Friday, May 11, 2012

Words Mean Things II: Notes Toward A Medium Opus XIII

Moriah is taking European History in school. A couple weeks back she asked me to review an assignment she had due. For each major event, she had to produce a list of terms, related photographs, and major points for each term used. She confessed she was unclear about the names of the major antagonists in the First World War; were France and Britain and Italy the Triple Alliance or Triple Entente? I told her that they were the Alliance. "So, the Triple Entente were the bad guys," she said. 

"No," I said. "They weren't 'the bad guys'. There aren't 'good guys' and 'bad guys' in the world."

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, there was much ballyhoo over President Bush's use of the phrase "Axis of Evil" to describe the regimes of Libya, Iran, and North Korea, none of which had anything to do with the attacks on the United States. Throughout much of the rest of his Presidency, Bush would often call terrorist groups "evil doers". The use of this word became a focus of some debate among some on the right who claimed that "liberals" and others were somehow unable to call evil by its name; by using the words he had, Pres. Bush had not only correctly called out al Qaeda, but had stolen a march on domestic political opposition. Who would want to oppose an Administration that was actively opposed to evil and those who do it?

Calling the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington "evil" is, indeed correct. Technically, those who envisioned the attacks, planned them, funded them, hired those who would carry them out, actually did carry them out, then celebrated their accomplishments are, indeed, evil. My on-going problem with this formula is simple enough to state: So?

"Evil" as an epithet adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of the root causes of the rage against the United States. As a practical matter, it became a way of avoiding doing the far more difficult work of understanding al Qaeda and related groups. What need do any of us have to understand "evil". It is, by definition, unintelligible, existing solely for its own sake, in need of neither justification nor intelligent analysis.

Moral understanding is a peculiar form of clarifying particular events.  Unlike other ways of understanding the world, moral pronouncements are absolute.  There is no such thing as "less evil".  Whether rooted in religious commitments or some general sense that certain acts lie beyond the pale of acceptability, once such judgments are made, further investigation is no longer needed.  Even the shorthand of such kinds of labeling, "good guys" and "bad guys", makes analysis superfluous.  It is also morally questionable; why attempt to understand what is clearly outside acceptable norms of human conduct?

Our ways of describing and labeling events and persons and groups have weight; they carry implications for how we move forward together.  Seeing a world abounding in evil-doers and bad guys certainly makes it easy enough to find one's place in the world; it makes understanding the world impossible.  Our moral sense, a product of our collective sense of how best to live together in big and small ways, is an important part of what makes us human. Compassion, empathy, the fellow-feeling that leads us to mourn with those who suffer even if we share no immediate connection with them are necessary personal and social attributes; their expression is often what people understand as their greatest asset.

We humans also have a horrible penchant for cruelty and depravity, expressed interpersonally and socially in any number of ways.  While it may well be necessary to understand instances of the expression of these tendencies as "evil", we cannot allow that to call a halt to the necessary work of understanding the why's and wherefore's of them.  Precisely because the judgments embedded in our moral vocabularies, whether the simplistic one my daughter used or the more sophisticated-sounding ones used by the varieties of our moral scolds, are absolute, we need to take care their weight doesn't prevent us from the important work of understanding what brought about the events in question.  Precisely because "meaning" resides not in events or persons or object, but only words, the weight of meaning in moral judgments, far too often, removes our ability to find any other meaning in those we call evil.

Virtual Tin Cup

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