Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Talking About Evil

We have a definition of evil: deliberately allowing our repeated anger at others to make more secure our place in society. It is the deliberate use of anger in politics.

We also know that anger, as it is a kind of blindness, as often as not is based on a mistake in perception, judgement, or logic.

When we say in anger someone or some state or institution is evil, we are not being evil ourselves, we are making a mistake. However when our anger has become a habit that makes us feel more at home in our group of angry people, we are being evil.

In the world at the moment we can say that the Catholic church is engaged in evil practices, institutionally condoning sexual attacks against children. We can say terrorist organizations that deliberately mass murder children are evil. We cannot say the state of Israel is evil.

To an angry mind Israel looks evil. It is a state newly formed in violence, its wars seem endless, its soldiers are cool and regular in their way of fighting.

But in fact Israelis do not use violence to solidify their relations to each other. They live in a democracy with more freedom than all but a very few other countries, certainly with more freedom and openness than found in the lands of their enemies. They are not attempting to re-found their politics in their wars, have no intention to remake the politics of other countries.

But the Jews are in a special position in relation to democracy. Plato said that the character of democracy was disagreement on the question of what is good, what is the right way to live. In democracy all is allowed. But in democracies there quickly develop specialized roles. People learn that what is good is what allows them to play their role well, not what is good for them as individuals. They cannot live alone as individuals. Since what is good for playing roles changes with what other roles are there to be played with, good in any larger society with a division of labor of mutually dependent roles becomes relative to time and place.

The "all is allowed" of democracy changes to the "all is good" of modern democratic relativism.

Because of the history of the Jews living among Christians but isolated from them, this particular group of people is in general perception at odds with both the "all is allowed" and "all is good" phases of democracy. Jews were never completely tolerated and certainly never for long, they never were considered good, and it was understood that the feeling was mutual.

When this particular group of people re-established their own state finally in the last century, it was, and continues to be, nearly universally seen as an offense to democracy. This was a self-declared Jewish state, and for 2000 years to be Jewish was seen as intolerant and untolerated, even at times intolerable altogether.

People got angry at Israel, are angry now more than ever. Their anger is based on an assumption that the Jewish people continue in the undemocratic position they found themselves confined in for thousands of years. But as I said, even a quick look at the actual political conditions of Israel shows it as one of the most reliably democratic places in the world. The anger against Israel is a mistake. To the extent the opposition is a deliberate attempt to use anger to establish party loyalty, it is evil.

Our democracies are seeing now, at the same time, both the clear presence of large scale evil in terrorist and priestly mass violence against children, and large scale mistaken attributions of evil against Israel, - and of course against the United States too for its war making and financial manipulations.

We are caught up in an ongoing public debate over the question of who is evil, a circus like diversion under cover of which factional interests of oil, munitions, banking quietly use their money to influence the decisions of democratic governments. This advantage taken of the failure to be able to clearly define evil had become itself a danger to democracy.

Terrorists who are absolutely intolerant are at present in fact tolerated by the democratically inclined, as long as the terrorists do not direct their intolerance against them. But we are not going to see the day in which we democratically tolerate all forms of evil, in a new form of relativism, because everything then would fall apart, division of labor, roles, and relativism altogether.

We are learning to see what evil is, how it can be defined. Leaving relativism behind, this can be our first agreement on what is good and bad. This can remake our future.

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