January 26, 2004
A colleague of
mine once suggested to me that everything about my stance on 9/11, including
my Gitlin-esque criticism of the academic left, was fair enough except for one
thing. I used the word evil to talk about both the attack and the
larger ideologies that motivated it.
I know why she
has misgivings. President Bush munches through the word like a kid lost in a
candy store, with appalling casualness, and hes hardly alone. Bloggers
left and right label things evil with abandon. Dont like something?
Critical of a practice or an idea or a person? Must be eeevil.
Still, I wont
give up the word. Evil exists, and refusing to see it as such when it presents
itself is a dangerous kind of myopia. If we gave up all the words and ideas
that are overused or misused, wed be mute.
I was thinking
a lot about evil over the weekend when I read Peter
Landesmans cover story in the New York Times Magazine on forced prostitution
and sexual slavery around the world. It clarified a lot for me about what I
think evil is and is not, though at the high price of being one of the three
or four most disturbing things I have read in the past year. Some of the details
from the article would seem unreal if they appeared in a novel by an unusually
lurid and imaginatively depraved author. I cant make myself repeat here
some of the material about the forms of compulsion and brutality used on child
prostitutes that the article describes, even though some of the images will
be hard for me to ever forget. I almost would say do yourself a favor and dont
read the article: some of the details are that painful, that scarring.
The men and women
described in the article as involved in sex trafficking are committing evil.
Theres nothing in between them and the pain they cause, no excuses or
alibis, no veils. No possibility of misunderstanding the relation between action
and consequence. There isnt even the defense of ideological loyalty or
cultural self-defense that torturers and killers in places like South Africa
have feebly offered for their intimate crimes. Theres no enemy to fight.
Just a child or woman being raped, abused, starved, mutilated for personal gain.
I suppose some of the people involved might say that in the midst of enormous
poverty, all choices are bad, or that when there is slavery, one either enslaves
or is enslaved. Both excuses are transparent bullshit here. The people profitting
in this case are looking their victims in the eye and committing their crimes
in plain sight, and for nothing more than their own gain.
article helped convince me even more of something Ive already concluded,
that in the end its terribly difficult to label more abstract actions
taken by leaders or authorities as evil, no matter how horrible their consequences.
People in power are insulated in so many ways, to the point where it is both
plausible and often quite true when they say that they did not or cannot see
how their actions translate into distant, intimate suffering for other people.
This is not to say that you cannot use the word in these situationsthe
top bosses of the organizations described by Landesmans article must know
very well what is going on, even if they dont know some of the hellish
particulars. Most of the worst authoritarians and tyrants of recent history
got blood on their own hands at some point, but even if they dont, few
of them can plead that they didnt know what was going on.
that you have to leave room for the actual complexity of how things happen in
the world, and for a real and meaningful distance, with ethical meaning, between
what power does, what plans are made, what policies dictate, and what happens
between individuals, in the intimacy of everyday life. Most human suffering
isnt something that one person does willfully, with foresight and understanding
of the consequences, to another. Neither does it come immaculately and sponteaneously
from the air or the ground, but the suffering that comes from and resides within
society is distributed in its origins and its infliction. The things we do in
our lives, whether were high officials or ordinary people, have consequences
and sometimes very bad ones, for which we ought to be held responsible and hold
ourselves responsible, sometimes in very serious ways. But evil is a term Id
reserve in this context for exceptional circumstances where the connection between
particular actions and the serious suffering of particular individuals are clear
and are known to the actor and known in advance by him or her to be morally
article also made me realize that when I think of evil, it is not something
outside the human frame of reference. Evil is not a word for the things we do
not understand, and if we try to forbid the investigation of evil on the grounds
that it is strange, mysterious, alien to us, we shouldnt be using the
word. If Mohammed Atta cannot be understood, if what he did makes no sense whatsoever
to a self-proclaimed normal person, its not evil. Jeffrey Dahmer was not,
at least to me, evil, because I have no emotional window at all into his crimes.
I dont understand any of his desires or his actions. He was unquestionably
horribly damaged and terribly dangerous and the world would have been better
if hed died before he ever hurt anyone, but I cant see him as evil.
This is what Inga
Clendinnin asks us to think about the Holocaust: if we declare that we cant
understand someone like Heinrich Himmler from the inside out, as another human
being who did things that we plausibly could imagine ourselves doing, we dont
know any of the things that we need to know about Himmler or the Holocaust itself.
This is why I think
that not only the people who enslave others and sell their sexual services are
evil, but the johns as well. Its one thing in the context of the legal
sex industry in the United States for a consumer to make a default assumption
of contractual consent by a performer when viewing a porn tape or a stripper.
Its another thing if were talking about an adult sodomizing a ten
year old prostitute in some hovel in a small American city.
I can make that
judgement because I have an interest in profit, and understand very well what
I would and would not do for it, and why I would or would not. I can make that
judgement because I get erections and feel sexual desire and understand very
well what I would do and not do to satisfy that desire.
It is not that
I accept Catherine MacKinnons view of male desire as always violent and
violating, whether its arousal when watching a supermodel on television
or purchasing the services of a ten-year old slave. Its precisely because
I see an absolute distinction that MacKinnon does not see between desire and
evil. I see acceptable male desire, with whatever complex ethical issues it
does or does not raise, desire involving the consent of others, with whatever
complexities come with the concept of consent. And I see desire that is absolutely
evil, that violates and hurts and steals. There is a difference there that the
conventional MacKinnonite argument obliterates and banalizes.
I see that distinction because I have greed and I have desire and there is much that I choose not to do in response to those feelings. Not because I am already economically comfortable and not because I am already monogamously satisfied in my romantic and sexual life. This is not an Olympian judgement on mere mortals. Anyone can and might choose to inflict unnecessary and intimately human suffering on others. Anyone can commit evil, and anyone can choose not to. It doesnt matter who you are or where you come from: there is no excuse for staring another person in the face and torturing them, mutilating their minds and raping their bodies, stealing their childhoods and their humanity. No accident of character, no fact of culture, no arrangement of circumstance: no excuse.