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.