AP Language and Composition
3 November 2005
Epiphany: Using the Word Evil is Evil
What does one think when one reads or hears the all-encompassing word, evil? The word evil can conjure images of nearly anything depending on the upbringing of the reader – one might immediately imagine the devil, hell, and sin, where another might quickly think of recent acts of terrorism. Conversely, evil could entice thoughts of the government, big business, and even certain countries or people. At first glance, evil seems to be a very nebulous term; its vagueness compounded because the word is only useful when contrasted against one’s definition of good, as well. Thus, evil is a relative term. The very esscence of evil is the antithesis of one’s definition of good, which may or may not have moral, ethical and personal basis.
For example, take the recent focus of the government on blighting the “evil” of terrorism from the world. For supporters of this endeavor (hereafter referred to as Christians for ease, despite the fact that not all supporters are necessarily Christian) terrorists represent everything that threatens to destroy their very way of life. Terrorists are a symbol of the destruction of (among other things) Christian ideals. The principle morals that guide these people’s lives are thus thought of as threatened by terrorism. Furthermore, terrorists tend to conduct themselves in ways that are directly contradictory to Christian beliefs. In particular, terrorists sacrifice their own lives in order to harm others, thus committing two sins in one blow – suicide and murder. Traditionally, these sins are among the worst in Christian practice; they are morally repugnant to Christians in every way possible. There is no redeeming feature of either suicide or murder in the eyes of a Christian. Terrorists are not only perceived as threatening to destroy Christian morals, they conduct themselves in stark contrast to Christian beliefs. For Christians, terrorists are essentially their moral antithesis, and thusly evil. Note that the use of the word evil to define terrorists also requires the definintion of what is good – in this case, Christian ideals.
For another example, one can examine the use of evil to describe centralized government (or in more extreme cases, a tyranical government). Lovers of freedom and liberty would call tyrants evil, and are especially wary of centralized government. To them, all that is good is also all that is free and independent. These people wish only to live their lives as they see fit, without anyone else telling them how they should live their lives. Some such people even go to such extremes as to describe all government as evil – most are content with a relatively weak central government that is able to provide basic security (ensuring protection from such crimes as murder and theft). Whenever freedom is compromised, this will be viewed as evil. Freedom is most commonly compromised by the restriction of rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to free press. Restrictions of these rights are inherently evil for people who view freedom as the ultimate good – and that is because the loss of these rights stands directly opposite to the pursuit of freedom. Evil is used here to describe something that is the antithesis of one’s personal definition of good.
There can be no universal example of evil because evil is a relative term, dependent upon one’s perception of good. Even crimes such as murder and theft are not absolutely evil, because there are those people who believe that mankind itself is evil. Thus describing something as evil can be both useful (in the case of a society defining crimes) and tremendously dangerous (in the case of religions). There are many who would go to any length to rid “evil” from the world, but refuse to accept that evil is a relative term, and that one man’s good could be another man’s evil!