Can a person be Evil?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Wicked Witch.”

Many historical and present day figures have been described as evil. Dictators of brutal, oppressive regimes. Leaders responsible for atrocities that wiped out millions of human beings. Murderers. Cult leaders. Serial killers.

Evil, in the narrow concept of the term, refers to the most morally despicable actions, and indicates moral condemnation. Evil is a term frequently applied when we discuss the most extreme, abhorrent behaviours, often in instances where we cannot fathom or explain the behaviour.

But is it useful?

By applying the term Evil to another human being, someone who lives and breathes and pains like us, we are othering that person in a way that is not only damaging to that individual, but infers a false distinction between these so-called Evil humans and wider society.

If we describe another person as Evil, aren’t we effectively removing them from the wider pool of “regular humans”, creating an imaginary safety barrier between us and them so we can say to ourselves, “that person is not like the rest of us”?

Why is this damaging? 

By labelling a fellow moral agent as Evil (with the vaguely supernatural connotations that the word conjures), we create a false sense of security in the knowledge that we could never be like them. There are countless historical examples which demonstrate the opposite – brutalities committed by groups of young soldiers in times of war, civilians who were able to murder their former friends and neighbours in the thousands, officers who were able to conduct mass killings of other religious and ethnic groups and then go home to their families at night – the list goes on. To neglect this evidence – that, in our darkest moments, we are capable of terrible things – would be naive.

Additionally, the term Evil can be misapplied or abused with tragic results; one need only look at the witch-hunting hysteria of the sixteenth and seventeenth hundreds for a prime example of this. That injustice was only possible with the moral condemnation of authorities against these particular people and the ascription of Evil on their personhood.

During the bleakest times of our world history, there have been those who have demonstrated incredible courage and kindness, regardless of their surroundings or the consequences for doing so. The fact remains, though, that atrocities have been committed with the direct action and complicity of people just like you and me. By refusing to create a barrier between “us and them” and acknowledging that each of us has the capacity for Evil, therefore none of us simply are Evil, we reach a deeper understanding of how bad things can happen in the world, and become more vigilant in our own quest for kindness and justice.

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