It’s September again and presidents and pundits the world over are still clamoring to convince us who is evilest. Myself, I belong to the Oscar Wilde school of human nature: “It’s absurd,” Wilde once said, “to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”

Paul Wong
Aubrey Henretty, Neurotica

Maybe Wilde wasn’t willing to take “bad” as far as “evil,” but I am. And I will use his statement as a jumping-off point regardless, because that’s what literary witticisms are all about. Author intent gets an emphatic raspberry, I get a clever introduction and less than .03 percent of the population notices the difference. QED.

Most people cannot, when asked, provide an operational definition of “evil.” (“It’s … umm … well … it’s the opposite of good”). But they can make lists: Killing people for no reason (or for purely selfish reasons) is evil, rape is evil, abusing children is evil, hate is evil (except when hating evil itself; that’s allowed), communism is evil (what? Communism?). Rap music and Ouija boards (now you’re just being silly) are evil. Flying planes into civilian-inhabited buildings (that’s better) is evil.

The sound of self-righteous eye-rolling tells me it’s time to make one thing perfectly clear: What follows is not a bleeding-heart apologia for the violent and/or malicious things people do. None of the aforementioned “evils” – excepting rap and communism (the word is still out on Ouija boards) – are excusable. It is not OK to commit acts of mass destruction against civilians or to rape, murder or abuse. Not ever.

The trouble is, there’s no cadre of bad guys to blame, no National Association of Rapists, Racists, Religious Fundamentalists and Pedophiles on which to declare war. Human beings are complex and paradoxical, often surprising each other in terrifying ways. Our sons are convicted rapists, our grandparents don’t like black/white/brown/yellow/red people, our cousins just found The Religion Before Which All Other Religions Will Bow Reverently Or Pay The Price (In Blood) and our uncles run kiddie-porn websites out of their homes. Our best friends literally and metaphorically stab others in the back on a regular basis.

Our creative and destructive capacities are enormous: Libraries, Q-tips and M-16s. Marshmallows and tanks. We build things – big, useless things (e.g. the St. Louis Arch) – just for the hell of it. We have higher aspirations. We’ve been to the moon. We cheat on our taxes, our diets, our chemistry exams and our spouses. We like to eat sour gummy worms and blow things up. We drive drunk and wear golf pants.

This is not a testament to the diversity of the human race; the same people are responsible for all of this, for better and for worse. It’s just that you’re much more apt to forgive your grandfather for being a racist if he also taught you how to read and fish and throw a baseball and took you to the movies every Saturday, all of which is more than you can say for your local Grand Dragon. You’ll say something like, “Grandpa’s a good person. He was just raised that way,” as though there were not writers, orators, activists and thinkers of his generation who advocated racial tolerance and equality. As though his gentle laugh, endless patience and affinity for checkers somehow make it OK for him to disown you if he ever finds out you’ve been dating that black/white/brown/yellow/red person.

Evil is less a state of being than a rhetorical device, an explosive four-letter word guaranteed to perk up even the most apathetic set of ears. We say people are “good” if we’re looking to write off something bad they’ve done and we say they’re “bad” or “evil” if we’re looking to avenge it. We delude ourselves into thinking these labels are part of the grand moral scheme of things rather than see them for what they are: Rationalizations of our own feelings. Projections. It’s okay to hate evil, remember?

In this manner, Jerry Falwell, who vehemently disapproves of feminists, gay people, the American Civil Liberties Union and all religions other than Christianity, can be a phenomenal idiot and a bad person while your grandfather, who does precisely the same thing and is also a racist, can simply be misguided. Charming.

It is with this in mind that I watch those in power and those who seek it. Whatever else happens in this high-budget action drama, I hope the good guys come out on top.

Aurbrey Henretty can be reached at ahenrett@umich.edu.

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