See No Evil

Before I tell you that I don’t see anything to be gained using the word "evil" to describe any part of creation, I need you to know who I am. Otherwise you will be able to discount my understanding as naive. It is not.

I’m 48 years old and I have been a registered nurse for 22 years. Part of my psychiatric training in nursing school involved leading groups on the forensic unit of Parish Prison in New Orleans—in other words, I worked with rapists and murderers. As a pediatric nurse, I dealt with child abuse in its many forms, including infanticide. Later, as a psychiatric nurse, I was face to face with a range of human twistedness. I now direct a Holocaust education program for the state of North Carolina, and I regularly revisit (often with survivors) the reality of genocide. When I tell you that I do not believe in evil, it is not because I haven’t seen the damage that humans can cause. It is because the idea of evil is not helpful in setting that damage right.

My dismissing of evil as a useless concept is based on a foundation laid by Frank Parker, my mentor in graduate school, who taught me how to think. Frank greatly respected theories. He liked them clean and clear, simple and uncluttered, good for many household uses. It was more than liking; Frank Parker loved a good theory—the sheer aesthetics of elegance, parsimony, and explanatory power made him laugh with joy.

Despite his high regard for theory, he was emphatic about the difference between it and reality. He wanted his students to understand that theories were just theories, and reality—the world—was something else.

At the beginning of every new semester, he would start class by drawing on the chalkboard a blobby diagram that represented the world. Then he would cover it with a grid of neat, squared-off straight lines. He would explain that our theories were a kind of grid that we lay on top of reality to help us map it, talk about it, make sense of it, and to predict how it will behave. "Help us" is the key phrase; our theories are utilitarian mental fictions that are valuable to the extent they help us attain some goal of understanding, predicting, or manipulating the world. But the main thing is to realize that they are not the world. They are stories. We make them up to help us deal with things. The amorphous blob of reality only coincides with the neat grid of theory at certain points—there is a lot of blob that the grid doesn’t touch. That is the mystery part. That is the part where there is still work for science to do.

I don’t know how often I heard his riff on the difference between theories and the real world before I got it.

There was a concept in phonology—that things can be alike on one level and different on another level—that I had transplanted to explain a problem in semantics for a paper in another professor’s class. The paper had been accepted for publication, so I needed to let Frank know about it. But I was afraid. I had played fast and loose with the theory as he had taught it, and he was a tough, "my way or the highway" kind of guy. In fear and trembling, I went to him and confessed that I had swiped a bit of theory from one area to explain something in another area.

He was delighted. He offered up his same old wisdom: theories are stories we make up to help us deal with things. There is nothing sacred about them; take what helps you and ditch the rest.

Maybe because I had been so afraid that he would snap at me for messing around with some golden, unquestionable absolute, and so relieved when he didn’t, I finally took in what he was saying. Our concepts about reality aren’t the truth. What is, is, and then there’s what we think about it. What we think about it may be helpful or it may not, but it isn’t the thing itself. It’s just what we think about it.

So when people get to talking about Evil with a capital E, and whether it exists or not, I don’t get into a lather about it. What is, is, and then there’s what we think about it—but that isn’t the thing itself. Still, what we think about it may be helpful or it may not, and that’s what’s worth discussing.

M. Scott Peck, in his popular book The People of the Lie, tells a story about a young boy whose parents gave him, for his birthday, the gun with which his older brother had committed suicide. After recounting the horrifying case history, Scott Peck rhetorically pushes back from the table, dusts off his hands, and tells his readers, "Now, that’s evil."

I know just what he means. I was a psychiatric nurse, and I met a lot of twisted human beings. If I could get enough information about them, I could usually get a sense of where the kinks in their souls came from. Often, if I could get enough of their story, I could help them or at least develop some kind of hazy mental picture of what kind of help they would need in order to stretch out and become more whole.

But there were people I couldn’t help, couldn’t understand, couldn’t like—people I couldn’t even care about enough to want to do these things. That’s what Scott Peck had run into in that family: people who were outside his ability as a therapist to help or understand or care about.

I was a mere psychiatric nurse, with relatively little at stake when I confessed that some folks were just beyond me. But Scott Peck is a world-famous expert healer. I imagine that bumping into something outside his competence and compassion would be devastating for him. To be baffled would be baffling. The experience would need to be named. The name he gave it was "evil."

Once he named it evil, he was pretty much off the hook. The problem became qualitatively different from all the other snarled families he had dealt with (because this one was "evil"), so he was not obliged to grope around inside himself for the reason that this particular family dynamic was opaque to him. He was not obliged to examine his skills, his assumptions, or his own psychopathology in the way that mental health professionals must when they are stymied. He could simply remove that case file from the mental drawer marked "My Responsibilities" and put it away in the drawer marked "Evil." I can understand the appeal of that.

But I don’t think this labeling of human behavior as evil is something that should be offered as good policy. It certainly simplifies filing for the labeler, but the pigeonhole of "evil" is a deadletter box—there’s nowhere to go from there.

Let’s say that, instead of tagging this family as "evil," he had called them sick instead. "Sick" takes us somewhere; something sick needs to be healed. The category of sickness is paired with a category of response—healing—that points the way for human action. To diminish the amount of sickness in the world, you increase the amount of health and healing.

If Scott Peck had instead called that family "broken," he would have invited us to consider ways of fixing or repairing the brokenness. If he had called them "ignorant," he would have invited us to speculate about teaching and learning. If he had called them "emotional cowards," he would have invited questions about how to give them courage.

These are just metaphors, just words. But these words invite certain kinds of responses that I like: healing, repairing, teaching, and encouraging. What kind of response does calling something "evil" invite?

It seems to me that once something has been identified as evil, there are two ways that humans can respond. One is to dwell apart from it, to separate from it as much as possible. Sometimes humans have done this by removing ourselves from evil (for example, certain religious sects that withdraw from the world), or sometimes we drive it out, exiling it from our presence (for example, imprisoning criminals). Either way results in isolation, walls, and diminished communication.

The other way that humans respond to evil is by attempting to destroy it. The death penalty, the Holocaust, war—these are rational behaviors if one buys into the identification of any human being or group as evil.

So if I look at the concept of "evil" as a theory to help us understand and deal with puzzling things that happen in our world, it’s one that doesn’t get me anywhere I want to go. I don’t have a taste for destroying or isolating the problem people of the world, so there isn’t much in it for me. I am more intrigued by healing, repairing, teaching, and encouraging. If I were a judge whose job it is to decide who goes to jail and who goes to the electric chair, then maybe I would be more interested in the theory of "evil." If I were a philosopher who got paid to devise abstract but logically satisfying definitions of moral absolutes, then maybe you could drag me into the discussion.

But I am a nurse, a teacher, and a mender, so when they hold the next meeting to decide on what and who is evil, I won’t be there. I’ll be elsewhere, busy.

Donna Glee Williams

Donna Glee Williams was formerly active in New Orleans (La.) Meeting and now lives in Balsam, N.C. She leads residential learning adventures for public school teachers and addresses topics related to stress in contemporary life. A recent publication of hers is "Teaching in the Resistance," in Horizon, the newsletter of the Association for Experiential Education.