Saturday, January 7, 2012

Necessary Evil

In a comment to a recent post by a friend of a video interview of journalist and author Chris Hedges, I offered my observation that "Entities and systems are rarely good or evil."

Hedges, who identifies himself as a socialist, is a harsh critic of what he perceives to be the betrayal of America by the liberal Left. Hedges chastises the Left for failing to adhere to its own ethical beliefs and work towards achieving meaningful and radical change to restructure the social and economic infrastructure of America so as to perpetrate true equality and access to resources for all Americans.

I agree with Hedges that liberalism hasn't exactly made radical changes in America but I don't view the Left as a sellout, in cahoots with corporate America to trample on the heads of the little people. Hedges believes in absolutes; he is quick to classify institutions, businesses, and economic systems as evil.

I found that to be an oversimplification; hence my observation that entities and systems are rarely good or evil.  My statement wasn't readily understood by other readers and I feel compelled to further explain my line of thinking.

The terms good and evil denote some type of intentional and chosen path of behavior. I reserve those terms for descriptors of human behavior. A lion kills a gazelle.The act is neither good nor evil but an instinctive desire to feed.

I think that it allows humans to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our actions when we attribute intent and desire to non-human creatures or things.

For example, variations of the declaration that "War is a necessary evil" have been repeated throughout recorded history. It allows us to declare that some wars are good wars. The Roman Catholic Church went so far as to declare that some wars had God's blessing and were indeed, holy wars. It has also allowed us to regard war as inevitable and devote very little energy to the avoidance or prevention of war. After all it's a necessity, can't be helped. We totally avoid tackling head on that we create wars and what we create, we can choose not to create. We continue blissfully fighting these "necessary" wars as if there really were an Ares who decides when humans shall engage in wars.

When we attribute anthropomorphic qualities to systems and events, declare them to be good or evil, we abdicate human responsibility for control of those systems and entities. They are neither good nor evil, they are simply what we permit them to be and if we want them changed,we first have to accept our collective responsibility for allowing those systems and entities to get out of control in the first place.

We have met the enemy and he is us.--Walt Kelly


Nance said...

I've read about half of Hedges' The World As It Is and have dropped in on his blog off and on. He articulates the socialist perspective well, but he stoops to bathos from time to time and manages to make me feel guilty for even a modicum of pragmatism.

On a recent trip to DC to visit the Occupy gathering there, we stayed with older friends. Our host is an educated, intellectual liberal who had suddenly turned disgusted and embittered with liberalism in America since we saw him last. He handed us this book and asked why we were wasting our time on OWS, a doomed writhing of the masses ground under the heel of America's so-called liberal Democratic party. I was shocked and borrowed the book to get through as much as I could in our three days with our friends.

Alarmed by his sudden shift of stance, I asked our host, "But you are planning to vote, aren't you?" (He votes in SC, as do we.) He answered, "Oh, sure. I'll throw my vote away. It's useless." And I argued that, to the extent Hedges is right (and the man can strike some chords!), I still must choose my stand in the time I have left as a citizen and I believe that stand matters. The alternative is unthinkable. And he argued that, in America, it no longer matters who wins and the sooner we sink ourselves, the sooner cometh the revolution. I think he had become a total Hedges convert and he believed Hedges didn't condone half measures. I'm sad to report that we parted under this cloud and haven't had a chance to make it better yet.

Two days later, after we were back home, Chris Hedges came out as an unequivocal champion of Occupy Wall Street and seemed ready to enthrone himself as their public voice. I wonder how my friend took it.

Can institutions be evil? I think McEachern makes a good argument at the Zone that the culture of institutions can be evil. For me, the bigger question is whether the Chris Hedges of the world play a useful, positive role in moving the institutional or party conversation toward greater humanitarianism. I say they can, but it must be very, very careful not to slop over into becoming cheerleaders for Armageddon. Chris Hedges plays a little fast and loose with that razor's edge. It's not easy to exhort without inciting or embittering.

I applaud your thoughtful, tempering line of reasoning here.

Sheria said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nance.

I have been taken aback by the number of intelligent liberals that I encounter who have sunken into a black abyss where the message on the entrance is "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here."

In spite of my propensity for visiting the blues far too often, I'm not ready to accept that America is doomed.

I agree with Edge's observation on the Zone, Corporate cultures are surprisingly enduring and pernicious and survive entire leadership and management changes.

Where I disagree is that this is evidence that non-human entities are good or evil. They are what we shape them to be. The reason that I think it is imperative to make the distinction is because it's our willingness to attribute intent and purpose to inanimate structural organization systems that allows us to abdicate responsibility for the actions and policies of those entities. Ultimately, we, human beings, are the authors of good or evil. The ability of a corrupt corporate culture to survive beyond the terms of those who initiated such a culture is only a sign that the practices and policies that created such a culture are being continued by those who follow those who originated such a culture.

In my thinking, declaring systems or entities to be evil does nothing to eradicate such structures. Instead it allows us to declare our inability to control such evil. To address making critical change we must first fully acknowledge that any "evil" that exists is of our own making. What we do, we have the wherewithal to undo.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

I do not believe entities are evil, just selfish and self-centered.

The Edge Columns said...

OK, enough already. It would be foolish for me to propose that inanimate entities have goodness or evil. However, we humans build intent into our machines. Handguns, for example, are not designed to hammer nails (at least not primarily).

Organizations ARE vessels for human intention.

As to Hedges, there has been a lot of ad hominem criticism of him, but he seems to be one of the few Americans willing to investigate the actual borders of American exceptionalism. That takes guts.

Sure, it may seem bleak, even hopeless. But looking at the corporate-commercial coma holding citizens in thrall, I think a few more Hedges types might actually be useful.

Don't we already have more than enough apologists for the operators of the present control structures?

It's BECAUSE of Hedges and a few others like him that I am beginning to actually find hope.

Sheria said...

Edge,I never think of you as foolish. We aren't that far apart. I agree that organizations are vessels for human intention. The reason that I nitpick about assigning human qualities to the entities themselves is because I think that it allows us to create the fiction that it is the entities that are evil and that we have no control over them. We then tell ourselves that we can't do anything about the consequences wrought by the entity. I see it as a matter of taking responsibility for those organizations that negatively impact people.

As for Hedges, I think that he points out mcuh that is true but I also think that he fails to do much more than point out the problems but fails to suggest that there are any solutions short of tossing out the entire system.

I just don't think that it takes a lot of guts to continually point out failings; I think it takes a a whole lot more guts to recognize the deficiencies, point them out, and offer paths towards solutions. Pessimism merely begets pessimism.