#paganvaluesmonth 2011: the nature of evil

A woman in my water aerobics class recently discovered Doctor Who, and now avidly shares my love for it. One of the points we both like about the show? It’s not about good versus evil. As Steven Moffat (the current head writer and producer) explained, the show offers up villains to understand, rather than villains to conquer. Not only does that make the show materially different from the vast majority of science fiction out there, it completely unplugs the nihilist universe where the good fight for the sake of good, knowing the battle never ends. ((I realize Torchwood dives right back into nihilism, as evidenced by Owen Harper’s arc. I also love the Buffy universe and the whole Whedon family anyway.)) The world doesn’t need to end with only some victor standing over a conquered body – and a healer of any worth can and will find another way if there’s any other way to be found. I do have to acknowledge here though that there’s no hope for Daleks, Cybermen and fundamentalists. Still, most of the world and even the universe really does come back to a true possibility of common goals. Achieving common goals can eradicate evil.

The idea of existing in some paradigm where “If you aren’t for us, you’re against us,” can rattle a person used to unmovable divisions. While I will say labels, etc. do have a powerful and necessary purpose, dropping the labels of “good guy” and “bad guy” or the concept of “Satan” can go a long way toward trying to understand another person’s motivations. As is pointed out to me often when I get worked up, most people’s behavior isn’t malicious. ((The knotty part is that I think I’ve actually been subjected to more actual malice than most people in my generation.)) Yet having clear “good” and clear “bad” saves the weak from having to really think. Rather than looking at what people actually do, far too many people just look AT people and make judgments – thus bringing them straight back to the very immorality/amorality they are supposedly being judging, by the very avenue of so-called moral beliefs. It’s easy not to think far enough to pick out the problem. It’s what weak people do.

Pagans don’t usually end up on the path of their calling because they cherish their weaknesses.

I’m not saying here that evil doesn’t exist. It does. I’ve encountered some flat-out evil beings in the course of my adult life. But that evil is rare, and to some extent I went looking for it to satisfy myself of the truth of it. Most evil is not a state of being, it is a state of doing. Most evil is contextual. Most evil may only be defined by the person who experienced it directly. Most evil can’t or won’t be recognized by the person who  did it, or if it is recognized only much later – who was it that said “All men think they are on the side of the angels”?

Good and evil within the Wiccan context as I know is not a “for or against” proposition.  While the Bush administration’s most damaging legacy in our culture is this horrific and unnecessary dichotomy where everything’s “either you _ or you _” without any regard to very real option threes or the selection “all of the above”  to subjects political and moral,  reality for the thinking is just not  that way. Not being Wiccan does not make you wrong, uninformed or evil.  It’s just not a “for or against” religion; spiritual warfare in a Wiccan context means actual ghosts duking it out with each other, not “OMG, we shall assert our dominance by putting our religious symbols on state institutions” or “It’s December, let’s start whining about not getting enough Jesus when the whole freaking world stops for our second most important religious holiday.”  We’re not collecting souls. If we judge you, we don’t have a place of eternal punishment to mentally send you. ((Although Forever21 seems pretty damned likely based on the hype.))  Early in my practice, one person carried on about being deceived by Satan, I once snapped back “We don’t need Satan when we have ourselves.” We may or may not have free will, but we all still have full responsibility for our actions, no matter where the idea for those actions came from.

As one person put it in my early years of correspondence with other Wiccans, “A tiger eating a gazelle is evil to the gazelle and good to the tiger.” The good or the evil is often contextual. Among human beings where the resource division goes to things that aren’t directly about sustaining life, it does get intensively more complicated. While my personal Evil Chimp hypothesis is still in the works, I think there is something to some of the nastier, greedier stuff we do coming from letting our emotions and thus our animal selves run the show instead of advising us. Anyone who has ever been, known or shared a room with a teenage girl knows perfectly well that human beings are fully capable of malicious action with no genuine provocation beyond the misplaced rage that comes from women being pressured in every culture ever to be anything but who they really are. Most evil action comes from people doing things to themselves and their loved ones under the belief “they’re doing the right thing.” Doing the right never seems to take into account how the “right thing” actually affects the person exposed to that decision – and it’s heartbreaking to see people continue to do that “right thing” when it clearly causes emotional, physical or psychological stress to the person it’s done to.

This is one of the factors behind the popular Wiccan phrase “harm none.” “Harm” is distinguished from hurt – first, accidents happen and part of being human is the unintentional infliction of pain on those near you from time to time. Hurt is accidental. Sometimes deliberate hurt can be inflicted to prevent harm – “Honey, stop trying to climb in his window at night, he’s really not into you.” Harm is (usually) deliberate, usually permanent and is often the result of a person refusing to acknowledge how his/her repeated actions impact those around him/her. While one bad drunken night causes hurt, repeated bad drunken nights constitute harm – even if no one comes to blows, the psychological impact of someone dealing with repetitive crappy behavior while drunk does negative things to the person having to deal with you that can’t really be undone.

Appearance is no indicator whatsoever of good or evil. Belief can be a warning sign – for example, a man who blames women for his problems, or thinks that the world is somehow being taken away from him, is likely to do evil, but you can’t know until you see how he acts around a vulnerable woman. ((Don’t test this if you can help it. Women, just don’t sleep with him. He already has a low opinion of you, so if you wish to abuse your self-esteem find a less obvious model.)) Still, belief without action means that it’s just belief. There’s a lot of beliefs out there that I just plain disagree with that aren’t evil.

Wishing harm or misfortune on a person, even in jest, is a form of evil. Wishing is an action that has surprising power because it comes from the well of belief, and I know as a writer there’s no such thing as “just words.”

Ultimately, only the actions a person takes indicate good or evil. Even then, context matters. A person who does harm but did not INTEND harm has not done evil – but is still just as responsible for the harm done. Generally a person who did not intend any permanent damage merits forgiveness or at least an opportunity for penance.  But when we get into intentional evil – acts done to control/manipulate those around them for purposes serving the self or sometimes even a “higher purpose” that may not be as high as that person thinks – then it gets messy. There’s not really such a thing as “good control” or “bad control” unless you’re neurologically wired for BDSM. Out in the world of adults, anything done to trick a person into or out of consent for his/her decisions, including false consensus, is a form of evil, because removing or undermining a person’s consent in any way does lasting harm.

Evil, to my mind, isn’t a frightening force although it can be delivered in frightening ways. It’s also neither natural or unnatural to human beings – it just is, and as we are conscious of not just our inner lives but how our choices affect the lives of others, it becomes relatively easy to sidestep doing evil most of the time.  Also, sometimes shit just happens – if it’s not a repetitive event, and you own it and clean up what you did without making yourself out to “be the victim here” it’s not really a problem. In my experience, it takes little effort to “not be evil.” But actively doing good – that takes work.




  1. Eli

    Hmmm…a lot to think about here, but one phrase jumped right out at me. Can you say more about “false consensus”?

  2. Post

    When I speak of “false consensus” I mean situations where a group is either conned into agreeing with someone, or someone lies about/misrepresents the actions of the group. Election fraud would be a more extreme example. A minor example would be someone manipulating a social night out – “But we all said we’d meet here!” when only one person actually wanted to go to that location – and by using “we” tricks the others into thinking that’s what everybody else wanted to do.

    I’m pretty sure this tactic is popular in marketing.

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