Monday, March 3, 2014

The Grammar of Good and Evil

Why do humans screw each other over?  We know the answer has something to do with evil, which we tend to treat like a physical object we can eliminate through violence, a fat finned beast we might someday kill off for once and for all, and we’ve been boating around since the dawn o' time muttering about how we're going to do just that. Much like Ahab and his whale, we get so focused on our personal need to eradicate evil, we quickly lose sight of all else and fall in thrall of a suicidal mission. Why? Because Good vs. Evil is simple. There are only two elements, and it's clear which one should win. We can proceed confidently and fearlessly, a hard thing to do in these complex and multifaceted times. I understand that yearning. I miss it too, sometimes.

C’mon, Ishmael. Just tell him. “I don’t think you’re crazy, but-"

Fortunately, we have some things to aid us in talking down the crazed Captain Ahab in our heads. The torch of science has finally begun to illuminate some unmistakable patterns in the tapestry of history. The path to freedom has been hiding in plain sight, and it all comes down to grammar.

Who’s the nazi now?

Little known fact: good and evil are adverbs. They’re not adjectives. We’ve been trying to use them as adjectives all this time, and it’s been hella confusing for our super monkey brains. In case you haven’t visited (awesome grammar/humor site) The Oatmeal in a while: 

adjectives apply to things, and adverbs apply to actions.

People can do good or evil, but they can’t be good or evil, because good and evil are not actual traits. When you say someone is a "good person" what you mean is (deep breath) "the amalgamation of all of the actions I personally know them to have taken, combined with my personal take on those actions, what inspired them, and the impact they had on others according to my special vantage point, leads me to assume that all, or most, of this person's actions will also align with my moral universe, priorities, and sense of my own welfare."

Good. Evil. Simple terms, right? Very uncomplicated. Very black and white. Still, this seems like a dangerous thing to oversimplify.  Especially considering that people aren't static-they change continuously. We're all making moment-to-moment course adjustments our entire lives, trying to exist better, whatever that means. By the time you've said that x is a "good person" you have no idea whether that's even true in the terms of the complicated set of equations you're putting it through.

Here’s a riddle: A Republican kills an abortionist and then immediately saves a gay atheist child from drowning.  Is he a good person or a bad person?

Are you there, God? It’s us, humanity.

Have you locked in your answer?

The correct response is neither. The man is neither good, nor bad. One of his actions was good, and one of them was bad. People are possibilities, not magnets. We don’t maintain constant positive or negative states.

Ninety percent of our stories are desperate attempts to communicate this message to ourselves, but we’re so busy making wagers about Judgment Day to put it together. It’s 2014 and we’re still punishing each other for existing incorrectly while letting criminals who actually hurt people, (often lots and lots of people), entirely off the hook.

Unconvinced? Here are some reasons you should think about changing your mind.

1. It’s the Cause of Nearly All Human Conflict

As we go through the world, unconsciously assessing everything around us so we know how to deal with it,  “good” and “evil” are useful labels to help us decide whether to give people the stinkeye or a high five--right?

We’ve always had a hard time telling our ideological enemies apart from our mortal enemies—we tend to extend less love in general to the people, groups, and ideas which seem the furthest and most opposite to our own way of life, whether or not they’ve ever actually done anything bad to us. And they are less generous with us. We're cautious of each other's intentions. We fear annihilation. Human societies do not have the best treats vs. tricks record in regards to engaging with new, strange people they meet.

Those gay unicorns are going to turn us all into Lisa Frank fans!

So we look at people who are different than us as potential enemies. And they notice all of the crusties we’re shooting them and start thinking of us as enemies. We treat them poorly, because that’s how you treat enemies. They react by treating us poorly. Soon our enemies are doing really very evil things to us, and never mind that we’re doing really evil things to them as well, because we have our proof. Boom. They’re evil. We were right all along. They do evil things because they’re evil people. Not like us. The only reason we do evil things is to prevent evil.

 The sequel to "Mein Kampf": "Deine Schuld"

Yes, there are a handful of folks out there who get their boners drinking human blood and torturing baby seals. As science continues to reveal to us, this largely comes down to genes and mental illness—not some secret evil inside which we can never understand, only kill. And in any case, the rest of us most definitely outnumber the psychopathic megalomaniacs—it only looks like they’re a significant threat because they’re running things, while the rest of us chase our own tails playing the good/evil game. You know, because unlike them, we care about each other’s opinions. 

Which brings us to…

2. It’s a Waste of Time

It is directly due to wasting so much time on the giant, ongoing collective effort to establish whether we, and one another, are definitively good or evil that so many of our most basic problems persist.

Why? Because, like the child king of the Iron Throne, even when society’s edicts are insane and sadistic, the judgments hold. Just look at race. The fact that it’s a whimsically imaginary category has not kept it from having crazy serious consequences in the real world.

You are free to go, Mr. Zimmerman.

So, instead of curing cancer with marijuana, we’re running around hiding it from one another. Instead of deposing the self-annihilating humans who wrote Citizens United (best unironic use of DoubleSpeak in history?) we congratulate them on being so much better than us at getting and holding onto money. Instead of eliminating human trafficking, we unfriend each other for talking too much about human suffering, because who do you think you are? Mother Theresa?

“What, you think you’re better than me? You’re not a good person. You have too much sex to be a good person.“

Just think of all the time we spend worrying about whether we’re good according to other people, and whether other people are quite evil enough for us to treat them poorly and still consider ourselves good. All of the pointless wondering about whether certain of our innate desires and fears make us innately evil, or whether our innately good desires and fears balance them out.

Just think if all of that mental energy were directed towards actual good deeds, instead of the constant struggle for dominance in an imaginary hierarchy.


3. We Mostly Get It Wrong Anyway

It takes little more than a commercial with a bunch of cute kids and puppies to lead the unsuspecting masses to buy products made in sweatshops for the sexy, all-American corporations who outsourced our jobs because that down-to-earth politician let them.

It’s almost as though we think that puppies and kids, like happiness, can’t be bought.

“Please don’t buy us!”

We put the “good” stamp on priests, because they think about God all the time and never have sex, ever. That extra trust is part of what gave them the room and opportunity to abuse a bunch of little boys. Who better to take care of innocent, trusting children than the sexually repressed men who claim to know what God wants? But it’s not just priests—one of the things you hear over and over again from the communities and families of people and children who have been raped and murdered, is “I never would have guessed. They seemed like such a nice person.” Just because you've labeled someone "good" in your mind, doesn't mean they are magically incapable of doing anything bad.

But evil? Hoo boy, the evil stamp. Historically, we’ve used it for one reason, and one reason only—as an excuse to stop treating humans like humans. Step one: find a reason to call somebody Evil. Step two: dissociate ourselves from their well-being and humanity. Step three: satisfy the depths of our sadistic curiosity.

“You torture for the good times! We should all admit that.”

There is no excuse for dehumanizing other people. Regardless of what is done to us, we are still accountable for our own behavior, including all repercussions.

Stop using "good" and "evil" as adjectives. It's iffy even to use them as adverbs. After all, "what is good to the spider is evil to the fly" or whatever.

This message is nothing new. It’s in the Old Testament (by their fruits shall ye know them, i.e. don't focus on proclaimed identity, focus on actions), it IS the New Testament (leave the judging to me—you guys just work on loving each other, mmkay?), and the point of Moby Dick, a book severely ahead of its time. The pursuit of a physical embodiment of evil is both pointless and self-destructive. It doesn’t exist. Moby Dick is just a whale. Let’s all do our best to love each other, take accountability for our own actions, and leave the labeling to our gods.

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