What is evil? There are multiple lenses through which we can search for a definition: moral, spiritual, mystical, etc. When forced to choose a characterization of this trait there is no one description to rely upon. Evil is very much a subjective element that incites fear.
For purposes of this discussion evil will be described as “the intention to cause harm and the celebratory surge success provides”. The examination is in terms of human behavior, not religious, metaphysical or other.
Some researchers say that no one is born evil. Others contend that each individual has the potential for evil behavior. Both of these theories would increase focus on the “nurture” aspect of human development. None of these assumptions can account for the Jeffrey Dahmers, Hitlers, and Aileen Wuornos’s of the world. Why some who have been abused and neglected have lived what some would call “normal” lives, and others have committed nearly unimaginable crimes against others has never been verified.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, In his book The Gulag Archipelago says”
“…the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In the field of mental health it is accepted that those who would be considered to be evil share all components of the Dark Triad. The Dark Triad Is: Psychopathy — the lack of empathy for others. Narcissism — intense focus on the self; believing that oneself is the only person in the universe whose needs and desires carry importance. Machiavellianism — whatever means this individual employs to get his/her way are justified by the ends.
All researchers agree that the evil individual has no conscience. There are those who believe that acts of evil are caused by mental illness. This assumption is not accepted by other members of the mental health community. Their argument is that the patient with the mental illness is the one who suffers. Although harm may come to others, that is not a planned-for goal. Those who are considered to be evil gain satisfaction from their ability to hurt others. The professionals who work with individuals with confused and disturbed minds fear that equating evil with mental illness will be used to justify unjustifiable acts.
Why discuss the problem of evil at this particular time? With constraints on personal freedom as a result of the covid-19 crises and the escalating fury exhibited by individuals with differing political viewpoints, daily life has changed radically worldwide. This provides fertile ground for those who lust for the feeling of power that, for them, can only be grasped when dominating and harming another. Destruction becomes, for some, essential and warranted.
When large numbers of people believe that those with opposing ideas and outlooks are the enemy, the door that admits evil is cracked open. In today’s world it is hard to locate an opinion page or news channel that leaves anger and blame out of the narrative.
Those who meticulously plan a logical chain of events that will lead to slaughter are far beyond clinical madness. The evil individual has no conscience. The result of such an individual’s behavioral choices shatters the recipient’s view of the world. Those who have been touched by evil cannot regain a feeling of balance — ever. The concept of what is whole and right becomes permanently skewed. The connection between the diagnosis of PTSD and what is perceived to be evil would provide a rich topic for research. It is important to remember that agency is a critical element in the “DNA” of evil.
The target of malevolence is always a situation that contains a degree of innocence. Like the schoolyard bully, evil does not confront what it perceives to be of equal strength. A corollary to that is that those who have been afflicted by evil will often feel shame. This is found in children who have been preyed upon as well as prisoners of war. Many of those who survived Auschwitz were, initially, unable to recount what had happened in the camp because there was such a strong degree of shame and a feeling of failure. “Why could I not have protected myself and/or others?”
If confronted with evil it is necessary to remember that this is a condition that cannot be cured. The “doer” does not wish to change. Trying to cajole this individual is useless. Such a person may feign interest in what one has to say, but, the plan to harm has already begun. No one can reverse this with words.
When dealing with this individual one must put on ”emotional raincoat”. It is crucial to protect oneself from both flattery and insult. The goal of the perpetrator is to get under the victim’s skin. As soon as that person can see that he/she has struck gold the prey exactly where the oppressor wants him/her to be. One must distract oneself from the words being hurled.
Do not rely on an individual with evil characteristics . Promises that are made will not be kept. Avoid emotional confrontation, as it feeds the fire. The best course of action is to distance oneself as quickly as possible. If the snake hadn’t convinced Eve to bite the apple, we might all be living in the Garden of Eden (who knows)
If this message is coming across as irrelevant drama, as well it might, check out the research on group mentality in relation to fear and anger. The lynchings during the Jim Crow era in the South incorporated evil. Otherwise, why would a group hang a person, and, after that person’s death proceed to mutilate and decapitate the corpse?
Fear is most likely the underpinning in the appearance of evil. The abuser does not feel his/her own fear. The actions that destroy hope, productivity, self-confidence,and agency arise from an unfathomable fear of inadequacy on the part of the enforcer. It cannot be touched.
On the optimistic side of this discussion is the ability to avoid falling into the trap of hopelessness. Pay attention when someone, randomly, is helpful. Reflect on the love that has been available (it doesn’t have to be romantic). When one looks for joy, it will probably be found.
Difficult times do pass. It is important to keep moving forward in mind, body, and spirit. There are always survivors and lessons learned. Doing one’s best is all one can do.
Brown, L.(06/28/16) “Evil People: 20 Things They do and How to Handle Them” hackspirit.com
Elkhatib, O (06/09/18) “The Problem with Labeling Evil as Mental Illness” fordhamobserver.com
Evans, B/ Forti, S. (09/16/2016) “Who is Evil and Who is the Victim?” nytimes.com
Fey, S. (06/26/2020)”7 Ways to Protect Yourself From Evil People” beliefnet.com
Popova, M (06/21/2016) “Mary McCarthy on Human Nature,Moral Choice, and How We Decide Whether Evil is Forgivable. brainpickings.org
Romig, R. (07/25/2012)”What do we Mean by Evil?” newyorker.com
Solzhenitsyn, A. The Gulag Archipelago (1973)