Every now and again, we are reminded of the true extent of the human capacity for evil. The recent story from Toronto of the little boy who was starved to death by his own grandmother, and the case a few years ago from New York where two brothers were nearly killed in the same manner, make me wonder: What is the nature and definition of evil?
A little heavy, I know, but bear with me. I may not answer the question in the end, but it’s something worth thinking about.
Certainly, the most profound examples of evil in human history have been perpetrated, by and large, since the beginning of the 20th century. Hitler’s Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Stalin’s Russia, Rwanda, and so on. We’re all familiar with them, even if some people seem incapable of grasping the enormity of them, and even start being apologists or deniers. But they happened, they were real, and they were enormously evil and depraved acts of violence against human beings.
But what about the less-well-known examples such as those mentioned above? What about the exploitation of the helpless, the cruelty to children, to one’s own relatives, that shock and appall us? Acts that, in all likelihood, are happening right now in big cities and small towns around the world? These examples of smaller-scale evil will never appear in the history books.
But, perhaps, in fairness, they should. This would constitute a more accurate reflection of 21st century human society. We are small, greedy and petty. We are uncaring and callous, and completely lacking in empathy. In moments like this, it is important to remember one thing, though: we are also capable of great acts of sacrifice, kindness, and love. The balanced picture of the heights of goodness and the depths of evil are what constitute the real story.
When we exploit acts of kindness for personal gain, like those who defrauded the efforts to help the victims of Katrina, or when we victimize the helpless, we unbalance the scale. That’s why it’s important for us to recognize the imbalance, and try as best we can to right it. That doesn’t necessarily mean becoming vigilantes, it may just mean working as best we can to try to eliminate the social conditions that motivate some to try to gain advantage by washing in the blood of others. Social justice, respect and empathy are the best tools we have.
I don’t believe in the ‘soul’, and I never have – some people would regard that as a defect in my personality. To me it is a strength. I don’t judge based on differences, I learn more from them. I don’t react thoughtlessly at the expense of others, I reason and plan a strategy for the future. And I keep those I care for and respect close to me, and share in their affection and respect. it may be because we are like-minded, or it may be because of our differences, it doesn’t matter. And I volunteer, in the hopes that I can make my community a better place, where children will not have to grow up in fear of their relatives or neighbors. It’s relatively small-scale, but it’s a start. And it makes me feel better than shovelling money on a problem in the hopes it will go away.
Because what we’re missing is the sense of connection, and I hope to help correct that, in a small way. Because the sooner we realize that we are all connected, and that we can learn and grow through one another, the sooner we will realize that evil done to others is a profound evil done to ourselves.