Abuse of evil

Back in 2005, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we started talking more and more about evil — the evil of our terrorist opponents. Philosopher Richard J. Bernstein wrote:

“I want to examine this new fashionable popularity of the discourse of good and evil… it represents an abuse of evil — a dangerous abuse. It is an abuse because, instead of inviting us to question and to think, this talk of evil is being used to stifle thinking. This is extremely dangerous in a complex and precarious world. The new discourse of good and evil lacks nuance, subtlety, and judicious discrimination. In the so-called ‘War on Terror,’ nuance and subtlety are (mis)taken as signs of wavering, weakness, and indecision. But if we think that politics requires judgment, artful diplomacy, and judicious discrimination, then this talk about absolute evil is profoundly anti-political. As Hannah Arendt noted, ‘The absolute … spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.'” [Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11 (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2005), pp. 10-11]

Here we are in 2022, and it seems that the discourse of good and evil has only become more firmly entrenched in the US, and in parts of the rest of the world. Here in the US, I see this happening across the political spectrum. There are political liberals who equate Donald Trump with evil. This is unwise, because it stops us thinking about what, exactly, Donald Trump and his supporters are doing. We brand them as “alt-right” or “fascists” — epithets which are just one step removed from calling them “evil” — and once branded as such, we stop thinking about them. On the other side of the political spectrum, there are political conservatives who use similar language to equate political liberals with evil.

It has become very easy to brand others as evil, or to brand others with some euphemism that implies evil. Richard J. Bernstein wrote, “‘Evil tends to be used in an excessively vague and permissive manner in order to condemn whatever one finds abhorrent.” [p. 97] Of course we should name evil when we see it. But we should stop and think first — are we naming this thing as evil because it is evil, or only because we happen to find it abhorrent? It should never be easy to brand others as evil.