This article is in conversation with Theo Horesh’s article, “Revisiting the Nature of Evil in the Islamic State.“
“Spock… I’ve found that evil usually triumphs—unless good is very, very careful.” ~ Dr. Leonard McCoy, “Star Trek”
Recently we have been barraged with images of evil—bombing of children in Gaza, in Nigeria the Boko Haram kidnappings and selling girls into slavery, ISIS butchering a reporter and the genocide of Shiite and other ethnic minorities in Iraq.
Such displays of savagery and inhumanity are shocking and most of the world would declare ISIS and other Islamic extremists as the archetype of “evil.” But, do we really know what we mean when we use the term evil?
Theo Horesh posed this question on his Facebook page and garnered a barrage of thoughtful meanings for the phrase. “Often we call things evil simply as a way of resolving our discomfort. We do not understand how people can do what they do, and we want to resolve our disbelief by calling it something to which we know how to respond.”
But, as Theo points out, our avoidance of our discomfort around evil covers up the truth of how dumbfounded we are of this force in humanity that remains so sinister and elusive.
I agree with Theo’s advice not to simply lump ISIS into some niche of degenerate brutishness. “All of us become a little less human when we fail to see the ordinary humanity of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.”
It is not the “good guys” against the “evil bad guys,” but a deeper question of how mortal humans just like us could either lose touch with our humanity or even disdain it so much as to strive for complete world destruction?
Lt. Calley’s chilling words from the Vietnam war still reverberate; “We had to destroy the village to save it.”
Theo is right; this is not about “them” but to look at what is in each of us that could easily become evil as well. Dr. McCoy’s warning of the contagion of evil is very real and should be heeded.
As Theo points out, carelessness around evil can easily intensify it and hastening its spread. Referring to New Age allegories of “light” infecting and “overcoming” evil, I would again refer to the good Dr. McCoy— “evil usually triumphs.”
Author Scott Alexander points out the problem very simply: “All good is hard. All evil is easy… Stay away from easy.” I suspect at the root of terrorism is a surrender of one’s humanity to the relatively easy life of a monster. It is hard to stand openly and feel the despair and suffering of fellow humans.
Why do we struggle against such overwhelming odds? Wouldn’t it just be easier to escape into a nihilist jihadist nirvana and go out in one final bloody tantrum?
Lucifer’s bargain is enticing. Evil is easy and its short terms gains are powerful and exhilarating.
Sadly, being human, we all are susceptible to evil.
Can ISIS be reasoned with? How do we “humanely” deal with sociopathic religious zealots? Like cancer, evil must be detected, contained and prevented from spreading.
And, just as cancer is our own body’s cells ravenously attacking other parts of the same body, evil is us attacking ourselves.
Like an oncologist, we have to be careful not to inadvertently either encourage metastasis or kill the patient along with the disease. Evil resides very deep within our brains and our chakras and any surgery is risky and potentially lethal.
Who has the skills to cut the delicate incision and apply the proper balance of yang and yin—force and nurturing to achieve a healthy world?
Do we have the patience and focus to complete the job or will we succumb to taking the easy way out and just drop some “smart” bombs and slap a band-aid on the patient? Perhaps we already know how this is probably going to end — evil will have another victory.
It occurred to me to view evil from a spiritual standpoint. Ernest Becker in his brilliant book, “The Denial of Death”, the basis of the Terror Management Theory in psychology, points out humans have mentally evolved to be able to foresee their death and this creates a terrible conundrum of existential terror.
What separates us from other animals is we have created a “symbolic world” where we can become immortalized in symbolic creations such as art, literature, oral stories, religions, etc. We have left our physical bodies and physical world and now primarily operate in virtual worlds of abstractions.
This feeds the ego because we “escape” our mortality and imagine the infinite.
Essentially we have become gods, able to create and destroy symbols at will.
Faith in a symbolic worldview can give people a sense of order, meaning, and context that can soothe the existential fear of death. If our mental images of salvation are shattered somehow, we have to either retreat into our doomed mortality or expend energies to create greater, more elaborate worldview images. Freud identified our life force as “eros” and presumed a corresponding death force, “thantos.”
Creating images to escape our mortality is energetically expensive. Probably the “tipping point” into evil is when we can imagine scuttling our mortality and “free” ourselves to a better, more equitable afterlife. If the road to eros is blocked, then we can take the shortcut to thantos.
Evil is symptomatic of exhaustion of the psyche and a “rational” decision to eliminate the stress of mortality. In a twisted logic, evil genius way, evil becomes a rational choice because it destroys the impediment to our immortality, spiritual freedom and even greater powers of unimpeded creation.
The basis of any genocide is a “divine madness” that supposes the material world to be a hindrance or burden to spiritual “purity”. ISIS and Boko Haram can justify any sort of inhumanity because they are on a “mission from God” and any trace of mortality is profane and requires extermination to “clear the way” for a new vision of “pure” human spirit. As the cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
In this case, the “us” is our humanity that stubbornly prevents us from achieving our image of perfection.
In a TED Talk, Philip Zimbardo seems to reiterate that evil is an aspect of “the human mind’s infinite ability for creation” —the “worldviews that Becker refers to. Our minds constantly attempt to eliminate pain and suffering often by eliminating the source, which is our humanity. Just look at the horrific crucifixion of Jesus at the core of Christianity and the message of death and ascension. We have the ego power to sacrifice ourselves, our humanity in a yearning to transcend our mortality—to be ‘born again’.
Our humanity is our mortality and as the Buddha points out, that involves the reality of suffering.
‘Good’, as Zimbardo contends is maintaining and fostering connection to our humanity (body). ’Evil’ then is abandonment of our mortal humanity and escape into a symbolic pure state of spirituality beyond suffering. He points out that the boundary is permeable and all of us are capable of sacrificing our humanity for a symbolic ‘greater plan’.
Zimbardo shows it is the power dynamic or process that fosters evil and none of us are immune. We need to look at our worldviews, our symbolic creations—religions, governments, financial institutions, entertainment, etc. to be certain they are grounded and based upon a deep respect for our humanity and interrelatedness.
Evil is the ultimate ‘virtual reality,’ and our bodies and attendant suffering are our true reality. Do we have the heart to remain real? The lure to escape is very powerful.
Buckminster Fuller said, “I am a verb.”
To deconstruct evil, you need to realize it is not a noun, a thing, but it is a state of being, an expression of the human spirit. I contend it is our spirit choosing to no longer be human.
It is an action and should be thought of as an energetic force. George W. Bush naively coined the phrase, “evil doers” and it is the “doing” part that is more important than the “evil” part.
Are our actions moving deeper into our humanity or performing some sort of “spiritual bypass” to escape our mortality? It is more about directionality than moral judgment.
As the judge once said, “I don’t know how to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”
If evil is on a continuum from the poles of humble humanity to yearnings of pure spirituality, then the questions are as follows:
“What are the factors that push humans into psyche exhaustion and need to abandon our humanity?”
“Would improvements in physical comfort and satisfaction curtail escape into megalomania?”
“What process is required to allow one to “grieve” oneself back into humanity and mortality?”
“If once freed, will our spirit continue to yearn for expansion and freedom from its mortal bounds?”
Can we create a balanced worldview of “sacred humanity” where body and spirit can coexist or will we need to “clear the slate” as the jihadists suggest and start all over again?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: “Lucifer King of Hell” – Gustave Doré, 1860