Alan Wolfe's Political Evil: What It Is and How To Combat It. Why distinguishing among horrible behaviors is crucial.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 26 2011 4:19 AM

How To Learn the Language of Evil

Alan Wolfe's Political Evil offers lessons liberals especially need.

Alan Wolfe. Click image to expand.
Alan Wolfe, author of Political Evil

Evil is a moral problem for everyone, difficult to acknowledge in ourselves, hard to understand in others, and difficult to defeat without committing lesser evils. Liberals—I count myself as one—have a special problem with evil, connected to our particular form of self-regard. Liberals like to believe we are tolerant, but evil, by definition, cannot be tolerated. We believe that politics ought to be deliberative, but we can't deliberate with evil. We think compromise can be honorable, but there are no honorable compromises with evil. We think politics ought to be governed by reason, but evildoers, while they may reason, are not reasonable.

Alan Wolfe, a distinguished and prolific professor of political science at Boston College, and author of more than 20 books, including The Future of Liberalism,has written a dispassionate guide to these quandaries in Political Evil. He distinguishes between evil in general and political evil in particular, and argues that we should think politically about evil because the evil that we can actually do something about is a form of politics and can be defeated only if understood as such.

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There is plenty of evil out there, he points out, which has no politics at all: adolescents slaughtering other adolescents at a high school, predators molesting children, loners acting out fantasies of revenge and empowerment with automatic weapons. Our various therapeutic and explanatory discourses still leave us without consolation in the face of these murderous frenzies, but, Wolfe argues, we should at least spare ourselves the foolish idea that such evil lurks in all our hearts. The Norwegian killer who sprayed bullets over children at a liberal party summer camp was a psychopath. He is not us and we are not him. He tells us nothing about Europe, about Norwegian society, about anything. It accords him a dignity he does not deserve to explain him. It is appropriate to mourn and remember, and it would be prudent to keep him locked up for good. It is an utter waste of time to give him significance.

Political evil—genocide, massacre, terrorism, ethnic cleansing—is another matter. Here, Wolfe argues that we are dealing with motives, intentions, which while repellent are political. Killing all Jews is not crazy: It is a plan that will make you master of all you survey. Expelling everyone unlike yourself is not insane: It guarantees eternal domination for your kind. Terrorizing a people you cannot defeat in battle is not pathological: It may force your enemy to yield.

So, Wolfe's first lesson is a very old one, but worth repeating. There is method in apparent madness. The world is not divided between a sane world of deliberative politics and an insane world of apocalyptic violence. It is all politics, all the way down. To call a terrorist attack "senseless" is merely to admit that you have not understood its purpose.

Political Evil.

Wolfe's second lesson is that all political evil is not the same. It comes in different shades and hues, and it is vital to maintain distinctions between horrible behaviors. Massacre is not genocide. Ethnic cleansing is not genocide. Everything is what it is and not another thing.

Moral precision is a precondition for political precision. Nothing is gained, and much is lost, if, in seeking to mobilize opinion to stop a massacre, you call it genocide. You debase the coinage of outrage. Next time you cry wolf, no one will believe you.

We are indiscriminate in our use of the language of evil, Wolfe argues, because we like what the language does to our own moral standing. It makes us self-righteous. To call others wicked is to give us a moral privilege we may not deserve and a moral permission we are likely to misuse. The language of good and evil only seems to create moral clarity: It actually creates moral entitlement.

Moral clarity mobilizes: Who does not want to enlist on the side of good against absolute evil? But clarity also anaesthetizes. If I am on the side of good, they on the side of evil, what am I not permitted to do? The authors of President Bush's torture memos claimed the privilege of moral superiority after 9/11 and used it to justify torture.

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