Saturday, 15 August 2009


While preparing for Paris and Budapest and trying to clear some space at my desk for R & H when they come to house-sit, I was listening to an interesting conversation on radio about the use of the word 'evil' to describe the killers of Baby P. What was it the Daily Mail (no link) had: Baby P killers unmasked: Evil mother who stood by as son was tortured... and the neo-Nazi boyfriend who abused him... sex-obsessed slob..

The discussion was good, meaning it was properly serious. One argument was that the evilness of evil acts had to be stated in absolute terms, not relativised or medicalised into a condition like psychological disorder. Responsibility is responsibility, and if torturing a baby is not evil then what is? The other argument was not in fact an argument, simply the articulation of a faint unease at the use of the word 'evil' because it implied possession by an external evil principle. It was, the arguer implied, too much a metaphysical term.

It was a serious discussion because there were no straw men in it. Both speakers were properly struggling with the relation of language to action. Or maybe it was to an event. It was an evil deed to kill the child, that was agreed by both, but were the people who did the evil deed, themselves evil? What did it mean to say that? Evil by nature? Evil only in that series of acts? Were they born evil? Did they become evil at a certain point? Is there a transition point at which people enter evil as they might a territory? And if they were evil now would they continue being evil? For ever? Was evil not just their current condition but an eternal condition?

Christian teaching is to hate the sin but love the sinner. But to love Tracey Connolly, Steven Barker and Jason Owen? On what spiritual eminence would one have to stand to declare positively that one loved them? Not on principle, but really? Oh best not say so. Best not declare it. If you do, if you can, you must do so silently and by action, anything else is betrayal of the word 'love'.

As for the word 'evil' I share some of the unease. I don't always trust those who use it readily. It is, if you like, a poet's quibble about metaphysics. But language isn't just an instrument like a mechanical digger for shovelling a pile of soil. I think there is a sort of obligation not to be certain about the great metaphysical terms. Very high stakes. Big mounds of earth.

And one good word for radio. The best of radio is wonderful. I can overlook any number of dreadful attempts at comedy or bad drama when it comes to hearing voices such as these.


Angela said...

I heard this discussion too - thought it was excellent.

The word 'evil' is very problematic, not least because while for us it may be metaphysical, for some it is used as a concrete and present entity. So any discussion of evil needs terms defined at the outset: I know that my idea of evil will be very different from any colour of religious fundamentalist.

The definition of evil that I am most comfortable with, and find workable, is that of M Scott-Peck: he defines evil in people as those who are unwilling to bear the pain of self-examination. The word 'unwilling' is important here, to me, because there are those who are unable (because of mental illness, or psychological damage).

Big mounds of earth indeed.

George S said...

Thanks for the comment, Angela. I don't know the Scott-Peck. This sounds like a variant on the Socrates about the unexamined life not being worth living.

I am not sure I understand though. Self-examination might not cause pain if one didn't understand certain universal principles or if one thought such principles might be overridden by considerations that might lead to a greater good. War must be chief among these, but any form of wounding admonition for the sake of happiness later. General happiness? The happiness of the admonished? The happiness of those in the admonished's vicinity?

These balancings are difficult as is full and proper self-examination. I wish it were easier. I hope to have acted for the better in most cases but am not confident about my own motives for doing so. I even suspect that confidence might not be a good state to be in.

Angela France said...

I'd agree that confidence is probably not a good state - too much confidence tends to have a whiff of delusion about it.

The "unwilling to bear the pain of self-examination" is something I often return to and wrestle with. Doing 'evil' to others (as in 'Baby P') must require an inability or refusal to feel any degree of empathy. Just recognising that one is lacking in empathy wouldn't prevent the acts, I think. So self-examination alone would not be a preventative in that situation. Yet I wonder - if one can really examine oneself, and acknowledge emotions and motivations, would it be possible to deny feelings in others? It's hard to accept that someone could inflict torture on another while also accepting their helplessness and pain - unless the torturer were a true sadist.

George S said...

I imagine that a justification is given to the self that the self accepts. That counts as the examined life. How else to explain it?

Hence the importance of doubt, I feel, Angela.