A recent post at A Political Refugee From the Global Village asks the question
“…is evil a word it is very useful for historians to use?”
The post is mostly concerned with political leaders to whom the word evil is routinely attached, which basically means Hitler and (much more rarely) Stalin. The point does however have a wider relevance. It has become increasingly common for people to regard those with whom they have a political disagreement as evil. Even more disturbingly perhaps it has become common to dismiss those who voted for those “evil” politicians as evil as well.
This practice is not confined to one end of the political spectrum. The most spectacular example at the moment is liberals regarding Donald Trump as some kind of comic-book super-villain. But there are plenty of conservatives who see Hillary Clinton in the same light. I’ve even encountered British conservatives who seem to think Jeremy Corbyn is some kind of Bond villain.
And of course anyone perceived as being an enemy of American foreign policy (like Vladimir Putin) is considered to be evil incarnate.
The trouble is that once you dismiss someone whose political views you dislike as evil you give up any chance of understanding what makes that person tick, of understanding why they hold those views, and you give up any realistic chance of comprehending the reasons that so many people support (or supported) that leader.
This might sound like I’m arguing for moral relativism but I don’t think I am. Some political views have produced great evil in practice and some political leaders have led their nations (and sometimes the world) down paths that have been so catastrophic that evil does seem like a reasonable way to describe the results. But the fact remains that once the evil label is applied it is no longer possible to understand the motivations.
Politicians are by nature corrupt and vicious but the frightening thing is that at the same time many really are True Believers. It is necessary to understand what it is that they believe in. It is also necessary to understand what motivates those who vote for them.
It might be comforting and emotionally satisfying to think that our enemies are simply evil but that doesn’t help us to oppose them effectively. If you can’t get inside your enemy’s head you cannot predict his actions.
It’s also somewhat dismaying to see the evil label bandied about in reference to entire groups of people, whether they be Brexit supporters or Remainers or white people or Muslims or Christians or Russians or any other group. It’s useful to understand the motivations of our friends. It’s absolutely vital to understand the motivations of our enemies, or those we see as potential threats. From our perspective it is possible that our enemies really are doing evil but they certainly don’t see it that way. Very few people wake up each morning asking themselves what evil they can do today. In a frightening number of cases they actually wake up asking themselves what virtuous things they can do today. Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people with a burning desire to do good. Liberals have all but destroyed civilisation through an excessive desire to do good.