“How easy it is to judge rightly after one sees what evil comes from judging wrongly.” (Gaskell, 2021)
Evil; Adjective: morally reprehensible (Merriam-Webster, 2021)
Let me see now, two weeks ago, it was fracking loose remnant thoughts of harboured prejudice, on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. Last week, it was admission of the unacceptable ignorance of indigenous issues here in Canada, on the heels of the heart-shattering discovery of 215 children’s bodies buried near the formal residential school in Kamloops. This week, as I have gone from first awareness of the senseless killing of a family in London, Ontario,by a 20 year old man who allegedly ran over five people, leaving all but one dead, to my current state of mind now, days after the event – I’m apoplectic, saddened, heartbroken, confused, disappointed. And, I am curious.
What I’m curious about is the source of this reprehensible behaviour. Where does evil come from?
Our curiosity should be working overtime these days, asking these hard questions about this hardened world in which we live. Not the types of questions of investigations and inquests – though those are vital of course – but rather, questions which dig beneath the roots. We know, for instance, that Derek Chauvin made a decision to pin George Floyd beneath his knee while apprehending him in Minneapolis May 25, 2020. We know that he did so long enough, and with enough force to murder Mr. Floyd, a conviction for which Chauvin will be sentenced later this month.
Though the events leading to the tragic London tragedy are still to play themselves out, we know that 20 year old Nathanial Veltman has been charged with the murder of four innocent people – using his truck as the murder weapon. We don’t have the omni-access of modern media and YouTube to account for how 215, of presumably thousands of First Nations children, lost their lives while in the care of Canada’s Residential School program. Paper records of the deceased have been destroyed or lost. This is not to suggest any of the native children buried in unmarked graves across Canada were murdered necessarily, but we do know at the very least, that their deaths and hundreds, maybe thousands more, were in some part related to this country’s cultural genocide of its First Nations people.
So, we have three very high profile news stories spilling out over the last month which have two things in common. Victims in all three cases are minorities, and morally reprehensible behaviour – evil - led to their deaths. To categorize them all as acts of racism, if not hatred, is not inaccurate, but my challenge, my curiosity compels me to go deeper. Doesn’t yours? What causes people to hate, and then to carry out such horrific acts against humanity.
I have called “curiosity” the gateway drug to the eight pillar competencies. You simply must possess it, and instinctively access it in order to effectively engage the other seven. How do we begin to do the crucial critical thinking required to get us unstuck from this place of hatred, if we aren’t curious enough to get to the source? How do we communicate with those who grieve loss, and convince them that this time we really mean that we care enough to facilitate change? What were we doing to problem solve, to collaborate on solutions, to examine our own complicity as part of an accepting society? This is a time when our pillar competencies should thrive. And yet, for reasons we explain away to ourselves – as usual, they vanish under a heap of emails, text messages and a list of daily to-do’s.
But let me put forth to you a simple curiosity challenge today. Seek an answer to just one question that doesn’t serve any personal interest at the moment. Just one. I’ve chosen a rather thorny one. In light of the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, the detection of 215 unexplained child mortalities in Kamloops, and the unspeakable shock killings in London, Ontario, I want to know where the evil, at the heart of these incidents came from. Or at least start a conversation.
When George Floyd was killed and the much of the world rightfully took to the streets, shouting justice and Black Lives Matter, we really didn’t stop to ask what possessed a man, who was paid to protect the public, to carry out the reprehensible behaviour of choking another man to death. As we, in Canada, begin to exhume evidence of our leaders’ malice and neglect brought upon thousands of Indigenous children and their families, we rightfully demand truth and reconciliation, where we should be asking how a succession of educated, self-described servants of God and country, felt a sense of superiority permitting them perpetrate acts of inhumanity upon thousands of children. And when some otherwise unassuming young man ploughs down a family out for a walk, we rightfully hold vigils across the country to show our support for the victims and their faith, and we jump to the hate-crime conclusion, again without asking where it came from. All along we grapple with the extraordinary events, but we don’t pay attention to the infra-ordinary, glacier-slow formation and fester of evil in the minds of human beings.
Where does evil come from? And why do some seem to have so much?
I am neither wise enough, nor arrogant enough to spend the rest of this blog producing a one-size-fits all answer to these questions. They are wrapped up, after all, inside the mystery of the meaning of life, which is the ultimate question none of us know for sure, but we all contemplate. We even have the prerogative, if not somewhat moral obligation to answer. This is our free will. And I think somewhere in that complex pre-existing human trait of freewill lies at least one reasonable explanation of the origin of evil. It also helps support my case for curiosity, and why we need it now more than ever.
On the other hand, there has been rapidly accelerating evidence in the area of neuroscience in recent decades to suggest a strong correlation between reprehensible behaviour and the structural make up of the human brain – particularly within those of psychopaths. That discussion is way beyond the scope of this blog, and even further beyond my own personal education. But it needs to be part of the discussion as to what triggers acts of evil. There are endless journals on this subject, but one that I’d point out here is the impeccably researched work of Kent Kiehl and Morris Hoffman, “The Criminal Psychopath: History, Neuroscience, Treatment and Economics”. In it you’ll find a deep, robust and reasonably recent representation of a possible scientific explanation for evil, albeit limited to its correlation with psychopathy (Kiehl, 2011). The idea that human life can be extinguished by the actions of somebody with no moral control of their behaviour is difficult, if not impossible, for families of the deceased to reconcile. Still, research like this can be convincing in their hypotheses, replete with charts, graphs and brain scan imagery.
Eventually, though, we are brought back to contemplating the origin of evil in those not clinically diagnosed with psychopathy and other mental disorders. How do we explain morally reprehensible behaviour of those not pre-disposed to such action due to neurological abnormality? The conversation here begins to tilt toward childhood trauma, family and cultural upbringing, and, of course, this century’s favorite scapegoat – social media. Even if science, and lawyers, can find ways to explain how evil acts can be committed outside of the control of those who commit them, in the case of psychopathy or myriad mental illness, how do we explain acts of evil committed by those who commit them, knowing their moral reprehensibility? How does their hatred take root, and grow inside of them to a point that provokes such behaviour?
How do we explain Derek Chauvin, Nathanial Veltman, or any number of now-forgotten perpetrators of evil upon First Nations children, in any of the residential schools in this dark and troubling part of Canada’s past? Here, there are even more poignant and credible articles, books, and journals to digest. A lifetime’s worth of reading. Again, in the interest of time (not that I’d suggest you “rush” curiosity), might I suggest a journal by a man who died at the hands of evil himself – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, whose 1951 essay, “Religion’s Answer to the Problem of Evil” is very, very thought provoking indeed.
The essay is intriguing in ways beyond its pure intellect and eloquence. It’s incredibly astute and objective, especially when you realize it was written well before MLK rose to become an icon of civil rights, leading to his death in 1968, and it was written as he himself was trying to navigate and understand the evil incarnate in the violent racism of the 1950’s American south.
The essay begins with the following riveting passage, written as only a black man of faith, desperately searching for answers, could have articulated.
The problem of evil has always been the most baffling problem facing the theist. Indeed, it is belief in a personal God which constitutes the problem in all its known acuteness. At the heart of all high religion there is the conviction that there is behind the universe an ultimate power which is perfectly good. In other words the theist says: the power that is behind all things is good. But on every hand the facts of life seem to contradict such a faith. (King, 1951)
King then proceeds to present every “modern answer” (as were frequently discussed 70 years ago), and dutifully argues the pros and cons of each. Note, there are a total of six different proposals he rolls out, citing sources ranging from Plato to Christian scientists to Hinduism. He then explores more deeply the dichotomous beliefs in the “Doctrine of the Finite God” – the notion asserting that God is either all good, or all powerful, but not both. This, by the way, would become the thesis of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” three decades later, as the Rabbi himself struggled with a natural form of evil (terminal illness) brought upon his son . (Kushner, 1981)
The conclusion of King’s essay shows the man coming to reconciling his own long-standing beliefs, millennia-old scripture, and an extraordinarily heightened ability to contextualize.
“We must realize that God’s power is not put forward to get certain things done, but to get them done in a certain way, and with certain results in the lives of those who do them. (King, 1951)
He then proceeds to convincingly argue that purpose is the ultimate use of our freewill, before coming back to the aforementioned conundrum of freedom, and freewill. His suggestion is that if there was no difference between good and evil; or if we were pre-programmed to be limited to only acts of good, there would be no freedom. “Purpose” King asserts is the choosing of good over evil, and this can only be accomplished in a life where we are faced with countless choices. (King, 1951) Choices like, “how are we going to think about others, particularly those different from us?”
You can almost feel the pressure of King’s pen to paper, as the he rounds out his proposal to square “the problem of evil”
It is from the misuse of this freedom that the dark shadow of moral evil appears. The necessity of freedom brings the possibility and practical inevitability of sin. Most of the ills in the world today could be eliminated if knowledge was the only factor needed. We could conquer poverty, for there is "enough and to spare" for all. We know enough, if we would only work together, to wipe out all plagues. We could have decent living conditions for all if we used only the means that went into one item, the preparation of war. The difficulty, however, does not lie here. It is selfishness, pride, greed, lust for power and love of pleasure—in a word it is the sin of man that is the source of our ills and much of our unhappiness. Yet if God’s purpose is to be achieved freedom must be maintained. Just as a child cannot learn to walk without the possibility of falling, man cannot learn the ways of God without the possibility of going wrong. Dr. Whale has put this whole idea in words well worth our quoting. He says, “freedom—though it involves grievous error and pain—is the very condition of our being human. There can be no other way for men and women called of God to vindicate the moral order. We cannot have it both ways. It is only in a world where the horror of war, slavery, and prostitution can happen, that the learning of self-sacrifice, fellowship, and chivalry will happen. (King, 1951)
What does all of this have to do with the actions of Derek Chauvin, Nathanial Veltman, or Reverend Harold McIntee, (a Catholic priest who pleaded guilty in 2008 to 17 counts of sexual assaults on Indigenous boys under his care in Canada’s residential schools). What does all of this have to do with icons of evil like Adolph Hitler, or just a schoolyard bully?
What does this have to do with you, and me, and our freewill?
Curiosity can take us deep. Beneath the roots. To dark cracks and holes of our own psyche. While only an infinitesimally small percentage of us are capable of making such atrociously evil choices, compelling us to run over a family out for a peaceful evening’s walk, because of who they are, the colour of their skin, or their spiritual beliefs, we all confront choices of right and wrong every day. Do we lie on our tax returns? Do we mutter disdain to ourselves about someone due to their gender identity, their weight, their age, their skin colour? Do we drive while texting? Why do we persist in these behaviours, while stopping short of committing crimes against humanity?
Do we make the choice, of our own freewill, to be curious and ask questions when we witness something we know is wrong? Or do we leave the curiosity to someone else? Through this lens, curiosity surpasses merely a competency of knowledge seeking, and becomes a competency of moral obligation.
Standing side by side with our neighbors, no matter their faith, their colour of skin, their sexual orientation, or gender identity, is always needed in times of crisis. That’s our citizenship competency and character competency, doing what they’re supposed to do. But asking questions, rather than looking away, when we feel the tiniest of pings in our gut – that ‘s next level curiosity.
I began this blog with the deep philosophical question of the origins of evil. The findings of my research are unsurprising – no one really knows. I highlighted how we should engage our curiosity to lead us down these deep, important rabbit holes. But curiosity’s more important role is not reflective – it’s proactive. Two weeks ago when news broke of the bodies discovered beneath the ground at the former Kamloops Residential School, I finally became aware of just how ignorant I, as a middle-aged white Canadian male, had been in my adult life in particular. In my life journey I had learned about, and come to question other societies in history who looked the other way as atrocities were committed before them. And I realized I too had somehow missed the cues presented to me about residential schools in Canada. But it wasn’t that I “missed” them. It was that I chose, of my own freewill, not to ask questions about them. But that doesn’t make me evil does it?
Perhaps the question isn’t “where does evil start?”, but rather, “where does it stop?”
Curiosity is widely viewed, I think, as this fun, children’s activity. Indeed, we tragically outgrow curiosity, becoming more in love with more self-serving pursuits that reap immediate rewards. Curiosity IS good for kids. But it is a competency for life, required to solve problems, think critically, communicate effectively, build character, work with others, create innovation AND be responsible citizens. Failing to be curious when we see clues of evil mounting, is at best, immoral…and at worst, reprehensible behaviour.
This brings to mind the image of the “three wise monkeys”, the ancient and familiar archetype depicting one monkey with hands over eyes; one with hands over ears, and the third with hands over mouth. See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. There are many theories on the exact origin of the symbol, but most trace back to 16th century Japan, where even today they are used as symbols to teach prudence and purity. (Oxford Reference, 2021)
I don’t know about you, but I feel there’s work to be done on my curiosity competency. Ironically, until recently, I felt it was my sharpest, most active, most engaged competency. I am sobered by the discovery of my weakness in this regard. In addition to seeing more, listening more and speaking more, it’s time to ask more questions.
Gaskell, E. (2021, June 11). Evil Quotes. Retrieved from GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/evil
Kiehl, K. A. (2011). THE CRIMINAL PSYCHOPATH: HISTORY, NEUROSCIENCE, TREATMENT, AND ECONOMICS. Jurimetrics, 355–397.
King, M. L. (1951, April 27). Stanford - The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. Retrieved from Religion's Answer to the Problem of Evil: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/religions-answer-problem-evil
Kushner, H. (1981). When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Anchor Books.
Merriam-Webster. (2021, June 11). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evil
Oxford Reference. (2021, June 11). Three Wise Monkeys. Retrieved from Oxford Reference: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803104448685