Slaveholders, rapists and serial killers are evil.
No, they're not.
In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker argues that defining people as evil is not only unproductive, it's dangerous. It's dangerous because we conceptualize evil as being so pervasive that you can see it in someone's eyes, you can sense it just by looking at them, etc. This is dangerous because it causes us to watch out for people who "look evil" while people who look perfectly ordinary swindle, rape, rob and kill us. De Becker tells us to stop looking for evil people because most murderers, torturers, robbers and rapists are just like everyone else, which is to say that we all have the capacity to do awful things. All of us do, so there's no point in trying to distinguish the good people from the bad people.
Michele Obama's recent reference to the White House having been built by slaves has resulted in renewed discussion of American slavery. I've heard people call American slaveholders monsters, but when we do that we falsly distance ourselves from them. How long does it take us to learn that the worst of human nature happens because ordinary people go along with what everyone else is doing? American slaveholders and their wives and children were regular people just like us. They believed their treatment of Blacks didn't count in the eyes of God. They didn't think Black people felt pain or love or fear the way whites did. Their monstrous treatment of slaves resulted from the culture in which they lived. They weren't evil. They were ordinary men and women motivated by ordinary desires to take care of their families, prosper in their vocations, put in an honest day's work, contribute to the community and be good Christians. They had the same hard-wiring we have. They just happened to live in a racist culture. They just happened to live in a climate that brought out their worst tendencies.
Here are some other people we call evil: a police officer who panics and kills an innocent person, a woman who drowns her children, the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, murderers, embezzlers, kidnappers. Some people do these things because they suffer a break from reality, but others do them with clear minds. And every time we call someone like that evil, we know we would never do anything like that, never, ever, not in a million years.
But that's bullsh*t.
When it's our family that's in danger, when it's our life on the line, when we stand in the truth that someone must be handled and we know how to do it, we reveal how capable we are of terrible things. We can't know how we'll behave in a situation until we're there. Most of us will luckily never face the circumstances that test how truly monstrous we can be. We will continue to enjoy the privilege of believing that we don't have evil tendencies and can pretend we're better than those who do. But we're not.
The list of groups of perfectly ordinary, nice, loving people doing inconceivable things is endless. From American slavery to the Nazis to the Cambodian killing fields to American enhanced interrogators, perfectly normal people find themselves doing things they might have never imagined. There is no such thing as evil. There are only ordinary people doing horrible, nightmarish things.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the ethnic Hutu part of the population slaughtered a million Tutsi Rwandans. Were the Hutu men who swung their machetes day after day, hunting down whole families, monsters? No. Jean Hatzfeld's Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Hatzfeld shows us regular men who had to overcome their own emotions on their first kills, but who adjusted to the "work" because if they didn't do it, they faced their own murder. A Hutu man married to a Tutsi woman was ordered to slaughter a family of Tutsis in order keep his own wife alive, so he did it. And so on. To prevent the death of ourselves and our loved ones, who isn't capable of going beyond their usual capacities?
Please stop calling people evil. Don't even call certain actions evil. To do so is to fool ourselves into thinking we can recognize a certain kind of danger and insulate ourselves from it. And especially do not call racism evil. Racism isn't evil. It didn't come from the devil or get cast out of heaven. Our racism today is the result of our nation having been built on treating human beings as property without rights, agency or even feelings. Americans learn racism from infancy, just as other countries pass on their prejudices to their children. This is why I sometimes insist, "The nicest people are racist!" We must uncouple racism from the idea of evil. As long as racism is evil, it's easy for us to believe that we can't be racist because we aren't evil. In fact, what we call evil lives in all of us, and although it's usually dormant, it can be activated under circumstances most of us will be lucky to never face. (Post on heroism HERE.)