libya, WWII, Kosovo or I would even add Afghanistan, but I agree it should always be when we feel all other options have failed and we should always strive towards peace and pacifism whilst recognising that we’ll probably never actually get there.

  4. I’m broadly happy to accept that language is used irresponsibly sometimes, particularly in regards to war. I think it’s unfair just to criticise the Bush administration, however. Anti-war activists often speak in euphemisms about the horrors of Hussein’s Iraq. Whether or not he was “evil”, he and his crime family did essentially hold personal ownership of the people of that country and he did suborn terrorism. Those facts are skirted by anti-war types (with the help of euphemistic language) all of the time. Whether evil actions actually exists is the question I’m really interested in.

    I have some questions though. First of all, are you saying that the existence of evil is circumspect because no solid definition exists? There are lots of things which are resistant to definition that almost certainly do exist anyway. Art, for example, is extraordinarly hard to define, but it would be absurd to argue that it therefore may not actually exist. Love is another such example. People usually just use examples of love and of art when talking about what they are. I don’t see why this can’t be the case with evil, too.

    You say you’re a pacifist and that that pacifism is about non-violence, not non-resistence. This doesn’t make sense to me. If your enemy is using violence, how else do you resist him but with violence? You also go on to say you’re supportive of the Allies efforts in WWII and the recent intervention in Libya. How does this gel with your idea of non-violence?

  5. Hi everyone,

    I think Niamh is basically correct that concepts like evil are basically used to dehumanise the Other and avoid having to understand our own capacity for violence and oppressive behaviour (although I’d extend the analysis to all universalist moralities). I think it’s also important to look at how demonisation relates to power: it’s much easier for the oppressor to demonise the oppressed in the popular consciousness than vice-versa; it’s easier for whites to establish “radical” Islam as objectively evil than for Muslims to establish Western imperialism as evil because of differences in access to institutions like the State or the media etc. In other words, it’s usually the subjectivities of the oppressed that are erased by that kind of crude categorisation.

    I also, weirdly, agree with Dave re: pacifism, albeit from a different perspective. I don’t think recognising the subjectivity of our own perspective should be disempowering – hegemonic ideas are no less subjective, and those in power have no such reticence about imposing their will at the barrel of a gun. There’s a level of normalised violence involved in maintaining the status quo – that’s what the police and military are for – and non-violent political agitation is essentially asking for them to exercise that violence towards different ends. Pacifism basically encourages deference to oppressive institutions and (falsely) equates the violence of the oppressor with that of the oppressed.

  6. Dear Niamh,

    A really sophisticated article, and something difficult to do justice to in a short reply. It’s been on my mind for the last couple of days. Here’s an attempt at a satisfying response.

    I see your Iris Murdoch, and raise you Dostoevsky:

    “… [T]hey immediately drew the deduction that the crime could only have been committed through temporary mental derangement, through homicidal mania, without object or the pursuit of gain. This fell in with the most recent fashionable theory of temporary insanity, so often applied in our days of criminal cases. Moreover, Raskolnikov’s hypochrondriacal condition was proved by many witnesses, by Dr Zossimov, his former fellow students, his landlady and her servant. All this pointed strongly to the conclusion that Raskolnikov was not quite like an ordinary murderer and robber, but that there was another element in the case.

    To the intense annoyance of those who maintained this opinion, the criminal scarcely attempted to defend himself. To the decisive question as to what motive impelled him to the murder and the robbery, he answered very clearly with the coarsest frankness that the cause was his miserable position, his poverty and helplessness, and his desire to provide for his first steps in life by the help of the three thousand roubles he had reckoned on finding. He had been led to the murder through his shallow and cowardly nature, exasperated moreover by privation and failure. To the question what led him to confess, he answered that it was his heartfelt repentance. All of this was most coarse … ”

    Evil as an idea is intensely important to me. To call an act bad or hideous is not enough sometimes. Evil is important because, at least since Augustine’s ‘On the Freedom of the Will’, it has designated those acts that are not only bad, but are the product of a bad will. Not merely are acts dependent on people’s circumstances, but on who they are as a person.

    In “Crime and Punishment,” the observers of Raskolnikov’s case, and the reader throughout the novel, want to emphasise circumstance and conditioning. They want to minimise his agency – no – destroy his agency, and save him, and by extension themselves, from moral responsibility. Raskolnikov’s confession shames them. Yes, he accepts there are circumstances – namely, poverty and helplessness – that conditioned the choices and incentives he had as a person. Yet the choice to kill remained his, and the product of personal faults of cowardice and shallow character. He was weighed, and found wanting.

    I think that I agree that most of the examples you give of the usage of the word evil are unhelpful contributions to public discussion. “Evil,” used in the sense only of, “something so bad we have no need to discuss causes,” is a deeply unhelpful contribution to public discussion, flattening and simplifying this discourse. But evil, used in a more careful sense, can be deeply morally invigorating, and an idea we need to use more not less.


    I’d like to recommend “Out of Eden” by Paul W. Kahn. He talks about how the Greeks had no conception of evil, all bad acts were caused by a definition of rationality. Christianity introduces the idea that people can understand what is right to do and choose to do bad. I was first turned to it by the recommendation here: http://thebrowser.com/recommended/out-eden-adam-and-eve-and-problem-evil-by-paul-w-kahn

    Serendipitously, when I turned on the laptop to finally write this reply, I see that slate.com has an article on the very issue. It might be of interest to you and everyone else who has commented on this.


  7. My point on the invasion of Iraq argument is that you can’t say it was the word evil in particular that allowed Bush etc to coax their country into war. Use of language such as “anti-american”, “patriotic duty”, “homeland security”, “terrorism” etc were just as culpable if the crime is allowing linguistic shortcuts that allowed Bush etc to bypass a proper justification. I don’t think that most people have a reaction to the word evil that is as unique as you both seem to think. This is of course an assertion, as I’ve never seen any real investigation into this either way, if either of you have I’d be delighted to see it and change my view as appropriate!

    Essentially, I guess this comes down to the power we see in language, in the first place, and the distinctive power in individual words in the second. Firstly, I place more emphasis on human nature, and emotion, which while it can be stirred and directed by language, is very rarely created by it, and is manipulable through many vernaculars and even through non-linguistic communication. In the second instance, I don’t see words as having independent power outside of their use, which I know is a divisive opinion, and I don’t imagine I’ll convince anyone who thinks otherwise through a comment on a blog post. But I think our reactions to our understanding of evil is probably a more visceral reaction than a rational one, which by your argument means that it is a dangerous word to use, but by my argument means that many other words or phrases or other communications could stir a similar reaction, by tapping into the same instinct, meaning that the word itself doesn’t need to be avoided so much as our behaviour needs to evaluated and perhaps changed.

  8. Sorry for the delay in getting back to these, I’ve been away meditating for the last week. Thanks for such thoughtful responses.

    David: I don’t think the argument I’ve made is for the non-existence of evil. Rather, I think that evil exists but only as a linguistic concept. A behaviour only becomes evil when someone classifies it as such. I think the same is probably true of love and art, but I think that creation of notions of love and art serves a positive and enriching end. I don’t think the word evil serves any such positive purpose, I think it does a lot of harm and so I don’t believe it should be used.
    Regarding pacifism: firstly, the incredible history of peaceful protest in the face of threats of force (the black rights movement, the Indian independence movement, elements of the Arab Spring, the Saffron Revolution) shows that there is another way, through the effective use of the moral voice and of peaceful demonstration. By that means people can be gathered into powerful blocs and regimes can be toppled. I recognise that sometimes that process seems impossible, which is why I don’t claim to be pacifist, but rather say that I aspire towards pacifism, but it is an incredibly challenging standard. It’s not that I support violence in Libya or the Second World War, it’s that I literally don’t know what the alternative was, and so my ideals have trouble stretching around reality. My notion of pacifism is a work in progress.

    Aidan, again regarding pacifism, I think there is an element of deference involved, in the same way there’s deference involved in saying that one would rather be killed than kill (which I would.) However, as exemplified by Buddhists in the course of the Cultural Revolution, to relinquish the trappings of your belief to an oppressor for the sake of maintaining the purity of those beliefs is an act of resistance. Again, it’s difficult to defend in all circumstances, I recognise that. But I think it’s a powerful ideal.

    Stephen: Thanks for the Dostoyevsky, a really fascinating way to look at the whole idea. Though, to be honest at the end of Crime and Punishment I really couldn’t just dismiss Raskolnikov as evil. He was weak, certainly, his intention was at times bad. But he was overwhelmingly pitiable. I think that in any crime there is an element of conditioning, I disagree with neuroscientists who say that responsibility can be explained away. But the human basis for every crime, the fact that each person is born cute and innocent and somewhere on the way something (weakness, vulnerability, anger) turns the innocence into guilt is, I feel, tragic in every instance. That’s what draws me away from describing a person or their actions as evil, I think that defines the person solely as bad in a way I’m uncomfortable with. I don’t think any crime arises solely from negative intention. Lastly, I can’t conceive of what the “more careful sense” you suggest would be. Even if there were instances of positive usage, I think the good would remain hopelessly outweighed by the bad. Thanks for your thoughts though (and reading recommendations), they’ve given me a great deal of food for thought.

    Muireann: Of course I’m not suggesting that the word evil alone was responsible for Iraq, I agree that a range of inflammatory and emotive language was employed (as with the WW1 example, I think overblown patriotic language is also dangerous). I believe that much of that language did have independent power and that the manipulation of language is one of the crimes of the Bush regime. So, I’m not really arguing at all that evil is unique in its employment. I do think that its more prevalent throughout history and on every side of the aisle than most other political or moral terms, which is why I feel its particularly threatening. Its usage has afforded it a particularly dangerous strength of connotation. You say we should change our behaviour. One, I’d argue that ceasing the usage of certain words is a behavioural shift. I also, I know you disagree, think that our language and our behaviour are deeply connected and that if we change the signifier we alter the signified and in doing so alter ourselves. Maybe as a collective we should also try to change our susceptibility to emotional stirring, but I think this is an important element of that effort.

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