Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What is Evil?

by Libby Hellmann

One of the things that strikes me about Chicago’s media coverage of the Family Secrets trial are the descriptions of witnesses. Nick Calabrese, once one of the most dangerous Mafioisi in the Outfit, wears a “gray sweatsuit and rounded eyeglasses. With his white hair neatly parted, he looked more like a doughy banker in his pajamas than a "made" member of the mob.” When the son of mobster Frank Calabrese testified, the Sun Times said, “at first he had a little tremor in his voice. He appeared nervous.”

The media have done their job-- they’ve humanized evil. I’m not criticizing. As crime fiction writers, we do it all the time. We introduce characters we know to be evil, dress them in designer clothes, give them sympathetic traits, and in an effort to fully develop them, even give them a compassionate back story. The bad guys had a deprived childhood… abusive father… alcoholic mother. Whatever. Readers might not root for them, but at least they “understand.”

What I keep wondering is whether, over time, our attempt to humanize evil has watered down the concept. Just what does it take for us to recognize evil these days?

Fifty years ago, the Outfit was one of the most evil organizations known to man. Elliot Ness was a hero. But now, in our Soprano-fueled culture, the Outfit yields not much more than a yawn. Is it familiarity? Too much exposure? Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, not boredom. To a degree maybe that’s happened. We perceive the Outfit as less muscular, more feeble. As Kevin pointed out in his last blog, the holy picture ritual almost made them out to be buffoons.

Our tolerance for evil seems, like so much else in our culture, to have coarsened. We search out “new and improved” evil-doers… the Russian mob.. Asian gangs… Arab terrorists. Quick: which are worse: Nazis or Al Qaeda? Serial killers or pedophiles?

As kids we knew the evil monster in the closet would get us if we didn’t say our prayers, brush our teeth, share our toys. Today, our moral compasses seem so skewed that only the vilest, most reprehensible monsters can rile us. We seem willing to accept, even condone, a laissez faire attitude toward guilt and innocence. (And yes, I’m generalizing to make a point).

But it does become problematic. I’m about to start a new novel. Usually my first step is to define the evil I’ll be writing about. What is it? Who is practicing it? How will it be revealed? Honestly, this time I’m flummoxed—I’ve done the corrupt politician, the neo-Nazi, the vengeful real estate developer, Big Oil, the amoral father. What’s left? An African dictator? Health insurers? The current administration? Whoever killed Kennedy? It all seems so ho-hum. Been there done that…

So, I ask you – writers, readers, observers of today’s society – what do you believe is true evil? What is the worst kind of sin?

Btw, for a study of systemic evil in war, I highly recommend Paul Verhoevens’ film ”Black Book.” It’s a stunning examination of good and evil, and how our perceptions can be upended.


Jean Sheldon said...

Hi Libby, I read your piece and was startled to find there were no comments. I immediately thought maybe we couldn't even identify evil anymore. That's pretty scary. Recently I read a not yet published book about children growing up in Nicargua. The horrors they survived stopped my breath and I thought who ever did this to them was truly evil. When I found that the US supported the terrorist that the dictators employed, it didn't change my mind.

It is hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. I myself into a 'trust no one' mode more often. Media has glorified a great deal of garbage. The only thing I could do for myself was remove as much of it from my life as possible. That's not ignoring the truth, that's surviving to fight another day.

Carol said...

Evil is still alive and active in many forms;all that's changed is the terminology.As society grows more complex and larger we have rated the harm done from lesser to greater but the hurt is still felt,either by a single person all the way to a nation.Malicious gossip,for instance,is as evil as terrorism.Both are designed to make life as unbearable as possible and I do not excuse one because it touches fewer people than the other.

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for your comment, Jean. I agree. There's nothing more heartbreaking than evil that is perpetrated on children.

As far as comments go, I can understand why there may be fewer -- it's the middle of summer; we're on vacation, at the beach, enjoying family time. Who wants to think about evil? It's uncomfortable, to say the least.

Or else there's so much of it in our lives, we don't know where to start.

Thanks, Carol for weighing in. Here's a question... When does gossip become malicious? Is it evil or just bothersome?

Chapman said...

Frankly, I'm tired of cartoon villains.
I'd love to read some engaging writing on evil as omission rather than commission. It's easy to identify a terrorist as evil but what about those of us who know that evil is being done and choose to look away? Who decides that it's okay to drop cluster bombs or plant land mines that will blow the arms and legs off of children long after the initial conflict is over? Who even decides that it's okay to manufacture and sell those things? If a terrorist hides in a house full of civilians as a shield and we blow up the house, which evil is worse?
Self-help guru, M. Scott Peck once wrote a book on the nature of evil and presented some case studies. One of them was about a young man whose brother had committed suicide. The boy knew that the dead bother had always been his parent's favorite and he had long felt overshadowed by the brother. On the Christmas after his brother died, the boy's parents gave the boy, as a gift, the gun his brother had killed himself with. Now there's some evil; boy howdy!
I say look for evil in unlikely and mundane places. How about a CEO that knowingly imports and sells toys covered with lead-based paint, or a stockbroker who fills his client's portfolios with stock in China Oil, knowing that it benefits the Sudanese government?

Jean Sheldon said...

Definitely some evil there chapman, and no end in sight. It's an old debate that asks who is more evil, the perpetrator or those who stand silently by.

Often it's easier for us to watch the 'pretend' evil on TV and in movies. Much easier than knowing the real evils. I believe that's what numbs so many of us these days. Even if it isn't in our face, we know how much real evil is going on around us and feel pretty damn helpless. I do.

Marcus Sakey said...

I don't know. I'm not sure I believe in evil. Evil actions, sure. But evil as a concept? Not so much.

For my money, one of the most profound passages in the English language was written by a philosopher and naturalist named Robert Ardrey. It goes:

"We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen."

The problem with viewing evil as a thing is that it assumes we have fallen from some purer state. Which is fine, if that's what you chose to believe. As I don't believe that, I can't see evil as anything more than a reversion to our base nature--selfish, scared, and aggressive.

Mostly, though, I think it's amazing how comparatively rarely we do revert to that nature.

Jude Hardin said...

I would describe evil as the absence of moral obligation. Since morality, Goodness, it seems, is peculiar to one species, it would be logical to deduce that Evil is peculiar to the same. One cannot exist without the other. That being the case, what exactly causes the absence of moral obligation? Nature? Nurture? Sex? Drugs? Rock and roll? Could it be...SATAN?!!?

I don’t think evil can be defined in terms of evolution, as Marcus has suggested. Nature, left alone, without the intervention of human beings, thrives in perfect order. When animals kill, it is for a reason. Sex is for procreation. An ape might become violent, protecting its territory or its mate, but I’ve never heard of an ape torturing another ape for the mere pleasure of seeing it in pain. I’ve never heard of an ape clubbing its sleeping family to death.

So, let’s just say that Evil and Goodness are unique to one species--Homo Sapiens. Again, what causes one of such species to become Mother Theresa while another becomes Jeffrey Dahmer?

One can argue, and make a good case, that a person’s environment shapes his/her attitude toward morality. Abused children, for example, sometimes become abusing adults. But what about the kid who, for no reason we can ascertain, peels the skin off of toads for the pleasure of watching them suffer and die? What about the same kid who, mesmerized by flame, takes a book of matches and torches his own house?

Anyone who has seen children grow from infancy knows that each is born with a certain personality, certain talents, etc. With proper nurture, most grow to be responsible adults with a strong sense of moral obligation. Some, however, do not. Prisons are bursting at the seams with murderers, rapists, child abusers, arsonists, thieves, many of them from perfectly good families and with siblings from the same circumstances. Why did Johnny stab thirty-seven women and leave them in dumpsters, while brother Billy sits at home with his wife and kids and golden retriever and is never late to his job at the bank?

We like to explain Evil away with words like environment, upbringing, poverty, and even mental illness. We like to intellectualize, to deny that Evil exists. Or, if we’re religious, we can easily dismiss it as a supernatural phenomenon. But is any of that right?

Sorry, Marcus, but I'm not buying Ardrey's explanation either. To say we all started out, millions of years ago, as selfish, scared, and aggressive, and then rose above it, is no more plausible than saying we all started out perfect and then fell. It's the same argument, really, only in reverse.

What is Evil? Where did it come from? How can we rid the world of it?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I know that Evil exists. Sure as I know that Goodness does. They exist side-by-side, in each of us, in that funky overgrown hunk of flesh between our ears. If we define evil as the absense of moral obligation, and agree that Goodness and Evil are unique among humans, then to deny that Evil exists is to deny that humanity exists. With the tools we have, and limited empirical data, we can only say that Evil and Goodness exist in varying degrees, dependent on the brain one is born with and the environment one is thrown into.

It’s one of the reasons I write fiction, to explore the dichotomies of the human experience.

Dick Culver said...

My candidate for evil in recent times is Charles Graner, the organizer of the Abu Ghraib torture parties. More on him later.

Seems to me that novelists just need to identify instances of evil, not necessarily take sides in the Hobbes vs. Rousseau debate about human nature.

When I first read Libby’s blog entry I was thinking pedophiles. No one could ever humanize a pedophile. No publisher would touch a book attempting such a thing. My first image of a pedophile was an older man and a preteen. But then I thought of some less clear cases.

There’s Humbert Humbert. I have friends (usually women) who gag at the very idea of reading Lolita. But I think most of us come to sympathize with Humbert’s romantic obsession, especially if he’s played in a movie by Jeremy Irons or defended by Nabokov’s succulent prose (“you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” – third paragraph).

Serial killers? I was rooting for Hannibal Lechter to escape from his nasty jailers.

Kafka and Orwell give us great evil in the form of faceless bureaucrats. Like Cool Hand Luke tells the sheriff when they’re put’n him in the box, “callin it a job boss don’t make it right.” I’ve never understood Hannah Arendt’s oft-quoted “banality of evil.”

Can sheer incompetence or carelessness ever rise to the level of evil? I can’t decide if Bush is evil, or delusional (thinking God tells him what to do), or just incompetent. Seems like he’s caused the deaths of thousands through sheer incompetence or carelessness, like when Travolta kills the kid in Pulp Fiction. But in Pulp Fiction the sadistic ‘gimp’ they keep in a cage – that’s pure evil.

Brando describes pure evil in Apocalypse Now. “After the children were vaccinated the soldiers cut off all their arms. There was a whole pile of little arms. The Horror. The Horror…”

Then there’s the “lesser evil.” The Corleones are OK with the whores and the gambling, but drugs? No. That’s evil.

Back to Graner. Seems like the press has humanized his accomplice, the childlike and pregnant Lyndie England (the woman with the leash), but not Graner. The effect of this is to isolate Graner’s evil and not move the blame up the chain of command …ultimately to us.

Dick Culver

Kevin Guilfoile said...

When I first read Libby’s blog entry I was thinking pedophiles. No one could ever humanize a pedophile. No publisher would touch a book attempting such a thing.

There was a Kevin Bacon movie a few years ago called The Woodsman (I think it was originally a play) that attempted to do just that, and in an unromantic, un-Nabokovian way.

Just this morning I received word that a person I've known for almost twenty years (although I haven't spoken to him in probably seven or eight) was just charged with several counts of child pornography. And so I'm grappling with the opposite issue--not one of humanizing evil but of demonizing someone I knew as a human being.

In art, of course, it almost always happens the other way around. We're introduced to a villain and then the writer tries to surprise us by making us feel some empathy for him. It almost never happens that way in real life. Not so long ago on this blog we heard from Debi Ketner who spoke eloquently about her relationship with Daniel Lamere, whom she'd known for years before he killed his family and then himself.

I don't think too much about where evil comes from, to be honest. It just is. I disagree with Marcus, though. Evil as a concept seems very real to me. In fact, a world without it seems inconceivable. And as Jude said, one of the reasons why I write is to try and understand why that has to be.

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby, such a tough question. Don't we like to put "evil" into a box so that we can act as though it's something alien to us--when Rwanda, Abu Ghraib, even lynch mobs, show how easy it is to take part, how hard to stand outside? It's always been my biggest fear, that I would/am a collaborator--not an active perp, but the one who collaborates in the vileness. I think it's why V I is so outraged all the time--she's outraged at me, as well as the world around her.

One of Freud's last pieces of new writing was after the German-Austrian Anschluss, in which he talked about pack behavior, and how it liberates even the most ordinary law-abiding person from a sense of shame or guilt at taking part in behavior he/she would condemn without hesitation if sitting alone in the kitchen.

johnny dangerous said...

Saint Augustine said that evil, in itself, does not exist. Evil is hollow, empty. What we call 'evil' is a good gone wrong. It is doing the right thing in the wrong way or at the wrong time. The 'evildoer' does not believe he/she is doing evil but achieving some good. The worst evil is confusing evil with good, as Isaiah said, "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil." The bad guy, more often than not, sees himself as a hero. This is the operating definition that is driving my current novel.

johnny dangerous said...

One more thought: JRR Tolkien got this right in "Lord of the Rings" when Smeagol finds the Ring of Power and keeps slipping it on, believing it to be a good. But the ring's power is illusory (the power is real, but its promise is false) and self-destructive, and the more Smeagol chooses it, the more he becomes the pathetic Gollum he ends up being fully. Frodo is tempted by the same thing. This is not the simplistic dualism we get in "Jekyll and Hyde," for example, which posits that good and evil, as equal forces, are contending in the human will. It is more subtle, suggesting that a pattern of choosing what appears to be good - when in fact it isn't - results in moral disfigurement and addiction that is more difficult to overcome over time.

The Home Office said...

The most frightening evil is not that of the psychopath or sociopath; it is what ordinary men and women are capable of when they're not careful.

Matt said...

The most evil character I've read in a novel - also, the greatest villain - Garrett Lockman in Roderick Thorp's serial killer novel, River.

Chapman said...

Addendum to my earlier post:

Chinese toy exec at center of huge recall commits suicide
August 13, 2007
BEIJING -- The head of a Chinese toy manufacturing company at the center of a huge U.S. recall has committed suicide, a state-run newspaper said today.
Zhang Shuhong, who ran the Lee Der Industrial Co. Ltd, killed himself at a warehouse over the weekend, days after China said it had temporarily banned exports by the company, the Southern Metropolis Daily said.
Lee Der made 967,000 toys recalled earlier this month by Mattel Inc. because they were made with paint found to have excessive amounts of lead. The plastic preschool toys, sold under the Fisher-Price brand in the U.S., included the popular Big Bird, Elmo, Dora and Diego characters.

China has come under fire in recent months after potentially dangerous levels of chemicals and toxins were found in some of its exports. A long list of products, from seafood to toothpaste, have been recalled or rejected by a number of countries worried about safety, and Beijing has been fighting to regain consumer confidence.
Chinese officials have vowed to tighten monitoring and the State Council, China's Cabinet, approved a new regulation on food safety with unusual speed.

Larry said...

Mr. Plato, who ran an Outfit of his own, said that intention determined the moral quality of the act. I don't think anybody has topped his one-liner.
"The Stranger" is good book about the random nature of evil, and "The Woodsman," it seems to this person who has never bothered to see it, is testimony to how any Leni Reifenstahl wannabe can use film to make evil sexy.
But much of the real deal seems amazingly banal. Dahmer, Speck and Bundy aside, most serial killers could have been supporting cast in "Revenge of the Nerds."