The Trouble with Evil and Other Labels

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The trouble with “evil” is not the word itself. The trouble is when we use it to label individuals, groups, or countries as irredeemable and to distance ourselves from those who transgress. It’s far too easy to point fingers, to call others out, to jump on the bandwagon of judgment, scorn, and even revenge.

Aren't we all imperfect? Isn't that the nature of the human condition? 

When we label people, movements, countries—like the “axis of evil”—it makes it difficult to have a productive conversation, to determine what prompted or fueled the act, and it can close the door to any attempt at greater understanding or resolution.

Clearly, there are apt uses of the word, but let’s also realize that our rhetoric sets the stage for action and can shape views and attitudes that promote hatred and divisiveness rather than working to transform violence and suffering.

Change is possible
In his TED talk “The neuroscience of restorative justice,” hospital doctor, researcher, and author of Rewiring Our Morality, Daniel Reisel, speaks directly to the notion that perpetrators of violent crimes, even clinical psychopaths, are irredeemable. Based on his research, Reisel advocates for a process that allows rehabilitation. He and his colleagues found that inmates they studied actually “had a deficient amygdala [an organ in the brain considered to be instrumental to the experience of empathy], which likely led to their lack of empathy and to their immoral behavior.”

Further, for those who have a deficit in their amygdala, Reisel and his colleagues say there is hope. “We're just beginning to understand what exact function these cells have, but what it implies is that the brain is capable of extraordinary change way into adulthood.” Restorative justice, he suggests, can play a role in the rehabilitation process. But if we view someone as irredeemable, how are they going to view themselves any differently?, he asks.

Labeled for life?
Overt and covert messages label even the youngest among us as troubled, when what is truly needed is greater understanding, empathy, and support. A recent New York Times opinion piece “Empathy, Not Expulsion for Preschoolers,” points to a troubling statistic—that “preschoolers are expelled three times the rate of children in kindergarten through 12th grade, with African-American boys being most vulnerable.” With coaching and training for teachers and parents, both adults and children feel supported and behavior has a chance to be changed for the better.

See no evil: transforming violence and suffering
Jacques Verduin, founder of Insight Out, a program in San Quentin prison designed “to transform violence and suffering into opportunities for learning and healing,” challenges us to reframe how we see violence and crime. “What if we understood all these crimes as expressions of a greater social breakdown, as inarticulate pleas for help…” he writes. “What if we understood that, as Rainer Maria Rilke said: ‘Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love?’”

A growing number of people, like Verduin, see individuals’ violent and abusive behavior as a symptom of a larger, systemic issue. Azim Khamisa whose 20-year-old son, Tariq, was killed by Tony Hicks, a then 14-year-old gang member, was able to see that there were “victims on both ends of the gun.” Less than a year after his son’s death, he reached out to Tony’s grandfather, Ples Felix, and started the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF) with the aim of reducing youth violence. Azim and Ples speak to school groups and have formed an unlikely and deep friendship. Azim is also working to reduce Tony’s sentence and has promised him a job at the foundation when he gets out of prison.

None of this is easy. It seems natural to want to distance ourselves from anyone who behaves with malevolence, with disregard for others. But when we shun others—and our own shadow side—we disconnect from the greater web of life. Of the African worldview of “ubuntu,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes in No Future Without Forgiveness, a person with ubuntu “… has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

In Jacques Verduin's 18 years of working with life-sentenced prisoners, he encourages them "to move from shame to remorse and to make a distinction between the person and the behavior." He notes that "Prisoners are told that instead of being bad people who are to be forever shamed by our judgment, we regard each other as those who forgot who we truly are when we transgressed." 

Haven’t all of us, at various times in our lives, forgotten who we really are? Haven’t all of us said or done something deeply hurtful? Yet it’s often our judgment and shame that distances us both from others and from ourselves.

With disturbing and gruesome stories reminding us daily of the great suffering in the world, can we find a way to better include perpetrators in our web of humanity and to see them as people who, prior to inflicting pain, may have experienced it themselves? We don’t all react to suffering by inflicting it on someone else, nor should we pardon such behavior, but how do we address it when we use terms that suggest people are irredeemable?

It Can Be Different
Had Azim labeled Tony as evil, as beyond redemption, it’s unlikely that many would have questioned his stance. Yet, through his understanding, he and Ples, Jacques and many others work to demonstrate that our empathy and our compassion can help stimulate the same in those our society otherwise has given up on with a simple label of “evil.” In this, there is hope. In this, we allow for the possibility of transformation and for holding the shadow with the light. 

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.