Are You Going To Be “Evil” For Halloween, or Are You Evil Every Day?
By Cathryn van Kessel, author of An Education in 'Evil'
With the crispness of autumn in the air, our thoughts can easily turn to the ghouls and ghosts who exclaim “trick or treat?” as we open our doors to them. Although most (if not all) of us have an idea of what evil might be, defining it is tricky when we move beyond scary Halloween costumes and other tropes. From the research that I do, there seem to be countless definitions of evil in a variety of disciplines: philosophy, psychology, and religious studies, among others.
Often, I am asked what the “best” conceptualization of evil is, and I always respond with the unsatisfying answer that it depends on the context and application. I can, however, at least offer some thoughts on factors that make a definition of evil helpful (or not), but for this task it is important that we open our (metaphorical) doors to the discomfort that comes with a close and personal examination of evil.
Although tempting (perhaps) to label all extreme misfortunes as evil (e.g., the devastation wrought by storms, an ever-increasing threat during this time of climate catastrophe), I am interested in human evil. A common understanding of human evil is that there needs to be an awareness that an action (or inaction) is evil, and consequently one does an evil act intentionally. This framing can be helpful in terms of discussions about “doing the right thing” in our relative socio-cultural context, but it has its limits. My concern is that we know from the historical record that this situation is not always the case, and so we need a more robust and complex understanding if we want to recognize (and thus thwart) evil in our contemporary times.
Those who have participated in genocide, for example, show remarkable variation in their awareness and intentions (e.g., Hatzfeld, 2003/2006). We might judge some to be aberrant psychopaths, but many are people just like you and me. Some were coaxed or coerced into causing harm as they sought to avoid consequences for themselves or their loved ones, others felt that the powers-that-be decided what had to happen and so they simply followed orders thoughtlessly, while some caused harm intentionally—but saw themselves as the heroes fighting a threat. In these situations, the person undertaking the action does not intend to do evil.
The idea that ordinary people can do extraordinarily awful deeds is not a difficult concept to grasp intellectually, but it is tricky to explain thoroughly and to relate to our own lives. This situation is why I draw from a variety of disciplines and scholars; for example, Hannah Arendt’s (1963/2006) idea of a banal evil helps us understand how intention is not a prerequisite for evil to occur, Alain Badiou’s (1993/2001) definitions illuminate how evil is a process more so than a “thing,” and Ernest Becker (1975) reveals how ordinary people can cause evil in their attempts to thwart evil. Although each of these scholars provide us with powerful insights, together they reveal the complexities inherent in humans’ destructive tendencies.
Information about evil alone, however, is not enough. Although as humans we often fancy ourselves as rational creatures who are heroes of our own story, it is all too easy to deny our darker side. Evil is other and not us. What might it take for us to see the part we can all play?
Perhaps in addition to learning a variety of conceptualizations of evil we might examine complex, evil characters from popular film and television. Seeing characters who are somewhere on a spectrum of evil rather than being “good or evil” could spark thinking about our own capacities to both harm and help. One of my favourite “evil” characters is Erik (Killmonger) from the Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) film. Having grown up as not only an orphan but also subject to marginalization and oppression as a Black man in Oakland, California, he is understandably committed to freeing his people. That commitment is laudable, and yet he undertakes this task with brutal violence and seems to fall prey to his own ego. His methods are flawed, but his message is important. In fact, his message is so salient that some even question whether he is, in fact, a villain at all. Erik is not intending to do evil; rather, he sees himself as a hero fighting evil. In the process of his heroic quest, he fails to uphold the good that he is espousing. Given the popularity of Black Panther, the character of Erik is a wonderful way to spark meaningful discussions about how any one of us could perpetuate what some might label as evil.
Regardless of the method—engagements with pop culture or something else—it is important to consider how any human can contribute to evil. Contemplating our own capacities invites us to take responsibility for our actions. Instead of asking others, “trick or treat?” perhaps we need to ask ourselves, “How might I be part of an evil process, and why?”
Cathryn van Kessel is Assistant Professor in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta, Canada. As a researcher, a former secondary school teacher, and a current educator of pre-service teachers, her work seeks to blend educational theory and practice in provoking ways, particularly in relation to philosophy and social psychology.
Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published in 1963)
Badiou, A. (2001). Ethics: An essay on the understanding of evil (P. Hallward, Trans.). London, UK: Verso. (Original work published in 1993)
Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, NY: Free Press.
Coogler, R. (Director). (2018). Black Panther [Motion picture]. USA: Walt Disney.
Hatzfeld, J. (2003/2006). Machete season: The killers in Rwanda speak (L. Coverdale, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Original work published in 2003)