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On “Evil”

A couple of days ago, Gingerlks commented (in part): "anyone who could watch Earthlings & not be moved is the same kind of evil….heartless…"

First, I do think people can either be desensitized to the rampant cruelty depicted in Earthlings, or so terrified of what might happen if they let it affect them that they simply shut down.

Many people have said to me that they believe if they started thinking about what they are responsible for, or what we do as a species to other species–and particularly if they have to see too much–they'd break down and don't think they'd ever recover.

This argument doesn't sit well with me and my response is always, "Well if you have an inkling of how bad it is, and you don't want to hear about it or see it, why not at least stop participating?" You don't have to have seen all of the grisly details to know, and then saying you think you'd break down and not doing something rings hollow.

Unsurprisingly (to me), this is the argument I frequently get from people who consider themselves "spiritual." It's "toxic" and "negative energy" and "messes with their chi" and "shifts their focus to dark thoughts and away from the light" to think about the torture of sentient nonhumans. Inevitably, I hear that "what you spend your time on multiplies and you bring to you what you spend time on." In other words, the Law of Attraction tells them that if they start thinking about the "evil" in the world, they will bring evil to them. They choose instead to focus on "higher" or "cleaner" matters.

What do you think about "evil?" (And yes, I realize there's another issue in here.) Is evil something you associate with religion so you don't use the term? Does pure evil actually exist? Are some people evil, and if so what makes them that way? Can nonhumans be evil? And what does mental illness have to do with evil? (People of the lie, now's your chance!) Is evil a label we use when we cannot fathom why someone does (or doesn't do) something? Is evil something you do but not who you are?

Are people who work in slaughterhouses and who vivisect their fellow sentient beings evil? Does evil imply you know better and you choose X anyway? Is evil an excuse we make for people?

Do you use the idea of "evil" in your thinking and processing of animal rights and veganism?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Carolyn #

    > I am all to familiar with those arguments and have even made them myself in some cases (though never about animals). The times I choose to apply that logic is for media and advertising. For example – I refuse to watch the "Saw" movies. I think it messes with my energy and draws unhealthy things into my experience and it's completely unnecessary.

    When it comes to animal rights (and heck rights of all things in general) my approach is slightly different. I watched "Earthlings" and was deeply moved and made changes in my life accordingly. My husband however was not able to watch Earthling – it was beyond upsetting to him. He also made changes in his life according to the information I gave him.

    So I guess this is what it boils down to for me – yes I think that watching gratuitous violence and suffering is not good for the soul, but if you use that as an excuse to remain ignorant on the issues that is purely crap. Another example being the movie of the woman Neda who was shot at a protest in the Middle East. Many times I had the opportunity to watch the clip and chose not to. I knew for me that it would be debilitating to watch – but I didn't just close my browser and walk away. I educated myself in other ways that didn't include watching the movie.

    I say – if you are bothered by the way the information is delivered then find the information another way – but don't discount the reasons you are bothered. If you find Earthlings upsetting ask yourself "why?" and then do something about it. Watching gory film of animal suffering is not necessary for everyone who wants to make changes and decrease suffering. Just don't let it be an excuse to do nothing.

    July 18, 2009
  2. Mary, I think you are spot on with the idea that the rhetoric of "evil" is deployed when "we cannot fathom why someone does (or doesn't do) something"

    Evil is what we settle for when common vices such as "laziness," selfishness," "greed," and "cowardice" are not the cause of concern. It is a word to describe when moral agents have exceeded the limits of their humanity into an abject, wordless realm. "Evil" is thus an emotivist response that structures itself in socially recognized intuitions–it becomes meaningless if no one is there to validate its usage. As such, "evil" is a futile rhetoric device to persuade people on the other side of the moral fence.

    And , of course, "evil" polarizes "right" from "wrong." To call someone evil is an easy way to dissociate oneself from the Other, to clean oneself of all blame (as if none of us ever do "evil" things). Likewise, saying something is "evil" in some way excuses such acts as radically deviant/Other to a common humanity. Within modern liberalism, it can almost act as depoliticizing rhetoric in which society/culture/humans are not to blame but some recess of "irrationality."

    July 18, 2009
  3. I used to believe too, that if the world ever fully acknowledged what we do to Others — that we would all go mad. I've come to realize however, that most are more likely to jump out of a window because of economic loss – than because of unjustice inflicted on Others.

    Most disappointing on my route, was learning that people I respected and admired did indeed have "inklings" all along, yet "somehow" found a way to continue their actions. No need ruining a perfectly good day, when there are so many convenient escapes not to. And sometimes I do wish I had their "spiritual" or even "pragmatic" rose-colored glasses, so that I too could join in the fun granted by states of denial. But such is not the case for me. As soon as I had an "inkling" I made repair and encourage others to do so too. Ironically, exposing that anything is amiss and in need of remedy, makes me "evil" – and so be it.

    I don't think people are born evil – I think they become that way because of a greed for happiness. I think mass media presents a utopia of instant solutions and fixing indulgences. It makes everyone desire this "happiness" shown in commercials and trivial entertainment. Mass media and consumerism makes it all too simple to lust for the "joy" others have. We wind up feeling "entitled" to happiness without effort and without substance. I've heard it said that "evil" is taking more than you earn. And if "good chi" eludes the cost to victims, then yes – I suppose that's evil.

    For me, few things reveal this evil more than the idylic presentation of "joy" manifested in the sacrificed being meant to "celebrate". The cheerful ice-cream cone, the relaxing Sunday barbeque… or the worst, the tortured turkey carcass on a gold-trimmed platter. I don't know how these people manage to compartmentalize "inklings" in order to secure their "right" to gay festivities. I don't know how they choose to "not know". And if I cannot call it "evil", as in "immoral" or "malevolent", perhaps the word "ugly" will do just fine.

    …Oh, and I don't think (nonhuman) animals are ever "ugly".

    July 19, 2009
  4. There was a good Christian email going around (and probably still is) called God vs. Science. If you want I can email it to you – but it touched on the concept of Evil. And even if you don't believe in the Christian God the concept is still extremely relevant. Evil is not something that can be measured just like we can't measure "cold" or "darkness" we can measure "heat" and "light" but cold and darkness are terms we use to describe the complete absence of heat or light. Evil is a term we use to describe the complete absence of love (or as the email said God, because God is the purest and highest form of love). We can't measure "evil" but we can measure compassion and love.

    Again from the Christian perspective – when Eve ate the forbidden fruit – Sin entered the world – therefore animals are subjected to same evil that humans are – but because they are innocent like babies they are not held responsible for any wrongdoing committed and therefore get an automatic "free pass" to heaven upon death. God never intended any creatures to be carnivorous – we were all supposed to be "vegan" and when our souls return to "heaven" the lion will lay with the lamb – we will no longer be under the rule of "Satan" and therefore be free and absent from all Evil.

    Now while I was raised in a Christian church I still have serious issues with the bible and things written in it – especially most Christians belief that because God gave us animals we can do whatever we want with them. But I thought I would bring a specific perspective on the concept of Evil to the table.

    July 21, 2009
  5. Neva #

    I'm no expert on the subject of evil, but I find it fascinating.

    I know a few people who deny the whole concept of evil–they believe that everyone is essentially good and that bad things are done by mentally ill people who are unaware of their actions. I think this is a somewhat dangerous mind set, since nearly everyone I know who thinks that way exploits animals and defends themselves by saying "I'm a good person and I love animals, I could never do anything to hurt anyone, I'm not capable of it, but eating meat is natural."

    Uh, the good ole "I'm good therefore everything I want to do is good" approach. Yuck.

    I would propose that there are certain things we universally recognize as evil, like the holocaust. You might think that nazi leaders were mentally ill, but it took so many people to kill and torture so many that there's no way everyone involved was mentally ill. Instead a great many "good," "normal" people participated willingly in evil. Even more didn't actively help, but turned a blind eye and let terrible things happen, even as they knew about them.

    So if we accept that this is possible then we have to ask ourselves what we're doing right now. Was it evil to turn a blind eye then? Is it evil to ignore what's going on now? Was it evil to profit from genocide then? Is it evil to profit from or enjoy the "fruits" of industrialized animal agriculture now?

    The urge to consider ourselves so perfect that we cannot do wrong is a strong one. But we shouldn't forget history–people have long considered themselves good while doing terrible things. Some slave owners argued that by forcibly converting the slaves they owned and worked and beat to Christianity they were saving their souls and thus owning slaves was good and God wanted it that way. The history of forced conversions and the destruction of Native cultures was all about people who considered themselves not just good, but incapable of wrong.

    Selfishness is one of our most intrinsic traits–I see the person who is unmoved by Earthlings as either actually psychopathic or so selfish that they block out anything that might threaten their comfortable, sheltered, animal-consuming lives.

    July 21, 2009

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