Tuesday, May 01, 2007

'Evil' Language

The Devil assisting Saint Augustine (1471-1475)
Michael Pacher (1435-1498)
"Making evil do some good."
(Image from Wikipedia)

"Evil" is one of those words that we've become wary of using, perhaps because we implicitly think of moral evil and possibly even of things demonic, but the word used to be broad enough in everyday meaning to include not just things like disease or poverty but even acts of God, as implied by the King James Version's rendering of Isaiah 45:7:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
The Hebrew word translated here as evil is ra', which has the broad meaning of something that is "not good" from the perspective of the one who is suffering. Broadly speaking, then, a criminal suffering loss of freedom through having been convicted of a crime could speak of the 'evil' of imprisonment -- if he were using English of the late 16th century. In that sense, to call it 'evil' wouldn't necessarily mean that the punishment was unwarranted.

This skirts the issue of theodicy, or at least of a theological defense, but I don't want to go there today.

I merely want to note that Gregg Easterbrook -- commenting on the media's references, during the Virginia Tech massacre, to Seung-Hui Cho as the "gunman" or the "shooter" but not as the "murderer" -- has questioned our contemporary aversion to using the word "evil" in everyday, public discourse:
Media and thought leaders don't want to say that the man who chained the exit doors of Norris Hall before he started killing had a mind taken over by evil; they want to dismiss him as no more than a confused gunman, because they don't want to contemplate his demonstration that evil is entirely real. And so they use words like "shooter" that remove the moral dimension, making it seem like terrible events just happen -- not that human wickedness causes terrible events. Many news reports spoke of the slaughter as if it had been a bad, bad car crash with no one really at fault.

That Cho became evil is distinct from whether society failed him at earlier points; you can sympathize with his earlier self and agree that someone suffering his condition deserved better care. But set aside whether evil results from psychosis -- or from supernatural temptation, genetic flaws, free-will choice, trauma, poverty, wealth, or ideology: Evil exists and must be spoken of as evil, not in euphemism. On a windy Monday morning in Virginia, evil armed itself and performed the most despicable of acts: pleasure in the taking of innocent life. Evil will arm itself again. As George Orwell showed, unless we call a thing what it is, we can neither think about it clearly nor oppose it. ("Virginia Tech and our impoverished language for evil: Trigger Shy," The New Republic, May 7, 2007)
I take it that Easterbrook wants to bring back a more common use of the word "evil" in public discourse but not return to the broad use of "evil" that we find in Elizabethan England, for Easterbrook, I presume, wants the term for its moral connotation.

Barack Obama is happy to use the term "evil" in its moral dimension, but more as Reinhold Niebuhr used the term. When David Brooks, "Obama, Gospel and Verse" (New York Times, April 26, 2007) asked Obama if he'd ever read Niebuhr, Obama said yes, and when Brooks asked him what he gets from Niebuhr's views, Obama had a ready answer:
"I take away," Obama answered in a rush of words, "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."
Obama means this, I think, more in the sense that Martin Luther King, who'd also read Niebuhr, meant it, as a moral call to social justice coupled with a realistic sense of our limitations in overcoming evil through institutional means.

At any rate, it seems that people in the public sphere seem to want to talk about evil again -- though I suspect that neither Easterbrook not Obama will be using the expression "evildoers."



At 5:01 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Interesting. Obama speaks of "serious evil". That suggests that there is an evil that is not "serious". Isn't this something of a tautology since "evil" must be "serious"? I am in the process of reading Obama's vision of America. As a book, it is strange: the language is sweetly moderate...evil seems to belong more to the hard religious world of the Republicans, for Obama. You are right, evil has become part of common discourse again, as if there is something beyond teenage rebellion and socially unaccceptable behaviour. More and more, on the UK news, acts are becoming evil, not merely the product of "mindless vandalism".

At 5:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The moral discourse of 'evil' is risky but useful for some purposes. The so-called "mindless vandalism" might be just that, i.e., mindless -- or it might be actually malicious.

I'm less comfortable calling the criminally insane "evil" -- though Easterbrook seems to have few compunctions there.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"though I suspect that neither Easterbrook not Obama will be using the expression "evildoers.""

Nor would I hold my breathe waiting for the American (and world) press to rip him apart based on what he has to say about "evil" in the world....

(I bet he could even repeat the "Axis of Evil" line and not get more than a ho-hum (or perhaps even complete agreement) from the press)...


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