December 2nd, 2009


A new report on evil

I know from my correspondence that many of the readers of this blog are young and idealistic, and would like to dedicate their lives to tracking down evil and doing their bit in eradicating it. I sense their fervour to be "sleuths and slayers of evil". For these readers, today is a red-letter day. Because today -- via a source I cannot endanger by revealing -- I have unexpectedly received a quantity of statistics on evil, statistics I believe to be entirely accurate. They certainly confirm many hunches I've had about the location and habits of evil. The main thing they confirm is that evil is counter-intuitive: that it would be foolish to expect evil to be accompanied by thunderclaps and sinister music. Instead, the avid evil sleuth must seek it in much more subtle -- and much more banal -- places.

I'll start with some of the most interesting statistics revealed in the secret research:

Over 70% of all evil in the world is contained in things that we all do. This is probably the report's most important finding, and a great time-saver for the "evil sleuth". Basically, it means that when you're tracking down evil, you probably shouldn't waste your resources investigating freaks, weirdos, eccentrics, people who dress up as women, clowns, minority immigrant communities, would-be-dictators who live in hollowed-out volcanoes, and so on. Evil-doers are much more likely to be someone who lives next door and seems like "a pretty decent bloke all round".

Evil people probably strike us as trustworthy: It goes without saying that shifty, criminal-looking types are at a very big disadvantage when it comes to getting away with crime: everybody is watching them like a hawk. No, like successful confidence-tricksters, evil people need to inspire trust, to lull us off our guard. They're more likely to be popular than unpopular -- everybody loved Bernie Madoff! Which brings us to...

Insiders: Evil-doers are massively more likely (88%, according to the secret report) to be insiders than outsiders. In other words, they are completely integrated into the infrastructure. They are, to all intents and purposes, legitimate. Throughout November sociologist Laurie Taylor broadcast three very courageous and revealing programmes about white-collar crime in Britain. The overwhelming impression these programmes give is that white-collar crime happens on a scale which makes car thieves, drug-dealers and other criminals who clog up prisons look like jaywalkers. And yet white-collar crime is almost never punished. That's because it's so integral to the system we live in that it passes for legitimacy, and for normality.

All that isn't behind us now: There's a tendency to think that evil is something that happened in the past, but doesn't happen now. The research knocks this over completely: of all the evil ever committed, it tells us, a stunning 56% of it is still happening right now. It's just not happening where you expect. The trouble for an aspiring evil sleuth is that humanity, massively, has a tendency to close barn doors after the horses have bolted. We're always looking back, trying to "prevent" the last crisis rather than thinking laterally and forward to prevent the next one. For instance, armed police currently patrol Akihabara because a man killed seven people there in a freak incident last year. But lightning doesn't strike twice. Clearly, the police should be patrolling the district where the next freak incident will occur. Now, that could be anywhere. But we have one resource-saving tip: it probably won't be Akihabara again. No need to send men there, then.

Evil is a habit: A good deal of the literature of evil focuses on premeditated acts the perp knows to be evil. (This is also what the law considers the most evil type of evil.) Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, decides to kill an old pawn broker to see what it feels like to be evil. Sure, it makes an interesting story, but in the real world evil doesn't work like that. The research shows that a whopping 92% of all evil currently being perpetrated in the world is an unintended and often unacknowledged side-effect of what we think of as perfectly normal, innocuous behaviours, like driving cars or eating food. What's more, rather than intentional acts, evil tends to be a habit. It's what you do when you're on auto-pilot.

Evil is obedience: It's hard to overcome those formative years in which your parents tried to convince you that you were being "naughty" when you disobeyed. But the evidence proves that more evil occurs through obedience than through disobedience. There's a good reason for this: the disobedient really have to think through what they're doing, because they're probably going to be punished for it. Disobedient acts are therefore subject to all sorts of cost-benefit analysis and moral scrutiny that obedient acts aren't. Disobedient acts are generally more intelligent acts.

Over here, not over there: When President Bush outlined an "axis of evil", all the nations named were, unsurprisingly, quite far away from the place where Bush made the speech. Using new evil-location technology developed by Google (the company whose motto is, of course, "Don't Be Evil!"), the report reveals that the world's greatest source of evil was located in the same room as Bush while he gave the speech. The technology isn't yet able to locate specific individuals, but my bet would be on Dick Cheney.

There are no evil opinions, only evil framings: We have a tendency to judge people's evil levels by their expressed opinions: "Oh, he believes x, he's an evil cunt." Tempting though this is to believe (if it were the case, evil sleuths would just have to sit around in bars all day waiting for people to express evil opinions), it's barking up the wrong tree. Evil resides in the way the question is framed, not the opinion you express once you accept the framing. For instance, people arguing whether the term "prawny" (I just made it up) is needlessly offensive or justifiably offensive to prawns both agree that it's offensive. They're therefore "on the same page" with the idea that being a prawn is generally A Bad Thing. Evil resides in their agreement, rather than their disagreement. If you're keen to find it, look for it not in their conscious, calculated, publicly-stated opinions, but in the things they both take for granted.

Evil can be controlled: There's good news built into the finding that evil is close to home. An evil that is inside us is an evil that we can alter, if we only allow ourselves to see it, assume responsibility for it, and consciously change it. Gandhi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world." Jackson said: "I'm looking at the man in the mirror, I'm asking him to change his ways."

I was going to say "Go forth, young sleuths of evil, and change the world!" But you can probably achieve more by staying at home with a mirror.