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A little cheese and a little whine

Naming our Demons

Hannibal Lecter is a fascinating character. He is one of a series of characters who do Terrible Things. These characters crop up everywhere – not just in fiction, but in media and conversation about society and politics generally. When we worry about terrorists, or hoodies, or paedophiles, we are worrying about people who do, or might do, Terrible Things to us.

There is something reassuring about thinking in this way. When evil comes bundled up in a nice, and basically recognisable, package, it is easy to convince ourselves that we can conquer it. Lecter can be caught, the terrorists can be rendered, hoodies can be banned from our shopping centres and paedophiles can be documented, registered, and publicised. Evil in Lecter form is both terrifying and manageable, which is why it makes such compelling fiction, both in the cinema and in the news.

Lecter epitomises, in short, a tendency we have to identify evil with various sorts of damaged individual. We may not dismiss it as an illness – in the sense of something over which the evildoer has no control – but we expect that, at the root, we will find some form of dysfunction. Evil is, on this account, the product of clearly and profoundly flawed people: psychopaths, extremists, delinquents, perverts. Confronted with such an individual, our moral choice is clear and our responses easily identified. Bringing Lecter to justice proves difficult, but there is no doubt in our mind what justice amounts to, or the sort of things we have to do to deliver it.

It is not only fiction and news media which are caught up in this tendency: it affects science too. Baron-Cohen’s much-publicised new book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, fits into this trend; Baron-Cohen’s preferred dysfunction is a lack of empathy, and he argues that it is here that we should look when seeking to combat evil.

There are well-trodden objections we can raise against this sort of book: the blurring of mind and brain, the dubious assumptions about functional mapping, and the vacillation between person as moral agent and person as biological organism. But these need not concern us here. Rather, what is interesting is the assumption that evil is to be explained in Hannibal Lecter terms, as the product of individuals with a distinctive, extreme, and pathological psychology.

The problem with this assumption is that it is simply untrue. If we consider the great evils of the twentieth century – the Gulags, the Holocaust, the trenches in WWI, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Srebrenica – we find nary psychopath in sight. Baron-Cohen makes much in his publicity about how he felt when he learned of Jews being turned to soap during the Holocaust. A terrible crime, and very possibly the work of a damaged individual. It is not this, however, which makes the Holocaust truly chilling: it is the systematic slaughter of people on an industrial scale. The individual acts of cruelty stand out only because the enormity of the real evil is too great to comprehend.

The man who drove the bus to Kravica did not have borderline personality disorder, nor was the girl who handed out the soap at Auschwitz a psychopath. Indeed, Germany began using Zyclon-B, rather than bullets, to commit its slaughter in part because those doing the killing were finding it too distressing. These great evils were not the work of a few damaged individuals, but required the combined effort of hundreds if not thousands of people. The problem is not that these people lacked empathy, but that they acted as they did in spite of it.

It is tempting, in the face of this evidence, to look to those in power in our hunt for the psychological flaw, but this too is a mistake. As Arendt famously documents in The Banality of Evil, the architects of the Holocaust were, psychologically speaking, rather ordinary.

On a smaller scale, there is no shortage of evil in the present century. An American plutocracy determined to dismantle democracy and impoverish millions; politicians who sanction torture in the name of security; unaccountable bankers making millions unemployed through deceit, recklessness and greed; and daily (and perhaps irreversible) destruction of our natural habitat. None of these is a Holocaust or a Hiroshima, but they are real and very serious evils nonetheless.

Yet we do not think of these things as evil: we are reluctant, even, to use the name, because when we look at those involved, we do not see Hanibal Lecter. We do not see a psychopath, a delinquent or a pervert. We see instead an educated, rational and informed individual who, like Eichmann, has reached an educated, rational and informed decision to do something terribly, terribly wrong.

Confronted with evil in this form we are granted neither a clear moral choice nor an unambiguous course of action. This is not someone we can recognise as dysfunctional; in fact we may have difficulty recognising them as evil at all. And even when we do, there is no chance of a heroic confrontation, no well-known route to a happy ending. The challenge is how to put a stop to evil of this kind. While Baron-Cohen might do excellent work improving the lives of those who exhibit a lack of empathy and those around them, evil carries on in the world, in the great acts of those who lead and the tiny acts of those who follow, and we are often at a loss as to how we must confront it.

From a scientific point of view, we need to move beyond work like Baron-Cohen’s and understand how interpersonal relationships parlay into power structures which give evil people authority in name and control in practice. We must understand evil as a phenomenon which functions without any specific sort of individual. But from a political point of view, it is time to start being candid about the true nature of some of those in power and what they do: we should not be afraid to name evil when we see it. It is time to start naming our demons.

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Filed under: Politics

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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