For those people in modern technological society who are becoming more and more secularized, it often becomes difficult to deal with the subject of evil. Evil seems to be an archaic concept related to religion and sin. A concept that is difficult to handle when trying to understand those people who manifest outrageously destructive antisocial behavior. Better to try and understand the more concrete causes of their actions, so that evildoers can be rehabilitated or else at least be vehicles to help us understand and prevent future occurrences of evil. From evil people, we can supposedly indirectly be inspired to act in right moral ways.
Nevertheless, a case can be made that, like practically everything else related to humans, notions of evil are intimately connected to the living environments in which people find themselves. In this article there will be a discussion of how the development of modern technology created a significant transformation in how evil was manifested.
Before modern technology started appearing, people were much more grounded in their living environment. The flowing blendable continual stimuli of more nature-based environments acted as the signals which activated the predisposition within individuals to form strong bonds not only with other people but within themselves. This strong internal bonding within a person allowed that person to develop a strongly coherent sense of self. The average traditional person experienced himself as being, in most cases, more truly together than people today. But the strong external bonding with other people – particularly family, friends and members of the community, clan, tribe, and village – made it difficult for that person to define himself as an entity apart from these other people. The sense of self was strong on internal coherence and weak on external definition. The weakness on external definition meant that a person was constantly predisposed to lose his external definition to the point of becoming highly undifferentiated, becoming a more primitive, less conscious, less reflective animal, vulnerable to surges of flowing blendable continual emotions, and of flowing blendable continual ideas like witchcraft and sorcery. Also, a person was predisposed to having his individual identity swallowed up as a result of his obligations to family, friends, clan, tribe, community and village.
A person from a more traditional society would defend himself against this psychological undifferentiation through focused activities that generated friction. Many times these focused activities would involve aggressive behavior. Particularly for men, conflict in fighting and warfare or self-inflicted violence in initiation ceremonies or religious ceremonies was a means to generate external self-definition. So many of the activities involved in generating external self-definition were violent and destructive. Here is where we can formulate a broader notion of a “crime of passion”: a focused aggressive destructive action, the object of which is to hurt or kill a specific other person or persons. In the focusing and in the follow-through with the violent action, a person not only achieves his ostensive goal of hurting or killing another person with whom he has a grievance, but also is able to achieve greater self-definition.
Usually the term “crime of passion” has been used to designate someone who kills either his lover who has cheated on him or the person who is his lover’s other lover. A person loses control in his outrage and takes revenge accordingly. In some societies, this traditional sense of a crime of passion is considered a legitimate response to an emotionally painful situation. The perpetrator of this act is not punished. However, for the purposes of this article, “crime of passion” in a broader sense will be used to indicate any focused illegal aggressive action with a focused target that not only achieves its aim but that helps a person to strengthen, at least temporarily, his self-definition.
Evil in a traditional society is a designation for a person who feels constantly and intensely threatened with psychological undifferentiation, with losing his human self-definition, and who finds the only way he can fight this tendency is through constant focused defined discrete intensely destructive actions against other people. Being terribly hurtful towards other people or killing them provides crisp friction-filled events that work to focus such a person’s sense of self and set him apart from the people around him. Inside such an evil person is just a swirl of flowing blendable continual stimuli, emotions, sensations and ideas that threaten to tear him apart psychologically. The evil person in a traditional society has to hurt others, kill others, destroy others, so that he doesn’t end up destroying himself. He upsets the psychological expectations of other people, causing great concern in average people that any person could ever think of doing what is being done in an evil action. But if he didn’t continue to perform such heinous actions, his own world would collapse from bottled up explosions of flowing blendable continual emotions.
On the other hand, the person who seeks to pursue the good in traditional societies does so by transcendence above his animal tendencies. He immerses himself in a religious morality that allows him to achieve greater external self-definition by consciously following religious precepts. The fact that he has to reflect on his actions, particularly with respect to the consequences they may have for the wellbeing of others, is a stimulant to developing strong external self-definition for the good person.
So why can’t the traditional evil person just imitate the attitudes and actions of the good person and thus avoid hurting and destroying others. Because the traditional evil person is consumed by unusually strong flowing blendable emotions. His internalized emotional grounding threatens to swallow him up. This parallels the fact that in the external world, nature, which in its benign manifestations can offer people stable grounding in their living environment, can, in its malignant manifestations, through rot and decay and wild animals and natural disasters also threaten to both literally and metaphorically swallow people up. Which is why humans started on the long road to technological development – to protect themselves against organic perishability in nature.
Returning to the topic of evil, the traditional evil person has explosive emotional surges that are beyond the capacity of traditional morality to provide protection through transcendence. The only thing that remains is focused expressions of these destructive emotions with other people safely (for him) as their objects. The traditional evil person uses focused externalized undifferentiation to prevent his own internal destruction. That might sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms – focused undifferentation – but translated it means that he allows only a part of himself to undifferentiate into animalistic aggression and focuses that aggression outside of himself, so that he doesn’t explode apart from it.
As human living environments have been gradually transformed by the development of modern technology, so has the nature of human evil. Just as the traditional evil person was one who had internalized too much of the flowing blendable continual stimulation from natural environments and used evil acts as a means to expel this excessive stimulation to prevent his own undifferentiation, so the modern technological evil person is threatened as a result of too little flowing blendable continual stimulation – too little internal grounding – and the threat comes from falling apart in an experiential vacuum as a result of entropy. Entropy is literally the random distribution of atoms that occurs to matter in a vacuum. For the modern evil person, it means falling apart, sinking into numbness and a living death. The way that the modern evil person fights this numbness is by lighting a metaphorical match, creating a spark of life through extreme friction-filled criminal acts. The modern evil person has internalized too much of the experiential vacuum in which he lives and searches for strong friction in the external world to counteract it. He searches for it in any situation in which he can. The crimes of numbness that he commits are not focused the way that crimes of passion are for a more traditional evil person. Look at all the random mass shootings that are occurring today. Also, consider all of the anonymous scam and hack crimes that occur on the Internet. There, the perpetrator seldom makes any kind of direct sensory contact with his victim. There is no notion of spilling out strong emotion on the victim. The evil action is a totally mediated crime committed while trying to pull out of a state of numbness. And yet Internet criminals can take over a person’s identity and empty his bank accounts. These criminals can totally ruin a person’s life. And, in most cases, these perpetrators can end up ruining many, many lives
Everyone in modern society is suffering to some extent from numbness in an experiential vacuum today, but most people find ways to deal with it that don’t involve severely hurting other people. It is not that these ways of dealing with numbness are psychologically healthy. But for modern evil people who commit evil actions, the only thing that will pull them out of the extreme numbness they are experiencing is severely destructive acts against others.
Evil is one of those hard-to-pin-down words, and the meaning can shift from user to user. However, in this article, an attempt has been made to identify two general meanings for evil based on how an evil person is experiencing the world. It is apparent this approach would not be acceptable to many theologians and members of the clergy. But one of the themes that has been emphasized throughout many of the articles in this column is that traditional moral approaches may no longer be totally effective in a world that has been transformed by modern technology. Moral approaches may have to change, because evil, at least partly, has changed. Yes there are still people who commit traditionally evil acts today, crimes of passion in the broader sense that has been adopted for this article. However, more and more evil people today are committing crimes of numbness.
© 2016 Laurence Mesirow