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Mommy, what's evil?

In the last few days I've read two books that seem to present an interesting perspective on something called evil. The first book was Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A long letter the author composed to his son about the treatment of the black body in America. It ranges from the streets of West Baltimore where Coates grew up and learned that, as a black boy, any action he took could potentially bring harm to his "black body". It continued through his experience at Howard University, marriage, the murder of Prince Jones in Virginia, to his experience of isolation and non-violence when he left the United States for the first time.


It is a powerful indictment of white America's treatment of black bodies, and of their using black bodies for the building of their Dream. Dreamers (white Americans in the suburbs) raped black America when it enslaved them and continued to denigrate and abuse them to the present. There is no escaping the brutal distance between the world in which I (a white American who grew up in the suburbs) and Coates live. There is something visceral that even for someone who considers himself an ally of African-Americans drives home the reality of black life in America.


This book did not so much change my mind as it enlightened me. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have little actual experience with African-Americans. A brief acquaintance with a librarian lawyer at law school and a short friendship with a West Indies man and his white wife here in Vietnam. I grew up in the white suburbs of Utah and Idaho--two of the whitest states in the union--and went to college in Utah.


There is a story I read once about a professor who was trying to convince her white class of the wide gap between white and black experience. After talking through some of the violence and abuse that white America consistently heaps upon black America, she asked for a raise of hands from anyone who would be willing to trade their skin color and become black. Not a single hand went up. This demonstrates, to me, that white America understands what it has done to black America, that there is an innate inequality and a terrible history of crimes perpetrated against black America, and that white America knows how awful the black experience must be. So bad that out of a class of several hundred students not a single person would volunteer to be black.


To jump slightly, I think much of white America understands the evils that have been done, but ultimately, they blame them on human nature, on the Devil, on other people. In Faewell Waltz, by Milan Kundera, two characters in a Communist country are talking about the crimes of a third, and how they should not consider them to be terrible.

"Theoretically, replied Jakub very slowly, "theoretically he was capable of doing to others exactly the same thing they did to him. There isn't a man in this world who isn't capable, with a relatively light heart, of sending a fellow human to his death. At any rate I've never met one. If men one day come to change in this regard, they'll lost a basic human attribute. They'll no longer be men but creatures of another species." "You people are wonderful!" Olga exclaimed as if shouting at thousands of Jakubs. "When you turn everybody into murderers your own murders stop being crimes and just become an inevitable human attribute."

Though this excerpt speaks of a man who first led purges and was then purged, it is a principle which I believe applies very much to racism in America. Racism is terrible, yes, but racism isn't my next door neighbor. Racism is an endemic problem that plagues the inner cities, that the South endures, that Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and Oakland face. It is a great boogaloo (to use a racist term) that floats over the entire country and because it is so rarely brought home to the individual level it has nothing to do with me. It is an American problem but, though I'm an American, it is not my problem.


The second book that I read this week is Demian, by Hermann Hesse. Hesse, a Nobel Prize winning author, wrote this book in the third year of the First World War. He had been besought by a number of personal tragedies and was searching for some way to explain his psyche to himself. At some point he had taken psychotherapy with Carl Jung and in Demian, he explicated a number of his theories. Without going into the details of each step of the narrator's journey, I do want to talk about Abraxas.


Abraxas, according to Hesse, was a Greek god who acted as both God and the Devil. Not necessarily in opposition to himself, but in complete unity. What Hesse, and by extension, Jung suggested was that to consider God a wholly good being who created all mankind and all of the earth and everything else that on it walks, excludes that which is not "good" by God's own definitions. The Christian theology requires a Devil that is responsible for the evil and the darkness and the terror that is as equally prevalent as the good. And what's more, no one wants to talk about that darkness. An example being sexuality. In Christianity it is a part of us that was God made, but no one talks about it and the faithful go to great efforts to convince young men and women that it is evil to indulge in this overpowering urge that came from God. There is an emptiness, then, that is left by this monotheism. Abraxas resolves this mono-conflict in that by acknowledging that good and evil both exist, and that they come from the same place, human nature, we are then able to decide for ourselves not only whether to do good or evil, but to decide what we think is good or evil.


Panic! Moral relativity! Horror!


But if America is a country filled with humans of whatever color, and humans--individual humans--are responsible for their own actions whether they be good or evil rather than being beholden to some God or Devil figure who made them in a certain way, and that whatever action they take is their own whether they think it evil or good, then they are responsible for their individual acts completely. Not only in the actus reus but also in the mens rea of their crimes are the criminals guilty for they must first create the concept of evil within their own minds before they can act to do good or evil.


A problem arises in that one could envision a situation wherein I find racism to be evil, but you, a perfectly capable human being endowed with the ability to think for himself, finds racism not to be evil. This requires us to look beyond Abraxas, beyond Hesse and Jung, who theorized that it might be possible to ferret out moral absolutes but that man must be willing to accept his act if he violated them as his own and that there is no God-given commandment but a path to enlightenment, a way forward which will allow the death of the old world in the birthing of the new.


Hesse suggested that man enough in tune with himself, comfortable with himself, and capable of acting for himself and controlling his will would be the one to lead humankind to the next level of evolution. Demian, the novel, fails to wrestle with the questions of who decides what might be a moral absolute as Hesse creates a mother figure who is so pure in this ideology of Jung's that she acts as a judge on earth of all those who would seek her path. It is a cheat, that the answer to who decides what is good and evil lies in the creation of a fictional guru, but this is one we see again in his other, more well known novel, Sidhartha.


I think a turn to the Wiccan Rede which states, "That it harm none, do as thou wilt." Again we see a non-traditional moral code rise to the fore in stating what should be an obvious moral absolute. Jesus touched on it when he told his disciples to do unto others as they'd have done unto them. And Buddhism expresses the idea of Kharma in that what one does in this life will be delivered unto them in the next, an admonition not to avoid evil but to do good so as to merit Kharma. I am not as familiar with Muslim theology, but I would suspect that a similar sentiment is expressed somewhere in the Koran. What it means, ultimately, is that the only true measure of whether a man does good or evil is whether he harms another. Harm is a concrete measure. Though it cannot be weighted in pounds or measured in ounces, it is still something that one can point to rather objectively and state, this act did harm, this act did no harm.


Again one finds the issue to be who decides the moral absolutes? Who is it that gets to say something causes harm and something doesn't? Can we claim that harm is judged by those who receive it? What about the eggshell plaintiff who is fragile and weak compared to a hardheaded iron-willed individual who takes very little offense at other's actions? Is it the person who does the act? Do they get to decide whether what they did caused harm to someone else and was thus "evil" or that it affected no one and thus was "good?" Or is it some third party, a God, an Abraxas, a Devil, that gets to say when and how harm is inflicted?


I think one is simply left with the moral relativity of Hesse's Max Demian and his mother Frau Eva. Each man must come to grips with himself and must become comfortable with his nature and with his choices. What Hesse didn't do, where he stopped short, was to encourage the man or woman who is wholly unified within themselves to then seek out to do good. This is a leap he failed to make and one which, perhaps, he never believed in himself. For even in his novel Sidhartha, a retelling of the Buddha's enlightenment, he ends ambiguously with the thought that there is not necessarily good or evil, or hard or soft, or white and black, but that everything must be taken in parts and experienced in order to reach the next step in evolution.


But to rely on every man to make his own decisions and to come to his own ideas about what acts are good and what acts are evil is to give man freewill. Christianity vaunts this as its animus spirit, but it then in turn gives rules and commandments and lays out sins and transgressions. All of which serves to spell out good and evil for each man through an external rule giver. But what would happen if humanity was allowed to rely on itself, to think through each act and decide whether it caused harm or did not, would this create chaos, confusion, contradiction, life?


Moral relativism is scary to the moral absolutists for just that reason, that is suggests they might not be right and that they do not have the justification to impose their morals on others? It seems human nature, to return to that complicated phrase, to seek to force others to adopt our own morals. That what we think is right is obviously right for everyone else even though in coercing obedience we create incalculable harm. Think of the Spanish Inquisition, the wars of Muhammed, the Mormon missionary. Each of these, and countless others, causes immense harm in its own way. For not only do the morally absolute believe it their right to inflict their morals on everyone else, but they also deem it their right to judge anyone with a different set of morals as either inferior or evil when one's status should be held simply within oneself rather than set against some other human's ruler to measure its worth.


But I digress . . .


If we know that to do harm to another is a moral evil, whatever the extent of the harm determines the degree of the evil, then to enslave and to murder and to rape an entire race, to commit effective genocide of a culture and a history and a way of life, to destroy recklessly and with malice, all seem to be somewhere beyond the hazy mist of relative good and evil. They reside in a space reserved for obvious harms. Things that most anyone can agree are harms to others. But if the racism of America and all that the word entails through nearly four hundred years of history is a culturally agreed upon harm, then to contribute to it individually is to commit an individual evil. If we are whole within ourselves and understand that something is evil, would it then be a violation of that unity, that oneness of self, to commit the evil, and in so doing one not only sins against another, but against oneself as well?


If that be the case, then the hatred and bigotry of racism, on an individual and minute level, is a sin against all of humanity, for if it harms oneself, it is sure to harm others. By calling another by a racial diminutive we are calling ourselves impure, rent, adrift. We are lost to our own salvation and must confess to our individual crime. Micro-aggressions, egregious violence, indifference, all of it leads to a self-harm that renders us impure and incomplete as we divide the unity of ourselves in doing harm to others. We violate Jung, Abraxas, God, Satan, Allah, the Wiccan Rede, everything. We do violence to ourselves whenever we do violence to others, whatever the form.


So do no harm for your own sake and err on the side of caution, for with each act we can measure our intent and with each intent we commit either good or evil and either harm ourselves or save ourselves. I for one, would much rather save myself than commit suicide.



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