I don’t really believe in evil as an absolute concept that exists outside of human consciousness. Evil is relative. Only humans have the capacity to intentionally inflict harm and actually understand the suffering of their victims (as far as I am aware! Clearly if intelligent aliens fly in tomorrow I will retract that statement). Therefore evil, to me, is a uniquely human construct and a matter of perception.
Where stories deal with supernatural expressions of evil, I tend to see them as one of two things: either a way to project a human evil on something external to humanity (like werewolves as symbols for the base, animal instincts in humans), or an experiment to see how humans will behave when an (imaginary) objective evil threatens them. (There are probably more variants but I can’t think of them right now). In “Perfect Soldiers”, for example, the evil isn’t so much the demonic beings—as problematic as they are for humankind—the evil lies in the choices made by the people trying to survive. I wanted to explore the ethics of the ways in which the humans were trying to overcome the supernatural evil. And that “evil” itself, in absolute, objective terms, isn’t evil at all, in the way that hurricanes or volcanic eruptions aren’t evil.
I’ve always been more terrified by stories that deal with the normalisation of human evils. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” struck at the very heart of my fears, that of the creeping normalisation of atrocities. Recently Kaaron Warren’s “Sky” (in Through Splintered Walls) had a similar effect. What evils are humans capable of in the name of culture and tradition? In deference to authority, and a desire to fit in, our nicest and most agreeable people will inflict pain and suffering on other human beings. We know this to be true in war (also here); when mob mentality rules; and in normal, civilised society.
We (in general terms of course, on a societal level) prize people who conform and who obey authority and are agreeable. If, then, evil is just a matter of relative value, of subjective judgement, and we’ve become blind to our society’s corruption (or convinced of a dire need that justifies morally questionable actions)… how then, are we to determine if an act is evil, or if it is actually good because it is necessary?
In the face of such uncertainty, it is little wonder so many story-tellers choose to project evil onto an external, supernatural figure. Viewing evil from a distance helps us to process and understand it, but we also run the risk of forgetting the source. Fighting the demons outside of us is easier than fighting the ones within.
What Came Before, and What Comes Next
For the first blog post in the Equilibrium Overturned “Uncovering Evil” blog tour, pop by and read JG Faherty’s thoughts on the matter of evil.
Next stop: Sean Eads, on the 15th of September.