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Let's Talk About Good and Evil

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Human beings like certainty. We prefer easy and simple distinctions, especially if presented as a choice between two apparent diametrically opposite things. It's an evolutionary survival trait: if you can't quickly and easily recognise a predator that's about to eat you, it seems unlikely that your genes will get passed on. Even after millions of years of evolution, most humans find uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity very uncomfortable. We even have expressions built into our language that reflect this essential struggle: "It's not always black and white, you know, there are sometimes shades of grey" is one commonly used adage that hints at our awareness of the universe as an unpredictable, complex, messy place.

One of our favourite certainties, and a recurring theme throughout both oral and written human history, is our conception of "good" and "evil" as opposing, distinct, easily recognisable forces, often forces we externalise or even anthropomorphise. The cartoon baddie is always easy to spot. And we don't want to be the baddie, do we?

It is as uncomfortable for us to feel that we have done or said something bad, and to then take full responsibility for saying or doing that bad thing, as it is for us to deal with nuance and complexity. Religions the world over have sought to present us with these easy archetypes, as Jung called them, and allow us to blame our undesirable behaviours on "evil" (the Devil made me do it!) and model our desirable behaviours on "good" (what would Jesus do?) These easy tropes, these vivid archetypes, have infiltrated all aspects of our lives, including modern political discourse.

If we attempt to define them at all, we tend to have uncritical, childish definitions that present "good" and "evil" as simple, universal truths that are easy to recognise and understand. Such shallow and lazy definitions always end up dividing us into opposing camps, into tribes and factions - and then we make our banners and placards and signs, we grab our flags and bullhorns (and occasionally weapons), and we stand opposite each other and shout "you're EVIL!"

It is my contention that if we are to bridge the seemingly huge gulf of polarised, near-hysterical rhetoric that appears to have grown between so many groups, that has increasingly infected and skewed our political and social discourse since the invention of social media, fed by the purveyors of bullshit and propaganda who thrive on our misery because it gives them more click-revenue, then it is high time that those of us who want to engage in any meaningful discourse at all call those simplistic ideas into question.

Too many people gravitate towards extremes and then get stuck in their echo chambers, using tropes and memes that lean heavily on examples like Auschwitz or Jonestown or Sharpeville as the definition and epitome of evil. Similarly, people tend to lean towards extreme examples in their arguments (often when seeking justification or redemption) to define what the word "good" means to them.

What is uncomfortable and difficult is the realisation that "good" and "evil" aren't universal truths, that there is plenty of room in this messy world for nuance, and that there are examples people may point to which introduce ambiguity, bias, and uncertainty. It is uncomfortable to realise that any example of "good" and "evil" cannot be properly understood unless viewed within its social and historical context.

Extremes do not allow for common ground. And if ever we needed some common ground, it is now. And the only common ground that remains is the willingness to talk to each other in a way that enables understanding of each other, and eventually, healing.

It is when we look at something that to us almost instinctively feels evil or abnormal that we must always question that instinct, that feeling, and challenge our own assumptions and prejudices. What may be abhorrent to you may be a glorious good to other groups of people, and as such it becomes morally questionable to label practices as "evil" or "abnormal" simply because we are made uncomfortable by our own prejudices.

Let's consider an example that may, I warn you dear reader, make you feel a little uncomfortable.

The Sambia people are a tribe who inhabit the mountainous fringes of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. They were first academically studied by an American anthropologist named Gilbert Herdt. The Sambia — a pseudonym created by Herdt himself — are well known by cultural anthropologists for their acts of “ritualised homosexuality” (as Herdt describes it).

To the Sambia, homosexuality and heterosexuality are not recognisable concepts, and there are no equivalent words in the Sambia language. Even if they did recognise them, they would not see them as opposed or even mutually exclusive, but rather they are merely stages in a single sequence of what is to them normal male development. The incidence of what Westerners would describe perhaps as "true" homosexuality amongst Sambia males is, as far as can be determined, zero.

As the Sambia see it, boys lack a crucial substance necessary to develop muscle, stature, bravery, and the other characteristics of a successful male warrior. This substance, jurungdu, is concentrated in semen, which the boys ingest in the course of what Westerners would see as "homosexual" acts during several stages of their manhood initiation. As a boy progresses in his initiation, he will change from being a receiver of semen to a donor of it, as younger initiates perform oral sex on him. At the end of the initiation process the adult man will marry a woman in the tribe, and maintain an exclusively heterosexual relationship with her.

Sambia boys and men are not in any way traumatised by this experience, and every single member of the tribe, male or female, adult or child, subscribes to the beliefs that underpin these practices and see them as perfectly normal, and in fact view them as a "good." By what right can we then look at the Sambia and call them "evil" or "abnormal" or "perverted"?

If we recognise that our interpretations of our own society and history and ideas of good and evil are always, and can only ever be, partial and qualified, situated in a social and historical context, then we must also acknowledge that there are other interpretations with an equal claim to ours.

But we have to be careful here not to slide into relativism. One set of opinions simply is not as valid or as worthy of respect as any other. That is just another childish and simplistic view of the world we inhabit that is neither productive nor lends itself to anything other than relativist attitudes of "do as you please" or "to each his own" or "who are we to judge?" The fact that you are asking "who are we to judge?" already implies that there is something that can be judged, and I would argue that it is not only possible to make reasoned judgements about good and evil, but is in fact a duty we owe to each other. In order to make those judgements and to have some hope of reaching understanding, and even empathy, we must be willing to engage with people and opinions that are opposed to our own, even people we might describe as "evil."

But can we really learn anything from such open conversations with anti-vaxxers, religious zealots, terrorists, racists, misogynists, serial killers? And is there some a priori way of determining who we should and should not be talking to, or at least which views we should seriously explore?

If we concede that different conceptions of "good" and "evil" can affect our interpretations of the very meaning of justice, then it would seem that the liberal conception of justice at least gives us some tools with which to limit what could be a dangerous plurality of interpretations. A plurality whose opposing gravitational pulls could leave us dangling in a Lagrange Point of helpless relativism. Liberal justice is not, and cannot, be neutral towards racism or murder, for example. However, we have to beware of the fact that liberal justice can as easily exclude good as it can evil.

Think of it from the point of view of a therapist talking to a patient. The therapist cannot rely on whatever meaning the patient's behaviours may have within the language of which it is a part, because the language itself is already influenced, changed, twisted by the patient's own history, biases and prejudices. The therapist has to somehow find an explanatory framework that rises out of the mire of context and history - not just the context and history of the patient but also that of the therapist. A non-relativist grounding is needed, just as it is when we consider our interactions with people with whom we don't agree, and who we may even view with active distaste.

We need to recognise that, first of all, our conversations with each other are affected by social, economic and power factors and relations that can, and will, distort those conversations. What this means is that there some voices that are systemically unheard in these conversations.

Consider a conversation about the practice of wife-beating. It's easy to identify whose voices are almost always systemically silenced - often violently - in any conversation on the topic: the voices of the women who are being abused. Their relative positions within the religious, social and power structures within which this practice occurs make it impossible for the men and the women to be heard equally. It matters that there are privileged groups within any society that can articulate interpretations to suit their own needs and self-justify their practices through their dominant position. Groups that exclude, defuse, silence or co-opt any rival interpretations. It is still crucial for any discussion on the subject that both voices be heard: those of the wife-beaters and those of the victims. And it is the women who are abused who stand to benefit most from such a conversation, since it serves to reveal the fears, prejudices and toxic masculinity of the men as well as the oppression, stifled ambition, fear and low self-esteem plaguing the women. But what possible value is there in understanding a chauvinist, religiously justified, "suffering male" perspective on wife-beating?

The point of even allowing the male view into the conversation is to try and reflect within the conversation itself the kind of society that we are looking to create, or of which we believe ourselves to be members. This is the true meaning of equality, of democracy - but it requires of us that we enable the voices of the women to be heard - when before they may have been silenced. In a political context, this requires:

  • fairness - the debate must be fair and open, so that all voices are heard

  • honesty - we must help each other uncover anything that acts against a fair, equal and democratic discussion, and honestly evaluate our own positions

  • empowerment - helping those who have little power or confidence to articulate opinions that have been marginalised

Only then can we come to understand not just the insights in the opinions of others, but also the shortcomings and blind spots in our own opinions. We can't assume that all interpretations and opinions will be equally educational, of course, and because the conversation is not between equals it can often break down into ideology or demagoguery. The only conversations that we can safely assume might be rational and productive would be those that are fair, equal and democratic - in other words, ones that create a more level playing field. It is important to recast such conversations as interpretive rather than competitive, which will soften our positions away from "us" and "them", away from "good" vs "evil." We may then arrive at a more productive position of evaluating our interpretations of an event vs their interpretations of it. At the very least we may come to realise that what is at stake is not Truth with a capital 'T' and the defence we put up for it, but rather mutual education and understanding.

This doesn't weaken the basic human understanding that beating your wife is wrong. The fact that we can be informed and educated by conversations with people we don't much like, and whose habits and actions we actively reject, means that there is something to be learned from them. Something of value. That learning isn't one-way traffic, or at least doesn't have to be, and therein lies the hope of changing minds. It can only begin with understanding those minds. There are some basic things that we can all agree, as humans, are morally wrong - not by calling on religious authority or tradition, but by relying on our capacity for empathy.

Morality, as it has been said, does not require religion - it precedes it. Looking into the suffering face of another exerts a powerful call to action on us, because we are capable of imagining ourselves suffering too.

An author I read many years ago, Sissela Bok, makes this point in her 1995 book Common Values: there are certain basic values that are held by all humans, regardless of culture, race, gender, history, religion or any other factor. And we can begin to build bridges of understanding if we recognise these values in each other.

These values can be summarised at their most basic as:

  • an injunction against killing each other

  • an injunction against deceiving each other

  • a basic set of rules for resolving conflict that ensures everyone may state their case without fear or favour

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a functioning society without these basic values.

Seen against this backdrop, assigning acts or behaviours a value of "good" or "evil" is perhaps less helpful than viewing them as "just" and "unjust." And the best way to interpret and understand injustice is by reference to values we can all share, and by engaging in conversation with both perpetrators and victims.

I would add that there is certainly more to be learned about injustice and evil from the victims than from the perpetrators - but even if we are only a third party to the conversation, we must always remain aware of the influence of our own prejudices and preconceptions, our own biases and history, so that we don't miss out on the most essential outcome of any difficult conversation: healing.

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