Against ‘evil’ and ‘bad guys’

Rhetoric in the United States regarding our military opponents has descended to the point where childish name-calling has become the default. Calling others ‘evil’ and ‘bad guys,’ without explanation, should be the stuff of children’s entertainment. Instead, the widespread use of these terms is anti-democratic as it hinders citizens’ understanding of our opponents and selves, and it impedes peace-making through compromise.

‘Evil’ fosters war

In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama asserted that “evil” exists. Then he predictably trotted out the Nazis and al Qaeda as self-evident exemplars, without actually explaining what constitutes evil. Since he was arguing in favor of wars against evil, this seems like a considerable omission. Perhaps he would be hard-pressed to find a definition that would not encompass some actions in recent years by the United States or its allies.

But his use of this term – popularized especially during the Bush years – creates deeper problems. The first is the easiest to convey: who decides what is evil? Indeed, al Qaeda and the United States government have portrayed each other as consistently engaging in evil actions. Which is made of rubber, and which of glue?

The second problem is actually more practical. ‘Evil’ is such an absolute term that its use makes it easier to fight wars but hard to compromise to end them. George Orwell demonstrates this problem, perhaps unwittingly, in 1984 and Animal Farm, as the reader feels frustration at the rulers’ blatant (albeit successful) redefinition of allies and enemies. While I believe that the United States was less likely to make a deal with Saddam Hussein after depicting him as another Hitler during the Gulf War, we did in fact reach a compromise that lasted for years. I suspect that the Taliban can expect similar treatment soon.

I am most concerned that public figures use the term ‘evil’ to trick people into supporting or participating in military actions without serious contemplation. How can we not fight evil with everything we have? If Nazis were evil and so are al Qaeda, North Korea, and Iran, shouldn’t we fight World War II against them all? Won’t that make us heroes?

A major change must have occurred since 1983, when President Reagan described the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire.’ This phrase received widespread ridicule for being cartoonish and engendered criticism for making coexistence less imaginable. Today, I hear even anthropologists saying ‘evil’ as if it had a self-evident referent. How have so many Americans, of so many political persuasions, become so simplistic? So fundamentalist? It frightens me.

I understand the attraction of the concept: It makes it easier to stop thinking. What we are doing is ‘good,’ even if it entails killing the people that the ‘evil’ ones are primarily victimizing. And demagogues have the Nazis as a handy resource in making evil seem self-evident. How can we describe such systematic murder as if it were committed by ordinary humans? And yet clearly it was, as evidenced by the ability of murderous concentration-camp personnel to lead quiet, inconspicuous lives after WWII.

It may be difficult to understand our opponents, but peace-making (and democracy) depend on relative estimations of our peers – not absolute ones. As Obama said in his acceptance speech, “no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint …” Perhaps, then, he should eschew the absolutist rhetoric of ‘evil’ and work to promote a more relative assessment of our actions among our erstwhile enemies and vice versa. This might create the conditions for a less belligerent coexistence in which dialogue replaces epithets.

A cartoon world with ‘bad guys’

At least Obama seems to shy away from the term “bad guys” to refer to the United States’ momentary targets. The nearly ubiquitous use of this phrase shares all of ‘evil’s’ problems. Mostly, though, it appears to be part of an attempt to reduce our analytical sophistication to the level of a seven-year-old. Perhaps I’m being generous, but I believe that adults should be using this phrase with tongue in cheek, as exemplified by a list of “Top Ten Evil Bad Guys Ever” and an “Evil League of Bad Guys” t-shirt.

Aside from the question of who gets to decide who is “bad,” this phrase masks the complexity that we, as citizens in a democracy, should understand as we guide our representatives in making decisions regarding war. If someone is ‘bad’ or ‘evil,’ why bother trying to understand their motivations? They are what they are … until they support us, at which point they become selfless forces of ‘good.’ Indeed, some of yesterday’s ‘bad guys’ in Iraq are now being called ‘good guys’ because they are cooperating with U.S. forces. It seems unlikely that their moral or ethical standing has changed en masse.

We might also ask whether such automatic and partisan moralizing of positions impedes self-reflection. Could it be reasonable for Iraqis (or Panamanians or Dominicans, etc.) to oppose an invading foreign army that their country had never attacked or even threatened to attack? Might the so-called ‘bad guys’ reasonably see themselves as ‘patriots’?

A question of democracy

Finally, I want to give our public figures’ sophistication the benefit of the doubt. I believe that the childlike use of these simplistic, absolute terms started as part of a cynical, Nixon-like attempt to frame the debate regarding our country’s military operations. This is part of politics in a democracy.

But if military figures use this loaded language to conjure support for war, then they are propagandizing the populace. This is not their role in a democracy, in which influence should flow from the people through the elected officials to the military. It is anathema to the military’s status as a nonpartisan institution that implements political leaders’ decisions. So, General Petraeus, please stop.


2 responses to “Against ‘evil’ and ‘bad guys’

  1. I think you’ve hit several nails squarely on their heads here. As someone who sometimes too readily jumps at the opportunity to take the simplistic route, thanks for making me think a bit deeper.


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