Is evil a fashionable and convenient label?


Evil became a fashionable word in the West after 9/11. Until then it was regarded as an old fashioned religious way of simplifying reasons behind events we disapproved of, instead of intellectually explain why and how they could happen.

Oversimplifying and implying that you are either “with or against God” led to statements like “you are either with us or against us”, remember? It also enabled calling countries the Axis of Evil and the erroneous belief that Iraqis would cheer their “liberators”.

Evil absolves us from blame

Calling something evil is easy because then there is no need to look at why it happened. It’s conveniently blamed on evil people which saves us from trying to understand why and how it could happen.

It allows us to do nothing because we are, after all, only human beings. Only God can do something about evil.

Truly wish that all evil was carried out by a few evil people and once they were behind bars everything would be hunky dory.  But it isn’t as simple as that.

What makes people evil?

The important question we have to ask ourselves is what is evil and what makes people commit evil actions. To understand the motives behind is essential.With very few exceptions, people are not monsters. It’s normal people, just like you and me, who can suddenly become dangerous. Everybody can in theory behave like monsters. Evil can happen anywhere at any time.

“But he seemed so normal”

Despite that, people are surprised every time they are confronted by evil. “How could this happen in our little town?” “But he seemed so normal”. Touching in the sense that we expect people to be normal and not dangerous. So much so that they don’t notice evil even when it happens next door.

It wasn’t monsters, but people like you and me, that committed atrocities in, for instance, Nazi Germany. Living under totalitarian regimes makes people do all kinds of things they would not normally do. The same applies when you live in a war zone. Killing other people frequently becomes normal. Same thing applies to soldiers who “have a licence to kill”.

People commit actions that can be labelled evil out of fear, for selfish reasons, to feel powerful, because they are desperate, group pressure or simply because they are obeying the law and carrying out what the regime expects of them.

Why do we turn a blind eye?

Less evil would take place if the majority of people didn’t turn a blind eye. If we look at the Third Reich again, some people did decide to see and hear what was going on. Sadly they didn’t survive the war. But what would have happened if all human beings decided to see and hear evil? People like Hitler and Radovan Karadzic would have been regarded as pathetic, would not they? We actually allow evil to happen by turning a blind eye.The massacre that took place in Norway a few years ago was swiftly called evil. The perpetrator was labelled insane and a terrorist. The easy option that enables politicians to ignore the rise of far right anti immigrant parties in Europe was chosen.

Time to take the inconvenience of facing up to reality

Wouldn’t it be better for mainstream Western politicians to face up to the reasons behind the massacre and talk about the real stresses and imagined strains that have come with rising immigration and the multicultural society that emerged?Unfortunately islamophobia, partly a result on the war on terror, has fueled the rise of anti-immigration parties all over Europe that sometimes have attained considerable political power.

If mainstream politicians are not willing to deal with inconvenient issues the only winners will be the far right. There will be elements of such a debate that everybody will find uncomfortable, but it’s something that mainstream politicians and authorities just have to engage in. It will be really difficult but is essential in order to increase understanding and make old and new Europeans live together in harmony.

Find solutions and stop hiding behind convenient labels

It’s not possible to keep on just calling atrocities evil and ignoring the underlying problems. The West has hidden behind the label evil for a long time and it’s time to move on. If not, it’s just a question of how long it will take before more evil is committed by another European fanatic or Islamic fundamentalist. It will benefit both Europeans and immigrants to make multiculturalism the wonderful society it can be instead of letting resentment grow on both sides.

Do you agree with me that it’s time to stop hiding behind the convenient label evil and start, again, looking at the reasons behind, identify the problems and try to find solutions to improve society and prevent further problems? Or should we keep on making life easy for ourselves by simply turning a blind eye to what’s going on that goes against our moral beliefs?
(Photo: Freenerd – Flickr)

78 thoughts on “Is evil a fashionable and convenient label?

  1. In times of stress, we’re “programmed” to adopt a “fight or flight” response, and the characterisation of people as evil is very much part of the fight side. In so doing, one can more easily characterise an enemy and get one’s own “side” behind one. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ really highlighted this brilliantly, and his ‘Animal Farm’ showed other facets to it.

    For another study of how well the pack instinct in us works and how evil can surface quickly in even apparently normal people, William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a chilling story. It really highlights, too, how difficult it can be for people to swim against the tide, and why it is easier to ignore evil – and even go along with it, as we saw in Nazi Germany.

    Politicians, of course, understand all this and use convenient labels to characterise others in order to gain support for their causes/parties. Much is overstated, but few people look beneath the sound-bites to understand what is really happening. A strange feature of our 24-hour news world is that we actually understand less, rather than more, as the news programs only touch on topics, whereas newspapers have the space to go into them in more depth. But, such is the pace of modern life that few people read a newspaper fully every day – a skim of the headlines is often enough (or a news bulletin on the TV/radio which is more-or-less the same thing).

    The current global economic stresses are simply exacerbating the situation. People finding life tougher and tougher look to blame others, and immigrants (in any country) are an easily identifiable target. Sad, but true. Once economies pick up again – assuming they do – we will see a slow, steady return to the acceptance of multiculturism and hopefully it will be able to take a firm hold before the next disaster that will once again tend people to separatism.

  2. Catarina, I do not necessarily disagree with what you are saying. For many people language can be a bit fluid and change over time. The use of language is really critical in all forms of politics and therefore many politicians may misuse or "spin" language to seek support and enhance their own positions.Many authors have written books around this subject and I would point toward that badly written classic by George Orwell – 1984. When I was a younger man I tended to think that you can do a better job than the others and so therefore you should give the people their opportunity to support you. However my personal viewpoint is that there is good and evil, right and wrong, black and white albeit with shades of grey. Without wishing to be too banal about the matter I would say that we are all responsible to varying extents for our society and resulting civilisation.
    I am making a judgement call here. I think that you are doing a good thing bringing these matters to our attention. Keep up the good work!

  3. Evil is, indeed, a too convenient label, Catarina. Not that evil does not exist. If it did not, there would be no label.

    We are very concerned, at least in my country about labeling. The more we become concerned with the “evils” of labeling, the more we label.

    Libya: NATO did not want to bomb Tripoli. They had their reasons. That was five months ago. Now, NATO is bombing Tripoli. From a military standpoint only–If NATO had bombed Tripoli 5 months ago, would the military action have taken perhaps 5 days?

    Starvation: There is a difference between hunger and starvation. People are dying in the Horn of Africa. Is this not an indicator that world leaders lack moral fibre?

    As you referenced Hitler: If we had bombed the airplane factory and the shipyards, before the NAZIS invaded Poland, that could well have put a stop to it before it started. No one wanted to listen to Lord Churchill before the war. Or after.

    We too often call people evil to shroud ourselves in the stole and mantle of respectability. Just as often, we accept responsibility as a way of denying the blame. [If we are going to assume the responsibility then it is obvious someone else must be at fault. Are we not wonderful for accepting the responsibility?]

    Sincerest regards,


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  4. Seems we agree Keyuri. However, let's not forget if we had been born poor in Afghanistan and lived through decades of war, taking someone's life would most likely be just routine for us. Kill or die, simple as that.

  5. Saying someone or a group are evil I think is also a way of distancing themselves. As you mentioned people can commit what we call evil acts out of fear or in your comment to Keyuri what they are used to. I remember when we first had refugees and reports started appearing in the news about fights involving gins and knives. Many couldn't understand how this could happen, but to those participating it was what they been used to in their home country.
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  6. Evil rises under Good. Besides, we have now developed watertight compartments where the only colors we may see are Black or White. Call something evil, shout from the rooftops and create an opinion. The public accepts it as such. Sometimes, we need to question ourselves and think "IS IT REALLY EVIL?" Sometimes, what may be labelled evil may be "just" and the one labelling it as evil may be evil itself. We have somehow, accepted that absence of Good is evil when it may not be actually true.
    The other law applies is "Truth belongs to whosoever is right." So we deem Japan as evil too since it was an ally of Germany in the WW. But we know it not to be true.
    I believe that unless there is a renessaince of ideas with this ideology, we shall be guilty or promoting evil ourselves.

  7. To me, the term evil is a description of behavior and not necessarily a label. When something happens that is so bad we can't relate to it or understand how a human being is capable of doing such a thing, it's human nature to me to describe it as evil. Having been raised to believe that there is good and evil in all of us, that's just a term I've come to accept. The label that I despise is when we describe someone who has committed an evil act as being insane, Insanity is too often used as an excuse for unacceptable behavior. That is the label that I wish we could put an end to.
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  8. Wow Catarina – what an interesting post. In general, hiding behind labels and avoiding finding the root cause is not a good thing. I agree with everything you say but I tend to be more of a realist which unfortunately is somewhat of a pessimistic view. Not many people even accept responsibility of their own actions – how can we expect them to care about or try to find out the reasons behind others' actions? It is easier to blame atrocities on labels like "evil" than to try to figure out why they are happening. Sometimes people just snap or are actually evil – like psychopaths. They appear "normal" to their neighbors who are surprised when these same people commit brutal crimes. Their brains are just wired differently. I once had a conversation with a neuropsychiatrist family friend about whether or not Psychopaths can truly be rehabilitated. We both agreed that they couldn't. We both said at the exact same time, "They should all be thrown into one single room and throw away the key". Good point about the effect of where we are born and raised and the rules that govern the society we live in.
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  9. Catarina – I absolutely think you're on to something, but I think that arriving at the solution you described isn't going to be easy (if it's even possible). I'm not sure where you are, but in the US, the political process has become so polarized that apply blanket statements (like "evil", in this case) to opponents seems to have become regularly accepted.

    In a perfect society, yes, I think we should look beyond these labels, but when you bring greed, money, power and other compromising factors into the equation, it becomes a very difficult thing to accomplish. Not that I think we can't find a solution, just that it's going to be incredibly complicated.

    Cheers – interesting stuff!
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  10. The term evil is really just another convenient label and life really is never that simple or tidy.
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  11. There really is no good or evil. Those were terms largely coined by religions to keep the 'flocks' in line. There are positive and negative forces, both of which are required for a manifest universe. All too often, what is termed evil today, is discovered to be a blessing tomorrow. Do what we perceive to be horrible things happen? Sure, but without infinite knowing, can we truly say that it was evil. Is a sun going super nova evil? Is a hurricane evil? So yes, evil is a cop out that keeps people blind and numb to taking responsibility for the world they create.
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  12. I have never given much thought to the term 'evil' before. Sure it is used often – I think (as you say) because it is easy when we cannot comprehend the person and their actions. BUT is it NOT evil? The examples you presented were atrocious times in history. You seek to understand why things occur but this makes no difference to the victims and their families.

  13. What a great conversation. Labelling anything as evil has always made me uneasy. It's a label which gives us permission to do anything without thinking of consequence. We can ignore all of the morality discussions if we are responding to evil.

    Resentment against newcomers has always been an underlying force here in North America. When I worked for MPs it was a consistent theme in the exchanges with constituents. "They" were the cause of all that was wrong. Imagine my perspective, I wasn't born in Canada but grew up here so my accent is "Canadian". That meant that when I sat on the phone in the MPs office listening to someone with a European accent bitterly complain about the immigrants (generally someone of color) I couldn't help but see the irony of the situation. They couldn't see me, so assumed I was white and therefore agreed with their perspective. Essentially you would have an immigrant complaining to an immigrant about an immigrant. We are all immigrants to First Nations People and yet I never heard the biases from those communities.

    When we add evil to an already ingrained set of biases we create an insidious and corrupting level of bigotry that allows us to shut our borders with impunity and treat those newcomers already present inhumanely. We absolutely need to lose the label of evil, we need to stop hiding behind simplistic descriptions and irrational fears. The economic challenges we currently face were created collectively and will have to solved in the same way.
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  14. Catarina — I agree that circumstances like Hitler's Nazi Germany can make normal people do evil things. But I also believe that some people are intrinsically evil. Pedophiles are one example. And the normal looking man in Cleveland, here in the US, who tortured, abused and imprisoned three young women for 10 years before they were finally freed. That, to me, is pure evil.
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  15. Wow Catarina you have really written a though provoking post and are getting some wonderful comments. I believe evil is a definite reality as is good. Whether a person is good or evil is their choice and it is their actions that affect society. No I believe that just one "evil" person or act should dictate society? No. I believe we as humans can only be responsible for our own actions but when we are called to action to protect what needs to be protecting. This is not against any single person, nationality, or gender in itself… We all need to work together to become better people.
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  16. I do think that the people who planned and carried out 9/11 were (are) evil. That is not the same as saying that a whole ethnic or religious group is evil. People are certainly influenced by mob mentality or orther types of persuasion to do evil deeds. That doesn’t mean that they are inherently evil but rather that they are susceptible.

  17. So astute! Of course calling things evil is the easiest way to not do anything about it, get to the root of it, or find a solution. It's almost like God, for some of these people, is like Santa Clause…brings you anything you wish for, only has more power. Don't get me wrong, I think there is evil…but you can't call it out and shrug. like a shrug is the answer.

  18. Catarina, first let me thank you for writing this post. I’m of two minds here. I think it would be wonderful if we could just figure out what makes people ‘evil’ but I don’t think it’s that simple. Yes, some people are recruited to be evil, even though they didn’t start out that way, so obviously something was missing in their lives that made them think of evil as the better choice. But I believe there are also people who are plain and simple evil, who like nothing better than to inflict pain and suffering. So where do you go from here? How do you separate the two groups and better yet, identify the ones who, as you mentioned ‘seemed so normal’. so much to think about.

  19. We all have the ability to do right and wrong. Our morals and values tend to guide us through life. I do wonder if some people truly have consciences. How do they learn to live with the cruelty they have subjected others to? Maybe they have 'normalised' their behaviour and convinced themselves that they are doing what is right.

  20. I agree that evil is a tricky term. I also agree that you can’t really understand what you would do if you were a normal person who had lived under the Nazi regime. And I say that as someone who was born Jewish. Circumstances can alter your reality, and many people do bad things under the belief that is the right thing to do. The people who flew the planes into The World Trade Center thought they would be saved for fighting against America evil. Violence is a complex topic and we need to go further than just labelling it bad to get to the root of the problem.

  21. A very interesting post. As a historian I see what people have done in the past, and it always comes down to who won, because they write the history books. Sometimes, evil acts are watered down, or totally ignored.
    Also, as you mentioned, it is normal for people to portray their enemy as evil. It is a way to gather support. Over time, the world evil looses it meaning.
    The worse scenario, is when we are faced with true evil, we do nothing about it, mostly because of fear and self preservation. We sit by, because we are not the ones who are threatened. Einstein got it right when he said: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.”

  22. Interesting post and discussion. I agree we need to look at underlying issues and injustices and work to make the world a fairer place. Labelling something as evil can be a way to avoid doing that or to elicit support for other actions that cannot be considered “good”. I believe there is evil in the world, but there are also complex issues underneath much of what we label as such. It is hard to say what each of us might be capable of (good and bad) in hard-to-imagine circumstances. Dealing with the issues is hard and blaming something or someone as the evil thing responsible can be an easy way to avoid it.

  23. How simple the world wound be if we could simply divide everybody and everything into good and evil. That's what religion in its simplist form tries to do. There is a book by Stamford professor Philip Zimbardo about this very thing. "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil" is based on what has become known as the Stamford Prison Experiment. A group of students who were substantially similar were divided into prisoners and prison guards and put in a simulated prison environment. Some of the "guards" became outright sadistic although nothing in their background would have led you to expect this. He also brings up a real life example, the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

  24. Catarina, I don't think "we the people" are turning a blind eye. Many in the USA cried out about the Syrian horrors when it first started. Likely you know, it was our leaders who decided to act in a way that took us down a worst path and further from a solution. I really don't know what the answer is but I do believe, it lies in our leaders.

    A few years ago a neighbor was dying of pancreatic cancer. On occasion I would bring some tea over to her. Toward the end she became very introspective. In taking advantage of how open she was about many things none of us like to think of when we're nearing death, I told her thought hate/evil and love we're at odds with each other. She told me she felt they were the same. Unfortunately I never got to ask her to discuss it the next time I was planning to visit to go further into that conversation.

    I say this to you Catarina because I think we need a Maharishi effect globally. And I honestly feel like we are moving toward that just unfortunately too slowly. Brilliant as usual
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  25. I don't agree that evil became fashionable after 9/11, mans inhumanity to man pre-dates Christ. There's no doubt in my mind that there are evil people in this world. And, you don't have to look at the extreme examples of evil people to be aware of their existence. Every day local newspapers are filled with home grown stories of malevolence. Labeling people is entirely different issue. But before we look toward the Western politicians to improve society, perhaps we need to pull the evil weeds from our own societal garden.
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  26. This is a really interesting topic Catarina, and you can tell you've struck a nerve with all the comments! I find that I both agree and disagree with some of your points, but I can sum it up here by saying that what matters are not the words we use, but the actions we take. When we start acting in love toward our neighbors, whether they be next door or around the world, then evil will start to lose its hold.

  27. I can see where the moniker “evil” is convenient but I agree, things just aren’t that simple. The acts that we deem evil are definitely egregious and often horrifying but if they are a means to an end are they “evil”? One man’s floor is another man’s ceiling, even if we find that floor to be horrific.

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