Why imagining evil is key to our very survival
We need to rediscover our capacity for imagining evil, not just in the mind of an individual but at scale. If we do not, evil will consume us as it has in times before, irrespective of whether or not we believe it. Perhaps this language sounds alarmist, even irrational, but I believe we have already crossed the Rubicon and are now well into the terrain where evil is flourishing in ways that we in the relative comfort and security of the West have not witnessed for several decades.
I use the word ‘imagine’ in its original sense as meaning ‘to conceive’. Our imagination literally helps us to generate conceptual thought. When harnessed to our sensory perception our imagination also helps us to survive. Our ancestors learned to ‘imagine’ the possible presence of predators through experience and developed highly attuned nervous systems that could identify danger well before the conscious mind got a whiff of it, They used powers of reason to launch an appropriate response based on this neuroception, the subconscious system that works to keeps us safe. As Orwell told us, all totalitarians systems work to undermine neuroception; the individual capacity to know at the sensory level whether something is safe or a threat. ‘The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.’
If we accept the existence of goodness as a force of benevolence, then we must also accept evil as a malignant force. This malignancy can manifest in different ways, but it always sits opposed to life, to creativity, to truth, and to seekers of truth. Those who have lived through the personal or social histories of evil know it in their marrow. Those who have not must come to know it first with their perceptions. I am not talking about the boiler plate corruption and narcissism of political life. I am talking about a whole new order of ignominy that most of us have not seen in our lifetimes. It requires an adjustment of vision, like learning to discern form from shadow when the lights go out. You begin to learn to see in the dark. It starts with a nagging ‘feeling’ that something ain’t right that sits somewhere deep in your gut, and sometimes fingers the back of the neck whenever you turn on the news. You begin to sense a widening disconnect between truth and what you are being led to believe. This is your nervous system whispering “danger”. Then you begin examining the possibility of evil in the words and deeds of those you have entrusted with your fate, and then comes the conscious, often painful shifts of perception as the mounting proofs of malevolence come into sharper focus. This may well be followed by a period of grieving, for the world you once knew, that although far from perfect, was kind and free enough to dearly miss.
In the Arab world it is widely believed that everyone born is influenced by supernatural spirits called jinns: a good one and an evil one, equivalent to the angel and devil on each shoulder of old American cartoons. Humans are in a constant interplay with one or the other throughout their life, in a mostly unconscious struggle between competing motives; between those that elevate and transform towards truth, beauty, harmony, wisdom, compassion and peace, and those that whisper to the heart of greed, cynicism, hostility, futility, ignorance and despair.
The mythic visions of all cultures provide a dramatic dimension to the relationship between the forces of light and darkness in our own lives. To wrestle with our demons is to train for such encounters. Sometimes they manifest as addiction, alcohol, drugs, fetishes of dominion and cruelty, sometimes as mental health issues, sometimes as individuals, and sometimes as entire social systems. In the periodic rise of totalitarian regimes, both fascist and communist, we have witnessed a collective thrust towards thanatos – the death instinct. Everything these dark architects touch smells of death, if not the strictly mortal kind, then the kind that makes life not worth living; the death of the spirit.
It is not as if we have not been warned. According to Achille Mbembe, a political historian from the Cameroons, the conscious engineering of this ‘necropolitics’, the earthly enactment of God-like power by sovereign forces over life and death, creates ‘new and unique forms of social existence in which populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead.’ Necropolitics is an extension of biopower, a term coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault, to describe total state subjugation of its citizens’ physical autonomy often in the guise of protectionism. In this context, Italian philosopher Georgio Agamben viewed the horrors of Nazi Germany, not as a wild aberration in the development of Western civilization that resulted in its conquest by the forces of good, but as proof of the capacity for necropolitics to formulate its own social order that would inevitably be replicated in the future. “In modern bio-politics, sovereign is he who decides on the value or non-value of life as-such.” Agamben believed that the elite have continued to manipulate these powers in our modern era, enabled by a fearful and confused citizenry, to make it increasingly difficult to act in any way that is contrary to State will.
In such times, evil is not concentrated only in the maniacal executors of soulless agendas, nor in the final solutions of undesirables, but is parsed out among countless numbers of the stunningly unremarkable—in the bureaucrats, administrators and civic functionaries that unquestionably service the deathward agendas of the totalitarian state, and who believe they themselves to be ‘good people’. In them. we find what political historian and holocaust survivor, Hanna Arendt, termed ‘the banality of evil’ that she warned would characterize totalitarian states of the future. C.S. Lewis concurred. “The greatest evils in the world will not be carried out by men with guns, but by men in suits sitting behind desks.” In modern dictatorships, terror is used more as a weapon of control rather than of annihilation. There is no need to exterminate a population of supplicants. People who do not stand for something will fall for anything.
Even a casual glance at history should teach us that it is not always the case that the checks and balances of the basically good always win out in neutralizing the architects of evil. It is part of maturation to accept and understand that ‘basically good’ people can participate in utterly terrible acts; particularly when the masses have been mobilized through fear and propaganda to surrender their individual moral compass for some abstract social good that posits the welfare of the group above that of the individual. Such psycho-mythic forces have the power to melt the will in us all and forge monsters from its molten core. In his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Dr. Mattias Desmet recounts the story of an Iranian mother who, after the overthrow of the Shah, placed the noose around her son’s neck at his execution in 1979 by the new regime, and felt pride rather than remorse in doing so. In reading such a story, do you shake your head in disbelief, utterly assured that this would never be ‘you’? And what makes you so sure? It may be better to imagine ourselves capable of the worst, because only then will we place value in nurturing and harnessing the best.
I believe we are now historically in such a thrust towards thanatos. The dealers of fear and death are in ascension as the masses forge their own shackles, mistaking slavery for safety, stoned on the mantra of the ‘greater good’ that is neither great nor good. And yet no matter how nonsensical and harmful the privations that are being forced upon the general population, there is a kind of institutional coherence created by the uncritical buy-in of so many. Here is where the banality of evil lurks. If evil looked like evil it would never succeed. Evil is always hidden through layers of deceit, skillfully persuading in reasonable and reassuring tones that the ends justify the means.
“Is it a bunch of evil men in a room chomping on a cigar, laughing hysterically?” says former Blackrock assets manager, Edward Dowd. “No. It happens over time.” Dowd was discussing the origins and development of pervasive institutional fraud, such as we saw in the 2008 banking crisis and which he believes has now captured the Food & Drug Administration of the US that gets 50% of its budget through the pharmaceutical industry.
Everyone becomes tainted through a process called the ‘institutional imperative’ in which the institution becomes gradually corrupted through a copycat chain of incremental choices–someone undeserving getting promoted here, a reward for unethical behavior there–that have the cumulative effect of normalizing not just bad behaviour but even irrational behavior across the board. In short, people are rewarded for doing the wrong thing over time. At a certain point it becomes impossible to remain a ‘white hat’ operative in such an environment. To even be there is tainting because it requires all the participants to play a tainted game.
It is not hard to see this pattern playing out through various sectors of society, where moral norms are being abandoned through the social pressures of groupthink. Soon, no one will remember what those moral norms even were. As Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński wrote, “Real barbarism begins when no one can any longer judge or know that what he does is barbaric.” When, for an easy life, we go along with the erosion of basic human values and turn a blind eye to our better natures, we end up in a world where not only does no one encourage basic goodness, no one protests atrocities.
And yet we encouraged not to look too closely at the mechanisms of the institutions that govern our lives, but instead to find fault with the very people who encourage such inspection. In projecting our own unaddressed shadow, we end up seeing enemies everywhere except the ones that have their hands around our throats and a knife at our backs. Without the liberation of self-knowledge we succumb to the paralysis of self-loathing and willingly accept all kinds of abuse. We lean into the death-instinct in an unaddressed suicidality that is the ultimate trajectory of the totalitarian path of fear, submission and slavery. We ultimately co-conspire towards our own demise.
Former Greenpeace president Dr. Patrick Moore observes that the environmental movement used to care about humanity. The ’peace’ in Greenpeace was against nuclear arms. But gradually an anti-human ethos crept in and people were posited as the problem itself, as the enemies of nature rather than as stewards of the natural world to which they belonged. This anti-human creep now informs the governments and institutions that run the world. “We’re now facing a situation where a huge number of very powerful organizations and elites at an international and at national levels are calling for policies that are basically a suicide pact. Basically a death wish of some sort.”
For Moore, this steps uncomfortably close to the territory of ‘Original Sin’, and indeed in their demonization of carbon, the building block of our own bodies, the climate priests unencumbered by the need to justify their ‘solutions’ through rigorous scientific enquiry have effectively repurposed the existential guilt that in the Middle Ages allowed the Catholic Church to trade in ‘indulgences’ – activities that lessened the punishment a believer was required to undergo for their sinful deeds. “Any movement can be captured by thugs,” says, Princeton University professor William Happer, even, and perhaps especially, one populated in large part by ‘good’ people who struggle to imagine the bad.
The truth, of course, is that we all have the capacity for both good and evil. Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning wrote about how the camps exposed the depths of human nature as an ill-defined mix of good and evil. ‘The rift dividing good and evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss…’ Frankl wrote.
We are not yet at the gulag/concentration camp stage, but that stage is reached incrementally through a number of steps that can appear almost innocent, as we see played out in the ‘institutional imperative’. The signs have been here for some time and are becoming ever clearer that the direction we are heading is towards a kind of hi-tech totalitarianism. Why this thrust is meeting with remarkably weak pushback has to do with a kind of ideological capture that psychologist Mattias Desmet describes as ‘mass formation’ which allows for the rise of totalitarian regimes. Mass formation, as the term implies, requires a large mass of people such as we saw in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. These masses must share a number of factors in common. These are: a lack of social cohesion, a lack of meaning and sense-making, free-floating anxiety that has no clear and obvious cause, and a crisis where the state provides a solution, a landing-pad for this free-floating anxiety, and thus creates a new sense of social cohesion through a common project of addressing the crisis together.
The rest is all too familiar. Expansion of governmental systems of control, censorship and self-censorship, increased justifications for monitoring and surveillance of alternative opinion, the redefinition of language to align with political aims, the stifling of experts who contradict those appointed by the state, populations encouraged to shame and hate on each other, a highly compromised and uniform media, a contraction of institutional and governmental transparency and accountability, and a nudging towards mass applications of technology that allow ever-increasing top-down control over the citizenry.
Those who marvel at the lack of resistance to policies so clearly aimed at causing irreparable damage to both civic and private life, miss how deep self-loathing runs among those who repress the shadow. Because to imagine evil intelligently, rather than in a superstitious neurotic way, is to have addressed the capacity for evil not just in the hearts of others but in one’s own – in psycho-mythic terms, to have shed the light of awareness on our dark jinn. This means to acknowledge and address our own histories and capacities for deception against others and self. As Carl Jung writes: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
Most people would rather ‘tie themselves in knots’ as Neil Oliver puts it, rather than face the idea that their governments and institutions might be working against them. Oliver invites us to ‘think the unthinkable’ however difficult it might be to do so, and contemplate at the very least the possibility that our leaders do not have our best interests at heart. If someone has their hand inside your jacket pocket and on your wallet, he says, instead of reassuring yourself that this person just wants to check that your wallet is safe, you might want to try to imagine that you’re being robbed.
Those of us who have been seriously damaged by acts of fraud or deception; medically, psychologically, financially, either from an individual or a group, are more sensitive to its presence and possibility. However, and this is a big however, once you have digested the bitterness such experiences leave behind and gathered your wits around you once again, you gain certain new skills.
For one thing, you learn to spot the deceivers as easily as a UV light detects bodily fluids. There is simply no mistaking them once your nervous system has captured the slime they leave in their wake. Your survival instincts are rebooted to superhero levels. Your gut instinct becomes your wingman. The deceivers find themselves thwarted. They may flex their talons in your direction but they will not get a firm grip. You are no longer soft fawn-like prey. You are a craggy cliff, that they have neither the skill nor patience to climb. After your recovery, which depending on the level of psycho-emotional damage might take years but which will happen, you make carry a few scars, but you are far more capable of healthy love because of the boundaries you set against the peddlers of deceit. You become a walking polygraph test. You stop out-sourcing your critical faculties and you sense when you are being gaslit; by individuals, by institutions, by the media, by the government., by the orchestrators of entire movements.
Like a compass naturally seeks magnetic north, you become a natural seeker of Truth, no matter how uncomfortable, how frightening, how isolating, how humbling, no matter the beliefs you have to let go of along the way, the enemies you make and the friends you lose. Because it is only Truth, however dark, that releases us from becoming a prisoner of the shadow worlds.
I too believe that people are basically good when the conditions support the flourishing of goodness. When those conditions change, the human soul is up for grabs. We are in a time like this now. It is difficult to see because our imaginations have been captured by ideology. We need to again become capable of imagining evil, because if not we will be unable to face its consequences when they come for us, nor be capable of rendering impotent its networks of deceit which addle our minds. When we learn that we are merely pawns in a game, that is not just rigged for us to lose but for us to suffer, then our best recourse is to refuse to play the game at all. And we do this by refusing to participate in the lie.
When I speak of imagining evil I do not mean to suggest that we concoct evil out of thin air, engaging in creations of paranoid fantasy, but to tap into our natural ability to conceive and thus to discern evil if and when it emerges, using all the biological, perceptive and critical faculties at our disposal. Being able to imagine evil is a vital step, because if we cannot imagine something can exist then we cannot see it, even when it is staring us in the face. We cannot defend against something that we cannot see. And if this blindness persists much longer, then all we can hope for is a final hour of horror and desperate petitions of atonement as the terrible truths dawn darkly.