Friday, August 05, 2005

The Nature Of Evil

My friend Omni blogged about evil recently. In her post she notes two characteristics of evil behavior that she has observed:
I've posted many times that evil is at its base stupid, and that's why it usually fails... There's an even more astonishing aspect to the evil person's thought process, though; the way they seem to truly believe that their endless bad behavior is beyond reproach, but that any slightest ill done to them, even by their victims in self-defense, is indicative of hideous wrongdoing and deserving of an abusive or even violent response.

You see extreme versions of this in the movies all the time (as you might have guessed, I saw one such movie tonight); the bad guy is in the process of knocking a woman around preparatory to raping her, killing her or both, and, when she finally manages to get a blow in, he howls, "You f**king bitch!!" and goes into an attack frenzy, as if by making even one tiny effort to thwart his evil intentions she's become the monster and he's become the mistreated victim.
What Goes Through An Evil Person's Head?
Right there she nails two of the key characteristics of an evil person. Years ago (1983) Dr. M. Scott Peck, practicing psychiatrist and author, wrote a book called People of the Lie in which he examined the nature of evil. He began by giving a definition of evil as the absence or destruction of good; he views evil as being inherently against life and creativity. A further characteristic of evil is a refusal by the evil person to acknowledge the wrongdoing the person has done. Evil is the inability to face the consequences of one's actions. This is what Omni has picked up on in her example of the attacker being hit by his victim and then raging at his victim for defending herself. The evil person lacks the ability to acknowledge that they are in the wrong; rather they shift the blame anywhere else other than themselves.

As a mental health tech in a psychiatric hospital I was witness to an incident in which two boys cornered a girl in the laundry room and forced their hands into her shorts while covering her mouth so she could not cry out. We (staff) broke it up and confronted the two boys with what we had seen. Their reactions were very educational for me. One boy owned up to what he did, showed remorse for it and was willing to accept the consequences for his actions. He was not happy about it, but he was willing.

The other denied anything of the sort had happened. When I told him to his face that I had seen what he did, the story shifted; he claimed the girl had told them they could do that. I confronted him with the fact that she was obviously terrified and that he had covered her mouth. The boy insisted she had wanted them to do it the way they did it. Now the boy was confronted by another staff member who pointed out that his accomplice had admitted the girl did not want to be touched. At that point the boy shifted tactics: now his accomplice was to blame, had started the whole thing, had egged him on, had almost forced the boy into what he had done.

I did not understand what I was witnessing at the time, but as the years have passed I have come to realize that that second boy was simply behaving in an evil manner. He could not admit he had done wrong and face the consequences. It did not matter that witnesses including the staff, his accomplice and his victim said otherwise; he was incapable of accepting that he was a wrongdoer. As Peck puts it, evil is the inability to tolerate the pain and the guilt of having sinned (I am not a fan of the word sin, and normally avoid its use; this is Peck's chosen term to describe it though).

Peck identified another characteristic of evil people: for them, this behavior is systemic. Everyone has committed minor evil in their lives, some act of malice directed at a sibling, or selfishly motivated minor theft; but these are isolated incidents, they are not a pattern of behavior. In order to meet Peck's criteria for being evil, this inability to accept fault and take responsibility for their actions must pervade their entire lives. These people would rather shift their entire identity to something else than accept consequences.

The two young monsters who murdered Matthew Shepard are in fact perfect examples of this. They took an unarmed young man to a field, tied him to a post and tortured him to death. But in their eyes, they have done no wrong. Before trial, they attempted to have their girlfriends give them alibis. At their trials they used the "gay panic" defense; that Matthew Shepard was gay caused them temporary insanity. Niether of these defenses worked. To its everlasting shame, ABC News' 20/20 chose to give these savages a national forum for thier new excuse for murdering this man: it was the drugs. They suddenly claimed, years after the crime, that they are being unfairly persecuted for discrimination against gays. It was really a drug crime.

All of this bullshit has a single common theme running through it: it is not their fault that they murdered Matthew Shepard. First they did not do it. Then, when presented with incontrovertable evidence, it becomes Matthew's fault for being gay. Oh, that didn't work? It was Matthew's fault for their being on drugs.

So here we have the three characteristics of evil people:
  • the absence or destruction of good; evil being inherently against life and creativity
  • the inability to face the consequences of thier actions
  • this behavior is systemic, it is the common thread that runs through the person's entire life

    Peck goes on in his book to note that while many of these people are criminals they are, nonetheless, well represented in mainstream society. In his experience, and mine as well, he observed that these people can be highly functional, successful individuals. Absolutely crucial to them is the appearance of respectability and adherence to social mores.

    Think about Tyco's former CEO Dennis Kozlowski, and the former financial chief, Mark H. Swartz, who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from Tyco. Think of Enron's Andrew Fastow, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker. All of these people wore the appearance of propriety. All of them were criminals and con artists. They clothed themselves in the moral armor of executives and churches. Again, they are not to blame. They hide behind these institutions to excuse their wrongdoing. And when it all falls down, they blame anybody else but themselves.

    Evil is not stupid; evil is selfish. That selfishness is so absolute it leads to stupidity. But evil people are not necessarily stupid.

    I will resume this discussion soon. In the meantime, look around you and try to be objective. Don't make excuses for people. You'll be surprised. I bet almost every one of us has at least one truly evil person in their lives. Knowing they are evil is the first step towards protecting yourself from their evil.
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