Tuesday, February 3, 2009

When Evil Is Cool

What is it about evil that attracts human beings? It is the opposite of good, destructive of everything human beings hold dear, and find necessary for survival individually and as a species. All our large sociological constructs are ordered toward mitigating its destructive tendencies—religion and politics to be sure, social manners and mores, but even society itself, and civilization, can be said to be arrayed against evil and in favor of moral norms that favor not just human survival but human flourishing. The protection of women and children, of marriage and family, of trustworthiness and honest dealing, truth telling, are universally central to human societies.

So, the question again—if evil is so easily recognized as an existential threat, why is it so pervasive? The dogmatic answer (and I cast no aspersions on the word or the concept of dogma) is that Original Sin corrupts us so thoroughly that evil is second nature—actually, according to the Bible, it is our first nature. In this light, the question becomes, how is it that any good exists in the world? And again, the dogmatic response is “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” We are made in His image, and not even the god of this world can completely efface that image, try as he might. Yet evil seems to be the reigning characteristic of this world.

Judea Pearl, the father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, writes in today’s WSJ (Feb 3, 09) on the seventh anniversary of his murder, of the acceptance of evil by the academic and journalist elite.

But somehow, barbarism, often cloaked in the language of "resistance," has gained acceptance in the most elite circles of our society. The words "war on terror" cannot be uttered today without fear of offense. Civilized society, so it seems, is so numbed by violence that it has lost its gift to be disgusted by evil.

The “gift” of being able to be disgusted by evil has been a long time in being sloughed off. Perhaps the point marking the serious turn toward evil was the advent of the “new journalism” of Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song), both of whom made the cool, dispassionate observation and depiction of murder by cool dispassionate murderers seem like the setting of a new baseline for analysis. Drawing on the wired-in impulse toward the grotesque and the evil, first pointed out by Plato—he has Leontius in the Republic unable to look away from the floating corpses at the seaport of Athens—journalism, philosophy, and literary criticism have, as Dr Pearl titles his piece, “normalized” evil, even made it respectable as a response by the “Other” to the pc litany of charges against the West. Philosophy trickles down—what is germinated in seminars, conferences, and books takes root and spreads across society, taking in an ever larger expanse of society. Thus, it was not long after Foucault’s celebration of the Marquis de Sade (Discipline and Punish) before the bloodiest, most hideous, graphic, and pornographic murder thrillers were on offer from Hollywood, soon becoming campy, ironic parodies of themselves, offered up as little more than cartoons for social touch-points for knowing teens.

Roger Shattuck analyses evil into four categories: natural evil—weather catastrophes, plagues, and the like; and three sub-types of human evil:

Moral evil refers to actions undertaken knowingly to harm or exploit others in contravention of accepted moral principles or statutes within a society.

Radical evil applies to immoral behavior so pervasive in a person or a society that scruples and constraints have been utterly abandoned;…evil so extreme that it can no longer recognize its own atrocity. Lenin stated it forcefully: "The dictatorship means -- learn this once and for all -- unrestrained power based on force, not on law."

Metaphysical evil designates an attitude of assent and approval toward moral and radical evil, as evidence of superior human will and power. Thus forms of evil arising from human agency are given a status as inevitable -- effectively a reversion to natural evil.

Shattuck argues that the postmodern philosophical obsession with overturning truth and all objectively recognized standards, arising in the first instance from its worship of the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, is what has led to what Judea Pearl calls the normalization of evil. In academic parlance, it is the elevation and valorization of “transgression.” It is in this atmosphere that evil has gotten for itself the name of the good, or at least the “cool.” Thus, all the university courses featuring masturbation, pole dancing, prostitution, and pornography offered in our most prestigious institutions; the long since established argot of “cool”, where “bad”, “wicked”, and even “evil” are descriptors not just socially acceptable, but indicative of one’s cultural bone fides. (The reductio in my mind is “Bad Girls of the Bible”, an attempt to appropriate the current cultural nomenclature for use in a bible study for church ladies).

All of pop culture seems to have been given over to evil and all its works: heavy metal music (note the allusion is to poison), and even “death metal”; rap music’s glorification of every pathology in existence; most of Hollywood’s production for the past thirty years; comic books, and on and on—dozens of other examples have no doubt come to your mind already. The continuous struggle between good and evil is of course the central element in all of literature and poetry, from the dawn of civilization; but the viewpoint has changed—compare Quenton Tarantino’s ironic distance and coolness in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, etc, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for a not untypical contrast.

We seem to be at a point in our civilization where we have succumbed to evil in its metaphysical sense—where forms of evil arising from human agency are given a status as inevitable -- effectively a reversion to natural evil. “People are evil—get used to it”, would be a slogan capturing the zeitgeist. Or, as this fellow’s T-shirt states) watch the whole video) , “Nice day to rob people.” In fact, as the video shows, many people actually prefer evil, as both Paul and James, following Jesus, aver.

Acceptance of evil is a characteristic of decadence, and Western societies are nothing if not decadent; thus evil is celebrated, goodness is denigrated and mocked.

Perhaps it has always been so. But never with so much cool.


Mike Austin said...

Dear Mr. Kildow:

Well said. I might add that Evil is now so brazen, so bold, so in-your-face that it scarcely finds the need to cloak itself as a Good. One may take a cursory look at the Bible and come away with some moral absolutes, but then see these very same things laughed at and disparaged in this brave new world of ours.

Benjamin Shaw said...

I'd agree with most of the comment. However, it is not clear that "heavy metal" in reference to music is an allusion to the poisonous heavy metals. Instead it probably traces back through Steppenwolf's "heavy metal thunder" in Born to be Wild, which in itself references William Burroughs, whose own reference to "heavy metal" connected it with addictive drugs. The Steppenwolf allusion is also probably intended to refer to the noise of Harley-Davidson-type motorcycles, popularized the movie Easy Rider.

harold said...

I knew about the Speppenwolf reference--that was one of my favorite songs as a kid--and I think its the first use of the term in the genre. I also knew of Borrough's use, though only tangentially. But still I believe the chemical/elemental origin lies behind the appropriation by Boroughs and John Kay of Steppenwolf.

David C. Innes said...

The good doctors Shaw and Kildow are way over my head on this one.