Terrorism is evil. Murder is evil. Torture is evil. Hate crimes are evil. War is evil. Attempt to seriously understand why they happen, however, and one risks being accused of supporting evil.
On this blog I have attempted to share some insights of scholarly research into terrorism and the background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have in consequence mistakenly been thought to be justifying terrorism, of being an apologist for Islam, of anti-semitism and of hatred towards Israel. All of those things are completely untrue but the accusations persist because some readers view my explanations as taking the evil-doer’s side.
Why does this happen? Steven Pinker offers a cogent explanation in The Better Angel of Our Nature:
Baumeister notes that in the attempt to understand harm-doing, the viewpoint of the scientist or scholar overlaps with the viewpoint of the perpetrator.
Both take a detached, amoral stance toward the harmful act. Both are contextualizers, always attentive to the complexities of the situation and how they contributed to the causation of the harm. And both believe that the harm is ultimately explicable.
The viewpoint of the moralist, in contrast, is the viewpoint of the victim. The harm is treated with reverence and awe. It continues to evoke sadness and anger long after it was perpetrated. And for all the feeble ratiocination we mortals throw at it, it remains a cosmic mystery, a manifestation of the irreducible and inexplicable existence of evil in the universe. Many chroniclers of the Holocaust consider it immoral even to try to explain it.
Pinker, Steven (2011-10-06). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (pp. 495-496). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
The Myth of Pure Evil
Baumeister, with psychological spectacles still affixed, calls this the myth of pure evil. The mindset that we adopt when we don moral spectacles is the mindset of the victim. Evil is the intentional and gratuitous infliction of harm for its own sake, perpetrated by a villain who is malevolent to the bone, inflicted on a victim who is innocent and good. The reason that this is a myth (when seen through psychological spectacles) is that evil in fact is perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances, including provocations by the victim, in ways they feel are reasonable and just.
The myth of pure evil gives rise to an archetype that is common in religions, horror movies, children’s literature, nationalist mythologies, and sensationalist news coverage. In many religions evil is personified as the Devil—Hades, Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Mephistopheles—or as the antithesis to a benevolent God in a bilateral Manichean struggle. In popular fiction evil takes the form of the slasher, the serial killer, the bogeyman, the ogre, the Joker, the James Bond villain, or depending on the cinematic decade, the Nazi officer, Soviet spy, Italian gangster, Arab terrorist, inner-city predator, Mexican druglord, galactic emperor, or corporate executive. The evildoer may enjoy money and power, but these motives are vague and ill formed; what he really craves is the infliction of chaos and suffering on innocent victims. The evildoer is an adversary—the enemy of good—and the evildoer is often foreign. Hollywood villains, even if they are stateless, speak with a generic foreign accent.
The myth of pure evil bedevils our attempt to understand real evil. Because the standpoint of the scientist resembles the standpoint of the perpetrator, while the standpoint of the moralizer resembles the standpoint of the victim, the scientist is bound to be seen as “making excuses” or “blaming the victim,” or as trying to vindicate the amoral doctrine that “to understand all is to forgive all.” (Recall Lewis Richardson’s reply that to condemn much is to understand little.)
The accusation of relativizing evil is particularly likely when the motive the analyst imputes to the perpetrator appears to be venial, like jealousy, status, or retaliation, rather than grandiose, like the persistence of suffering in the world or the perpetuation of race, class, or gender oppression. It is also likely when the analyst ascribes the motive to every human being rather than to a few psychopaths or to the agents of a malignant political system (hence the popularity of the doctrine of the Noble Savage). The scholar Hannah Arendt, in her writings on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his role in organizing the logistics of the Holocaust, coined the expression “the banality of evil” to capture what she saw as the ordinariness of the man and the ordinariness of his motives. Whether or not she was right about Eichmann (and historians have shown that he was more of an ideological anti-Semite than Arendt allowed), she was prescient in deconstructing the myth of pure evil. As we shall see, four decades of research in social psychology—some of it inspired by Arendt herself—have underscored the banality of most of the motives that lead to harmful consequences.
Pinker, Steven (2011-10-06). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (pp. 496-497). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
I’d love to make this point to Jerry Coyne and his followers and to elicit a response from them but to date he has denied me the opportunity to respond on his blog.
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