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Maybe it’s not that complicated

August 9, 2019

Between mass shooters (who I will not dignify by naming), fire bombings, name-calling by many across the political spectrum, and grandstanding by politicians, it has been a tumultuous several days and weeks, has it not? Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the turmoil and conclude that it is all so hopelessly complex, so incredibly complicated, that there is no way of knowing what’s going on, much less find a way out. It certainly seems that way to me, sometimes. I find that I can get so caught up in trying to “figure it all out” that I  miss the obvious. (On a related note, my MBTI type is INTP. Surely, chaos theory came from the minds of NTs!). I was doing a pretty good job of digging myself out of the rabbit hole, until we had a slew of asshats decide to kill a bunch of their fellow citizens for…reasons. The result? Boom! Back down the rabbit hole I went. Running down thoughts and ideas, until I had a conversation with a man I respect greatly. Which led to this post. My thesis is this: There is a sense in which this stuff isn’t complicated at all. 

That’s it. Nothing deep. It doesn’t require multiple courses in rhetoric, logic, persuasion, etc. It does, however, require that we acknowledge some things.

Evil is real

Like it or not, regardless of whether it is at odds with your worldview, there are some things that are just wrong. In fact, they are so wrong that they can only be accurately described as evil. Basically, fundamentally, inherently bad.

Acknowledging the existence of evil does not absolutely require also acknowledging any sort of supernatural component of existence. (I think it helps and is true, but that’s just me and far from essential to what I’m saying). Evil is a real thing. I’m a registered nurse with a significant amount of experience in a couple of clinical areas, including psychiatric/mental-health. I understand that biology and events can combine to lead people to do some horrible things. Still, in the vast and overwhelming majority of cases, those two components (nature and nurture) are not the ultimate culprit(s). That falls to the individual. He or she did not simply “make some bad choices.” He wasn’t merely “the unavoidable product of a failed system.” She didn’t solely find herself “lacking in coping skills.” No, they chose, chose, to do things that were evil. Evil is real. It exists and it appeals to people, especially when their circumstances would seem to improve if they did…whatever. Here, in my town, it consisted of hacking a pregnant woman to death.

We must acknowledge that evil is real.

Call out the evil

When some ass**** commits some atrocity, even if that person is nominally on your side (or mine) we must call the evil what it is and refuse to countenance it. “Well, it was bad, but” is crap in those circumstances. It wasn’t “bat, but.” It was bad. It was evil. When some bigoted jackass says “the problem is white/black/brown/green/pink/short/tall/fat/thin/vegan/omnivorous/liberal/conservative/liberarian/group of your choice people” the evil of that belief must be called out. It is especially important that it be called out by those with whom the previously mentioned jackass is at least nominally associated and it must be done immediately. “You, your beliefs and your actions are vile, so go away” can be amazingly effective in helping (yes, helping) people learn a different way of thinking and acting.

Recognize contributing factors

In spite of what I wrote above, there are things that can make people more prone to doing evil. Addressing those factors can be difficult. The basic concept, though, is not complex. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

In 1984 Richard John Neuhaus published The Naked Public Square. In it, he complained that a strict separationist reading of the First Amendment was leading to the exclusion of religious speech from public discourse. The result has been a political and public discourse that lacks a coherent worldview or sense of who we are as a nation and what we are all about. The “public square” has become naked of discussion and consideration of such things.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said “God is dead.” It is worth noting that atheist though he was, he didn’t say that was necessarily a good thing. His observation was that while (in his view) the Enlightenment had eliminated the possibility of the existence of God, both God and religion served vital functions in society and society had not come up with anything to replace Him.

I would argue that we still haven’t. As a result, we are plagued with our own version of the nihilism Nietzsche discussed. Life without meaning or objective.

As I look at the actions of people like the three murderers from a few days ago, it is almost as if they read the first few pages of something written by Nietzsche, and then closed the book. Like the “incels” some have suggested they so much seem to resemble, they are nihilists. Why the killing? They seek meaning. One of them, the ass**** in El Paso, made it pretty clear in his “I am a loser” manifesto that he was seeking meaning. In his case, that meaning would be found in infamy. I submit that even in the absence of manifestos, they (like many others) not only perhaps found themselves unappreciated, but they concluded life lacked meaning. They would, then and by God, give both it and themselves some meaning. “You’ll pay attention to my sorry ass now” is, I further submit, a cry not just for recognition, but for meaning. And it is still evil.

We must teach values

Actually, this section would probably be better entitled “since we’re going to teach values anyway, we should choose carefully the ones we teach” but that’s too long.

Look, I don’t care if you are a religious person or not.* I do, however, care that we have seemingly raised multiple generations of increasingly nihilistic people. As far as I can tell, the only remedy for nihilism is to inculcate in people, ideally beginning early on, a worldview that lends meaning to life and the world. Unfortunately, parents who live as though life has no meaning, or who parrot such nonsense to their children, are poorly equipped to do such a thing. Nietzsche wrote a long time ago. He seemed to be concerned with Europe. We are about on schedule in terms of how some of our societal changes follow those of Europe. We can see where its societal changes are taking Europe (I’m not arguing that Europe is some sort of cultural monolith). From my perspective, where it is going is not good. Likewise, it’s not good that we have reached this point. On the other hand, we haven’t gone as far down the road of nihilism and we can see what it has done to Europe, so maybe we can exit this thing before it’s too late to do so.

*Actually, I care quite a bit and my concerns are quite specific, but none of that is germane to this discussion.


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  1. OldNFO permalink

    Your last paragraph says it all. Values are something for the ‘old fogies’, not for the new hipsters… We learned values from our parents who had seen war and the destruction it caused, and our fathers knew the value of a human life in a way only combat veterans understand. And there was communication, at the dinner table, at night, in school, pretty much everywhere. We learned from those adults around us. Today, it is immersion in your cell phone, to the exclusion of everyone and everything. Kids are ‘learning’ by what sound bites their peers are sending them, and that’s it. Dammit…

  2. Values that lend meaning to life, like values that recognize the reality of human dignity, must be deliberately taught. They can’t be left up to chance. More than that, they must be taught by being lived rather than simply spoken. You can say life has meaning and live like it doesn’t and your kids will almost certainly believe it doesn’t.

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