My dad had a habit of confusing my sister and I as kids when it came to vocabulary. Despite only arriving in the country as a fourteen year old he had a reasonable enough command of the English language and regularly applied some of its most colourful aspects. He could turn the air bright blue in the blink of an eye.
My sister and I were no fools; we knew we’d never get away with swearing at our dad. We would swear at each other, but only when he wasn’t around. But there were other less obvious examples that my dad would vigorously take exception to. Like “destroy” or other phrases that we had picked up from cartoons like He-Man or Thundercats. Terms like “evil” for example.
As is common for most siblings a couple of years apart, we used to fight like cats and dogs. I never forget one occasion remonstrating with my dad and telling him that my sister was “evil”. He flew into a rage, declaring that such a phrase was inappropriate and far too strong a term to be used so liberally. It was made clear to me in no uncertain terms that such a word should never ever be used to describe my younger sibling.
For a phrase with such a powerful emotive impact its frequency of usage is quite astonishing. When we hear of high profile court cases, the defendant is often depicted as evil. It has even been used in sport reports. When Ben Johnson was unceremoniously stripped of his gold medal in 1988 at the Seoul Olympic games, the BBC reporter Ron Pickering used the term to describe the act of cheating. Ben Johnson has rightly been subjected to a number of condemnations for his actions over the past quarter of a century. Stupid, naïve, selfish, irresponsible and careless probably all of which could be applied, but evil is bordering on the ridiculous.
This year the phrase has been regularly utilised to describe two acts of grotesque violence: on the streets of Woolwich and a shopping mall in Nairobi. Two incidents which were inexplicable to any balanced individual- we are unable to explain why anyone would be able to commit such acts of brutality. What we cannot interpret or rationalise means that we have to resort to a default position as a realisation that something is “unknown” leaves us exposed and almost vulnerable. Therefore we must have a bucket to effectively “scoop-up” and collect all these episodes which are otherwise impossible to fathom, an expression which we refer to as “evil”.
An abnormality of the mind like schizophrenia was identified barely a hundred years ago. Prior to that medical breakthrough a schizophrenic was labelled as “evil” or “possessed” or even a “witch”. As an evolving society we continue to identify new medical conditions, it is very possible that in 2-300 years time a whole new selection of mental illnesses will be identified and treatable.
It is not out of the question that many of those conditions will account for behaviour which today we are unable to diagnose so revert to a default position of classifying the unexplained as acts of evil. My ex’s brother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic but in another lifetime he could have been drowned in a lake or worse.
I’ve highlighted previously about my own personal experiences of living through three murders at separate stages of my adult life and consequently debated endlessly the existence of evil. I now think that for anyone to have the capacity to take another life only demonstrates that there is an imbalance within that individual. It is an abnormality of the mind and as such they are ill.
We as a society may not have evolved enough yet to determine a medical condition with an elaborate name to quantify such a phenomenon, but I genuinely believe that someday it will be treatable. And just like now, everybody will look back in history and wonder how so many could have got it so wrong.
I’m no doctor or psychiatrist. It is just a theory based on personal experiences, but I can’t subscribe to this collective notion of a convenient category which classifies what we are unable to understand.