Friday, August 8, 2008

A Question of Evil

[Warning: minor Dark Knight spoiler in the following paragraph.]

I've now seen The Dark Knight three times. It's an awesome movie on basically every level. The thing that I love most about it, however, is the sheer ambiguity of the moral, if you could even say the movie has one. The place where it absolutely fascinates me as a conversation starter is when the Joker explains his purpose (and, seriously, Heath Ledger's untimely death depresses me a great deal now because no actor has understood the Joker as a character better than he did. That understanding undoubtedly came with a great deal of help from Christopher Nolan, but I doubt there are too many actors who could even come close to duplicating that). He describes himself basically as an agent of chaos, a disruptor of plans. He points out that as long as everything is going to plan we're all happy, even if the plan itself is horrible. If gangsters or soldiers die, that's okay, because gangsters and soldiers are supposed to die. But if the life of someone who isn't supposed to die is threatened, well, then, that throws everything off. We can't handle it. It's Nolan's and Ledger's understanding of this truth that created the brilliance of the movie. If superheroes are the modern gods, then they made the Joker in to the Trickster. And, as so often happens with Tricksters, be they Loki or Lucifer, in creating chaos the Joker creates evil.

Which brings me to Lance Morrow's Evil: An Investigation. I picked the book up over the weekend and have just started reading it. His intro and first two chapters have brought up a lot of interesting thoughts that I feel like developing. For anyone who has read or is thinking of reading the book, I'm assuming that my thoughts will probably cover a lot of the ground that he'll cover. However, Morrow is a journalist and, as he says in the subtitle, is approaching the subject from the perspective of an investigation. I tend to approach this sort of thing as a historian and storyteller, so I'm guessing I'll look at it a little differently.

Oh, and as a former Christian who could be (has been?) declared an evil heathen, I've probably got some thoughts on evil from that corner.

One of the things that Morrow brings up early on is that evil has a tendency to change. It becomes what the culture it inhabits is. This has an interesting effect, then, on any attempt to evaluate it, as one culture's definition of evil might be different than another's. The inverse, too, is much more difficult, as our definition of good is equally amorphous. To us the story of Ancient Culture A slaughtering all the people in City B is horrifying. To Ancient Culture A, however, that was how things worked. City B probably would have done the exact same thing had the situation been reversed.

We find that sort of thing unconscionable now, even as we maintain the thought processes that would bring it about. This is the rhetoric of the "Global War on Terror." It was also the rhetoric of the fight against Communism. If we don't kill the terrorists, they'll kill us. Here's the problem, though. The terrorists may well want us all dead. We may well have to kill each and every one of them to be safe. But lots of non-terrorists will be killed or forced to suffer from the fallout. This is where the moral ambiguity of the conflict between good and evil becomes readily apparent. How much evil are we willing to create in the service of good? How can we be sure that we're creating good, anyway? As its opposite, how much good will come of evil deeds? How do we know that the deeds themselves are evil?

There really aren't too many good answers to these questions, which is why I think they're the ones that need to be asked and examined. There may not be a "right" answer or a satisfying, comprehensive explanation to any question of evil, but I think there is quite a bit that we can learn about ourselves and those we choose to befriend or elect as leaders according to how they answer them. Anyone who sees the universe as a black and white, monolithic struggle between two sides who are wholly one or the other should be looked at with a skeptical eye (and, for the record, this is one of the many other excellent things about Dark Knight. The White Knight/Dark Knight interplay might have had a bit of overwrought exposition attached to it, but the actual characterization and interplay was surprisingly subtle, especially since the light v. dark imagery wasn't good v. evil, it was a conflict between two conceptions of how to do good. Also, if you run in to any of those articles about how "Batman" is actually "George W. Bush," ignore them. People who make that claim don't know their ass from a hole in the ground and understand nothing about Batman as a comic character with a long history as something of an anti-Superman. They're also forced to completely ignore a particular scene in a dark alley with Harvey Dent to make that claim). Really, some of the worst things in history have been done by those who think that they are the "good guys" and, therefore, all of their actions are inherently good. One of the concepts that comes up often in Craig Ferguson's Between the Bridge and the River is that evil doesn't question itself. I think this is as good a starting point as any.

The character of Ben in Lost is one of the most compelling television characters I've ever seen. He does any number of horrible things or orders the people around him to do horrible things and never questions his actions (well, except that one time, but he instantly started blaming others for what happened after, which is another thing to consider) and when people ask him why they should do what he wants his answer is always, "We're the good guys." He is the epitome of the idea of evil not asking questions of itself. [Spoiler Alert]I have a theory that this concept plays in to the death of Locke. But it's necessary to understand the difference between John Locke and Jeremy Bentham to run through that difference. Also, that's neither here nor there for the moment.[End Spoiler] I've come to genuinely like Ben and think that he's possibly the most internally consistent character on television. He does what he thinks is right with no regrets and no questions and manages to be completely creepy and more than a little evil in the process. It's good stuff, really.

Is it fair to say, though, that unquestioned actions, even in the name of good, create evil? This one is easier to handle, because the answer in many cases is "Yes." We have a ready-made list of those activities: the Spanish Inquisition, destruction of native peoples at the hands of colonists, the fire-bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. To that we can add in accidental evils, like when an artillery round or bomb goes astray and hits an apartment block instead of an infantry company. To that, too, I would argue that we can add the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the slaughter of Tutsis at the hands of the Hutu in Rwanda and even Auschwitz and Dachau. This is one of those things that will probably get me in trouble, but in each of these cases I would make the argument that the suffering, death, and evil caused weren’t made as the decision of a cartoony supervillain twirling his mustache and smiling with glee, but as a person saying, “This is necessary to achieve what we need.” It’s why we must confront the Nazi bureaucracy of death and the horrifying image of Hutu armed with machetes hacking apart Tutsis for hours, then breaking for lunch, then returning to the killing.

Because inasmuch as we would like to believe that we are the innocent victims of evil or crusaders against it, most of the actual perpetrators of evil are regular people, just like you and me (which is another place where I loved Dark Knight. It wasn’t so much a happy movie, but it was an idealistic movie that still depicted moral ambiguity). Furthermore, I believe that most people are like Benjamin Linus of Lost, committing evil and explaining it away with the words, “We’re the good guys.” It’s true that there are some genuine sociopaths out there and some who really just want to “watch the world burn,” to use Alfred’s turn of phrase. For those people I can say very little.

But for the regular evils, whether tiny or incomprehensibly vast, there is much that can and must be said. The first thing we must do, however, is confront our own attitudes of how evil is and how it works. For that we need to break apart what I call the Star Wars-ification of evil.

See, Star Wars has an oversimplified concept of good and evil that works quite effectively to illustrate our own conceptions. There’s the Force, which runs through everything. On one side you have the Light Side and the other you have the Dark Side. Your choices, then, are to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. There is no nuance, no in between. Furthermore, there are a list of attitudes and emotions that lead from the Light Side to the Dark side. Fear and anger are to be avoided because apparently the next stop is a red lightsaber and a desired to choke people who disagree with you.

On one level, sure, I can see that. If I’m afraid and angry I can do things I’ll regret. However, fear can also lead to courage and courage to a new sense of personal strength. Anger properly directed can lead to a change in the way things are done. Moreover, someone who spends their entire life avoiding those theoretical negative emotions will then lack the ability to empathize with those who do become fearful and angry.

It’s really too bad that the prequel trilogy doesn’t actually exist, or I’d be able to use it for illustrative purposes here. Ah, well, I’ll try, anyway. Pretend that before Star Wars trilogy the Jedi were led by a Council that sat in a big room and operated as a sort of extra-governmental warrior priesthood and were completely incapable of seeing that the future Emperor Palpatine was, like, hanging out right next to them and working to undermine them and corrupt this one really powerful Jedi kid who was actually probably a robot programmed by an autistic kid who had only ever heard human language from pornographic videos. Are you with me so far? Good. Pretend, too, that Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi are, like, powerful and respected Jedi in this scenario who personally know Palpatine and aren’t paying any attention.

Anyway, Palpatine destroys the system while the all-powerful Jedi get caught completely unprepared and are slaughtered. Robo-Jedi gets converted because he’s a self-centered, power hungry little prick and nobody notices that this is a bad thing because they’re all too busy trying to be perfectly Light Sided little Jedi.

I think it can be said that there is a point we try to avoid acknowledging whenever evil comes up. We want to believe that evil is the Dark Side awaiting an explosion of anger or jealousy to sneak in and take over or the Devil prowling on the outside, looking for a graceless moment to enter. We don’t want to take responsibility for something that should be obvious. Good and evil don’t exist in some other plane, they exist in all of us.

Either way, I’ve rarely been more fascinated by a book than I am by Lance Morrow’s Evil: An Investigation. So I think I’m going to occasionally write on the topic. Because the thing that’s most interesting to me isn’t that I feel like Morrow has it all figured out and I’m learning at his knee. I strongly disagree with him on any number of things, not the least of which is the fact that he seems to be more than willing to externalize evil.


Tayi said...

I'm curious: as your philosophy has changed from Christian to non, has your definition of evil changed?

This is one of the more challenging questions I've considered as I've thought about the implications of my lack of belief on God, and I'm interested to see what you think.

Geds said...

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: but probably not in the ways or to the degree that might be expected. That's kind of why I'm so fascinated by Morrow's book. He uses a lot of highly Christian imagery and turns of phrase in his description and, although I don't disagree with the points he's making in a lot of those cases, the phrasing tends to bug me.

But, yeah, I've spent my time up until now trying to figure out what I still consider "good" and considering a positive morality. Now I'm finding the concept of evil highly challenging, too.

Fiat Lex said...

I always go back to this thing my dad was fond of saying about sin. Little factoid I always think everybody knows already. It was an archery term for a miss that was so far off the mark it didn't hit the target at all. So a sinful or evil deed would be one that completely misses the point.

Of course that doesn't help anybody agree on what the point actually is. Is the point of life to obey the rules someone came up with after trying to interpret an ancient sacred tome? Is the point of life to be hedonistic and as relaxed and comfortable as humanly possible? Is the point of life to wield as much power and might as possible over one's fellow people, and make sure they know you're more powerful than them? Once a person has picked their religion, their reason to live and strive, anything that takes them away from it is going to be evil as far as they're concerned.

That why I always want to get people into discussions of definition of terms, and am bummed that no one seems to want to. Once you have clearly defined what it is you each think you're talking about, most people, most of the time would find they have nothing real to argue about.

The Rush Blog said...

"See, Star Wars has an oversimplified concept of good and evil that works quite effectively to illustrate our own conceptions. There’s the Force, which runs through everything. On one side you have the Light Side and the other you have the Dark Side. Your choices, then, are to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. There is no nuance, no in between. Furthermore, there are a list of attitudes and emotions that lead from the Light Side to the Dark side. Fear and anger are to be avoided because apparently the next stop is a red lightsaber and a desired to choke people who disagree with you."

I think that your description of the Force in STAR WARS is oversimplified. You really need to rethink the above statement. You're saying that the Jedi's view of the Force is the same as Lucas', without realizing that through the events of the story, Lucas was contradicting the Jedi's view. I don't think you were paying attention.

The Rush Blog said...

By the way, I also saw THE DARK KNIGHT. I saw it three times. Although I think it was one of the better movies of the summer, it could have done without that ludicrous last half hour.

Geds said...

As for the Jedi, I think as with everything else, Lucas ruined a good philosophy with the movies that never happened. There was just so little that made sense in the pre-trilogy.

And, yeah, Dark Knight did get a bit anvilicious towards the end. I would have cut out the last monologue, but thought the stuff in the busted warehouse was important as a whole.

The Rush Blog said...

As for the Jedi, I think as with everything else, Lucas ruined a good philosophy with the movies that never happened. There was just so little that made sense in the pre-trilogy.

Hmmm . . . I say BULLSHIT to that. George Lucas proved that he knew more about moral ambiguity that Christopher Nolan could possibly imagine.