Don’t be evil, says Google’s famous motto. But what is evil?
We tend to look to fiction for examples to help answer questions like that. (Mine own most-hated fictional villain: Mrs. Coulter in His Dark Materials.) But many people, including Maisonneuve’s Rebecca Rosenblum, argue that in the real world, villains don’t exist. An illustrative quote from her article: “I don’t think people, even assholes, generally perceive themselves to be assholes. I mean, some people just *are* but I don’t think *they* think they are.”
This has always struck me as pure failure of imagination, akin to those who argued after the World Trade Center fell that its attackers must have had good reason, because they literally couldn’t imagine anyone doing such a thing without good reason.
Well, I can. I’ve corresponded with evil. Evil, to me, is perfect handwriting.
By which I mean: A few years ago I was researching San Quentin Prison for my book Cannibals and Thieves (on which work still continues, in fits and starts) and struck up a brief correspondence with a Death Row inmate convicted of doing terrible things. Evil things, one might say. He wrote me a couple of letters. They were intelligent. They were eloquent. And his handwriting was perfect. Scarily so.
This complicates my social life. As a rule, I prefer people who think that those who disagree with them politically are ignorant to people who think those who disagree with them are evil. (You find the latter type throughout the political spectrum.) Trouble is, some people really are evil. A former San Quentin prisoner I interviewed put it another way: “Don’t get me wrong. There are some bad, bad men in there. But most are just fuckups.”
He’s right; most people who do bad things are not evil. But at the same time, the genuinely bad, bad men (and women) are out there, for real. A long time ago, in a Usenet far away, a fellow with the handle of Ahasuerus defined evil as “perfect egoism,” and chose Liane in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth as its SF exemplar. (You’ll find some interesting 15-year-old commentary from tor.com’s own Jo Walton behind that link, too.) Works for me.
And for whatever reason, we love to hear stories about these perfect egoists. Serial killers are the most stark and extreme example of individual evil, and fictional ones outnumber real ones by something like a thousand to one. I too doubt that evil people wake up and think “Today I’m going to be Evil!” I doubt they think about their own morality at all. Maybe that lack of metacognition is what fascinates us so. Maybe on one level we all wonder what it would be like to be a monster.
Individual evil is bad; societal evil is worse, and harder to define, because it’s an ever-moving target. Even JK Rowling touches on this dichotomy. While everyone is running around fighting Evil Evil Voldemort, Hermione is trying to free the house-elves, whose cruel slavery everyone else takes for granted. I don’t know how this subplot turns out (I never got around to reading the seventh book in the series) but it was easily the most subversive thing about Harry Potter.
We watch Mad Men and cackle with relieved horror at the unquestioned institutionalized evils—racism, sexism, homophobia—of fifty years ago. But it won’t be long before society looks back at today in exactly the same way. In David Brin’s Earth, he speculates that the desire for privacy will be considered grossly evil. Me, I bet they’ll be as appalled by our meat-eating ways as we are by tales of segregation. (And I say this as a proud omnivore.)
What else about us will make future societies recoil with moral horror? I suspect there’s plenty… or at least I hope so. Because, well, consider the alternative. What if this is as good as it gets?
Jon Evans is the author of Dark Places and Invisible Armies, and the upcoming Vertigo graphic novel The Executor. He also occasionally pretends to be a swashbuckling international journalist. His epic fantasy novel Beasts of New York is freely available online under a Creative Commons license, and will be published on paper this autumn.