Evil people

I hesitate to label people “evil”.

Yes, there are a lot of people out there we could, quite justifiably, call “evil”. I understand the motivation for doing it; it’s about the principle, and pointing out that some people are just irredeemable, causing more harm to the world than any potential good. And for some, it feels good to point those people out; to clearly identify the “bad guys” (and, affirm, by exclusion, their own virtue).

But there is a long-standing historic problem with labeling people as evil. Actions, sure; actions are easily identifiable as evil, and they should be condemned. But if a person is “evil”, it has consequences.

Consider the hypothetical question: If you could go back in time to 1933, for example, and shoot Hitler, would you? While this is an interesting moral thought experiment on about the courage of one’s convictions – there is another element: Most people would, without hesitation, shoot to kill Hitler. Because, he’s evil, you see; killing him would prevent a lot of bad things from happening, and not only is it OK to kill people labeled as “evil” – it’s one’s moral obligation.

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Now, of course Hitler is Godwin-levels of evil, and we have the benefit of hindsight to know that, yes, effectively once he got power, Hitler did all sorts of awful crimes. But, here’s the thing about those atrocities: he – and his cohorts – justified their actions because they’d labeled other people as “evil”. Now, of course, the difference is that we know Hitler was evil, and the Nazis were just labeling their political enemies as evil.

So, when we, today, label a group of people – political enemies – as “evil”, because they do something we believe is harmful … how is that different? (Because we know those people are evil, and we’re to good guys, that’s why! Well, that’s what the Nazis thought, too.)

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You see, throughout history, no one has ever thought, “I’m an evil, horrible person, and that’s why I’m going to do evil, horrible things to people.” We know that, but when we label a person as “evil”, we’re not actually thinking of it at the time. We just point to a person – or a group, it’s more often a group than a person – as doing something that we know is wrong, and then those people are obviously evil.

And the thing about evil people is, we can’t let them get away with it. We have to deny their freedom to do their evil things. We hate them. It’s even OK to hurt them, so they stop being evil. And if that doesn’t work, we might have to kill them.

I mean, we put it in a little more sanitized terms, such as these people have “got to go”, that we can’t rest until “there isn’t any more of them left”. We aren’t actually saying that they should be killed.

But, really, how many people who think radical Islam is evil would question that people accused of radical Islamism are being detained? How many people who think we should punch Nazis would demand due process for people accused of being white supremacists?

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I mean, you’re not going to defend someone who is clearly evil, are you? Are you a Jihadi apologist? A white nationalist sympathizer?

You see, all those horrifying atrocities committed throughout history – and being committed to this very day – were done against people who were labeled as “evil” by people who felt were doing the right thing. Yes, that includes innocent civilians targeted in terrorist bombings. It’s OK to kill evil people. It’s OK to hurt evil people.

Labeling people as “evil” is the first step to dehumanizing them, stripping them of their rights, and becoming a participant in the very evil we think we are condemning.

What stops us today from committing the barbaric evils we see in other times and places isn’t that we are better at calling out evil people; it’s because there are still people in our society who will stand up for the rights of people who are labeled as evil. As counter-intuitive as that might seem.

It’s when an ideology has enough power to brush aside anyone who would stand in the way of being evil to the people who are called evil that true evil happens.

Which is why I can’t call people – much less groups of them – “evil”. Their actions? Certainly. There is lots of evil happening in the world. But we don’t stop it with labels. We stop it with actions.

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