The Real Cure For Evil Is Also the Fastest

05/12/2008 03:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have no patience for theories of universal evil -- that is, attributing evil to Satan, the fall of man, genes, human nature, or unnamed dark forces lurking in our unconscious. In one way or another, these theories have increased the effects of evil rather than alleviating them. In addition, they are false, or at the very least unprovable. Evil may be powerful, but nobody has ever photographed the devil or caught the unconscious on an MRI. On the other hand, there's enormous validity in viewing evil as something very different: a matter of perception. We all know this from everyday life. We forgive our children for things that we condemn harshly in another person's child. Our perception is colored by love and loyalty on one hand but not the other.

Is this unfair, a form of favoritism that's morally unjust? It can be, of course. But the underlying principle doesn't change: evil is hugely affected by perception. The most evil person you can conjure up in your mind, whether it's a Nazi, Muslim extremist, pedophile, or murderer, probably is loved by someone (mother, wife, girlfriend, priest), and thus is perceived very differently. Perception isn't passive. Far from it -- children perceived as good, lovable, worthy, and strong by their parents turn out well in life compared to children perceived as bad, weak, stupid, and unworthy. Each of us has metabolized past perceptions and turned them into the self we are today. We assign meaning to every experience along a scale from very good to very bad.

The argument for pure or absolute evil runs afoul of this fact. No matter how evil something is, if you don't perceive it as applying to you, it doesn't become part of you. The most heinous social movements (anti-Semitism, racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia) infect many, but there are always some people who are immune. This leaves room for the evolution of perception. Instead of fighting absolute evil, the people who produce real change go beyond rigid condemnation and fear. If their immunity is strong enough, they can look evil in the face. What do they find? Something that can be cured, or at least understood and alleviated.

One of the most productive ways to cure evil is to break it down into its components. Evil, more often than not, is situational. Conditions inside the situation have some or all of the following qualities:
--Rigid belief systems
--Approval of harsh punishment
--Clinging to authority
--Guilt and shame
--Freedom to unleash violence
--Numbing of personal conscience
--Chronic exposure to immoral behavior
--Peer pressure
--Hatred of "the other"
--Childhood abuse
--Political repression

Until these ordinary factors are solved, it's pointless to brand evil as inevitable and incurable. It takes all of these elements in concert to produce concentration camps and torture at Abu Ghraib. It takes only a few to produce a dysfunctional family. As astute psychologists point out, evil doesn't result from a few bad apples in the barrel; it results when good apples are put into a bad barrel. That is, all of us would turn to evil if the environment became poisonous enough. (It may seem unbelievable that you would torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but would you steal bread from your neighbor if your children were starving and everyone else was stealing?) Absolute evil is a far more improbable explanation for why people do bad things. Resorting to Satan or demonic possession is a retreat from reason and an easy escape.

The current scientific fad for explaining evil is through genetic defects and distorted brain chemistry. On the one hand this medical model takes us away from the religious model with all its medieval assumptions. That's to the good, but on the other hand, bad genes are nearly as immutable as satanic forces, and more to the point, they absolve us too easily. Child abuse, the worship of authority, and rigid belief systems can be dealt with, and should be. Using genes to justify life sentences for repeat offenders isn't that far-fetched -- we may be there already. Punishment doesn't solve the problem of evil because it promotes guilt and shame. As long as society can't be made to see this truth, prisons will remain the breeding ground for evil rather than the solution.

Each of us can fight evil by shifting our perceptions; this is not only the best way to cure evil but the fastest. Take any current evil that tempts you to be vindictive and judgmental. With as much objectivity as you can, match that evil against the list of influences listed above. There is no evidence of a Hitler, Stalin, chronic pedophile, or criminal deviant like Jeffrey Dahmer, whose life wasn't deeply scarred by them. Don't try to forgive the unforgivable. Your aim isn't to be saintly but simply to understand, and with understanding, to break down the massive problem of evil into smaller components that can be solved. You might discover that you personally can make a contribution. Abused children can be helped and loved. A church congregation hijacked by intolerance can be filled with new members who feel otherwise. Guilt and shame that you feel in yourself can be healed with therapy.

What if this whole approach feels too wishy-washy and Pollyanna? Then consider this. We have just passed through an era where absolute evil was condemned, enemies were assaulted head on, fear was engendered, and differences accentuated. How good do you feel about that, and more importantly, how effective was the solution? Having lived through a period when our leaders proudly advertised their allegiance to theories of absolute evil, we owe it to ourselves to try something else. The best alternative is to reframe your perception of evil, which will allow a new reality to emerge.