One of the strongest obstacles to positive change is narcissism: our proclivity to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, based on the feeling that nice people like ourselves couldn’t possibly be doing bad things.
In the public arena, this is especially easy to see if you follow the way our leaders use the word “evil.” Its popularity has died down a little, but we only have to look back a few years: if lexicographers awarded a “Word of The Year” designation the way Time bestows its annual cover honors, I’m certain the top choice for 2001 would have been “evil,” sounded with the two stressed syllables President Bush usually gives it. On the nightly news, the term was wielded like a baseball bat, blasting enemies out of the ballpark of human society and sinking them deep into the land of Other. They are Evil; We are Good.
Now it seems to be percolating into other social sectors. This week’s “Science Times” section had a strange and fascinating article about the recognition of evil by forensic psychiatrists, scientists who study serial killers and others who’ve committed especially heinous crimes. Functionally, the idea is that it may be possible to use diagnostic tools to recognize people so far beyond the pale of ordinary moral strictures that they must be removed from society forever.
Dr. Robert Hare, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has created a psychopathy checklist, used to rate criminals via a 20-item personality test. “The items include glibness and superficial charm, grandiose self-worth, pathological lying, proneness to boredom and emotional vacuity. The subjects earn zero points if the description is not applicable, two points if it is highly applicable, and one if it is somewhat or sometimes true….[A]verage total scores varied from below five in the general population to the low 20’s in prison populations, to a range of 30 to 40 — highly psychopathic — in predatory killers. In a series of studies, criminologists have found that people who score in the high range are two to four times as likely as other prisoners to commit another crime when released.”
“‘There is a group we call lethal predators, who are psychopathic, sadistic, and sane, and people have said this is approaching a measure of evil, and with good reason,’ Dr. Hare said. ‘What I would say is that there are some people for whom evil acts — what we would consider evil acts — are no big deal. And I agree … that the circumstances and context are less important than who they are.'”
It’s appealing to my yearning for safety to think that torturers and cannibals who masquerade as the guy next door are easily discernable from the rest of us, easily isolated. It’s scary to imagine such a thing being used predictively — 20 questions and you’re sent to a detention camp — or extrapolated onto the world stage and used to justify assassinating enemies, or bombing their countries back to the Stone Age.
What’s most scary is the risk of what Bush has done, labeling others as evil in order to make them other than oneself, inoculating oneself against error while justifying their punishment or extermination. This is a dangerous mistake. A close reading of the world will always reveal evil’s location as here, there, and everywhere. Its chief feature is its creative insidiousness, its perpetual plastic readiness to squirm into any corner of the human heart left unmarked by good intention. That?s why I like to think of it not as a fixed quality or characteristic — so-and-so is an evil person, certain nations make up an evil empire — but by using a particularly apt Jewish term, yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination.
According to this understanding, we all have the choice in life to incline toward good or evil. And we all waver. Everyone has some experience of the longing for destruction, the desire to surrender to chaos. People love to watch a raging fire, to find themselves snowed in, to connect through erotic experience to an energy more powerful and fundamental than choice. Some say the yetzer ha-ra is behind all ambition and creativity, even procreation, because it propels a human being into the world to make a mark, to climb above the place others may have allotted that person. This is not to say that aspiration or desire are somehow wrong: how sluggish and dull and stagnant the world would be without them! The point is that in guiding our own life?s direction, our task is to hold mighty forces in balance lest they overwhelm us, pulling us away from our center and the source of our growth.
This insight is in no way peculiar to Judaism. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “All religions teach that two opposite forces act upon us and the human endeavor consists in a series of eternal rejections and acceptances.”
To keep the evil inclination in balance requires exercising moral and ethical control of our actions. But sometimes, finding a foothold in weakness or insanity or a distortion of personality, the evil inclination comes to hold sway over a person or group, catalyzing events far beyond the realm of individual toxic enmeshments. People can act with extraordinary duplicity, sleep-walking through deeds they would never commit while fully awake and aware, succumbing to the impulse to bury their heads instead of acknowledging what might otherwise be obvious.
When this happens, it is difficult to know what or whom to trust. Meanings cannot be worked out by according words their usual significance. Instead, the task is to know how to recognize such situations, and how to bring awareness to the task of restoring balance.
In my own experience, it is rare (but by no means impossible) to encounter someone who is truly, deeply in the grip of the evil inclination, perhaps forever. One of the miracles of human life is that love and help and creativity are astoundingly widespread in comparison with the forces of destruction. But the evil inclination is not so rare that any of us can entirely escape it.
So here’s the irony: pretending we are immune to the yetzer ha-ra or displacing the source of evil to others inevitably strengthens the pull of the evil inclination on our own spirits. The only inoculation is in knowing that all of us are subject to the same “two opposite forces,” the same series of “eternal rejections and acceptances.” That knowledge creates awareness, and for anyone who has not entirely surrendered to the evil inclination, the possibility of change. The “evil empire” lies within and without. Remember that and we reduce the risk of being swept into its orbit.