When I was a kid, I remember standing around with friends during recess one day and one of my friends pointing out a younger boy sitting alone under a tree and saying “Look at Tyler. Tyler is so weird.” I remember finding this supposed statement of fact quite terrifying. It was so static, so immovable. Even as a child, I had some semblance of an intuition for how much changing and growing we all had in store for us in the years to come, so the idea that Tyler was weird and that was the end of that seemed like such an unfair ruling on Tyler’s value. Tyler was weird, it was true, but what hit me in my gut about this moment was how lacking in empathy it was. Blanket judgements of this sort can be a dangerously airtight way of viewing another human being. It leaves very little room for the limitations of our own perspective, the possibilities of our own unconscious prejudices, not to mention this individual’s particular path through the world and what brought them to this crossroads with you.
I understand why certainty becomes very appealing around this age. Everything is so in flux, even our own bodies refuse to remain consistent, we’re flailing outwards in search of anything rooted in the earth, unchanging and constant. This is why we tend to dehumanize our parents and our teachers at this age, and think of them as “grown ups,” fully formed and without any desires or goals besides to care for children and to read The New York Times. I was a teacher for a year after college, and I felt more "adult" during that year than I ever did before or have since. Not only was this due to the experience of shouldering true responsibility to others for perhaps the first time, it was also because I could feel them seeing me as a “complete idea,” so to speak. I was not a “work in progress” like they were. I was a very young teacher, but in their eyes, the mere fact that I was a teacher at all meant I was a leader, a mind molder, it meant I was not a searcher. They were the wide-eyed young protagonists at the early stages of their meteoric rise, and I was the humble and sage advisor that existed primarily as a plot device to further the protagonist's quest for greatness. It was an empowering and validating feeling to feel them seeing me as humble and sage. To this very day, when I speak with my former students who are now mostly young "grown ups" themselves, they rarely ask how I am doing on a personal level, and I do not offer it up. It is still inspiring for them to keep me on a pedestal of “completeness,” and it is also in fact quite freeing for me to momentarily live in this shared reality where I have no problems or existential woes. It’s a win win.
This childish concept of the “grown up,” of course, is a fiction. As a child of divorced parents, I know firsthand what it feels like when you suddenly become aware of your parents as people, just like any other people, who are capable of making mistakes and wanting things they do not have. In fact, nothing that we reach out to for support as our lives swirl violently around us is anywhere near as stable or reliably rooted as we try to convince ourselves. Our parents, our politicians, our celebrities, our religious leaders: everyone is just as insecure, irrational, and blinded by fear as everyone else. The belief that they’ve cracked it, that they’ve attained a higher plane of existence and no longer run the same software as the rest of us, is appealing because it suggests that this higher plane is possible. By believing that someone, something, anything, exists outside the fray of the human experience helps give us something certain that we can hold onto when we are facing down death and mediocrity. But, regardless of its appeal, it remains a fiction. Of course, some of us have our shit together more than others. Some of us have great wisdom. But no one has leveled up beyond the level we’re all actively playing. We’re all here, together, functioning from the exact same starting point.
This brings me back to Tyler. The reason this moment irked me so intently was because I knew, on some level, that Tyler was no better or worse than anyone else. To define Tyler as "weird" is to pin down a moving target of genetic predisposition, education, growth, and experience. The definition of Tyler will never be as certain as the definition of “hockey puck,” no matter how many years pass and no matter how old Tyler gets. He will always, forever, be a “work in progress.” Just like the rest of us. He will always be a product of his broken, insecure, searching parents and his broken, insecure, searching society. To claim your certainty on the weirdness of Tyler as being an objective, absolute truth on his inner nature would be just as offensive to claim a certainty on the nature of all teenagers, or all Muslims. Your beliefs are not invalid, but they are inevitably colored by a million different histories, and can never be extrapolated much farther than a few feet in front of your nose.
Now, I know that the title of this little essay or whatever is “evil does not exist,” and I know that at this moment is when many people might perk up and say: “are you preaching moral relativism? Are you saying it’s okay for Saudi Arabia to oppress its women because it is morally right from their perspective?” Of course not. I believe in cultural evolution, which means that while I may not believe in “absolutes” that exist outside of our experience, I believe there is a measurable moral center to humanity that is as old as humanity itself.
Let me back up for a second. We all know that the human animal is a weak, hairless, downright creepy looking mammal that had no business surviving its first winter. The reason we survived is because of our ability to cooperate, to communicate, and to find common ground. That first winter, we huddled together for warmth. I know it sounds cheesy but “love,” in a sense, is the reason humanity was not run down by bears in the wilderness a thousand generations ago. Community and empathy are the essential building blocks of the human spirit. Our capacities for affection and collaboration are not unique in the animal kingdom, but they are perhaps the most highly evolved. Like an elk’s antlers, or a giraffe's long neck, our capacity for love is freakishly overgrown. It is our unique advantage in the wilderness. I believe that this core identity leads quite organically to a scientifically measurable core morality. I don't think our morality is as complex or "unnatural" as some people might argue. In fact, it all comes down to the most basic building block of any successful cohabitation: the golden rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Empathize with their situation, truly understand their perspective as best as you can, and act always with this in mind. Any action that furthers this idea is in line with our core identity, and any action that denies it is a result of an identity "crisis," in a way. It doesn't require much study of our history to see that an aversion to murder and violence, as well as an interest in cooperation and global flourishing, is clearly baked into our DNA by both genetic and cultural evolution, and our failure to live up to these ideals is not an issue with the original programming, but rather with everything else that gets piled on top of it.
So, why is it important to say that evil does not exist? I believe that this word is an antiquated and harmful word that our society no longer has any use for. Years ago, it may have been advantageous for leaders to dehumanize their foes, to propagate a sense of “us vs. them” as a way to rally people around a country or an ideology. In times of great anxiety and fear, whether that is puberty or the Crusades, it is profoundly appealing to reach out into the dark and grab something that feels solid. For various societies at various times, that solid idea was that “we” are “good” and that “they” are “evil.” This kind of thinking simplifies the fear and makes it much easier to ignore. Thanks to technology and education, it is becoming harder and harder for people to feel that "they" are in fact at all separate from "us." In truth, “they” are never “evil.” Just like Tyler, they have travelled through their lives with more for less the same wiring as you, and the only differences are in their experiences and in their particular mutations. Even as a Jew, I would never say that Hitler is “evil” — in fact, I think it does significant cultural damage to our understanding of the historical context of the Holocaust to call Hitler “evil.” Somehow, through a mix of mental illness, warped thinking, and scarring experiences, he arrived to the mindset that he had. By understanding this, we can better understand how to avoid such things from happening again, and we can better recognize these twisted ways of thinking in others going forward.
I think part of the issue is that people underestimate how limited and unreliable one’s own perspective can be. I am personally obsessed with psychology experiments that remind me how easily the brain can be manipulated, and how much of our motivation and decision making is entirely out of our control. Here are just a few of my favorites:
1. In "split brain" patients, the verbal/rational side of the brain is unable to communicate directly with the more abstract/conceptual side of the brain. So, if he or she covers one eye, and allows information to enter only one side of the brain, psychologists can study what happens when something enters only one side and not the other. In one experiment, the word “walk” is written on a card and is shown to only one eye, sending it into the non-verbal side of the subject's brain. The subject would casually get up and begin walking. The experimenter would then ask: “where are you going?” The subject would always give an answer, about stretching their legs or going to the bathroom or something like that. They would have no conscious memory of seeing the word, because it wasn’t seen by the consciously literate side of the brain. Nevertheless, in an effort to rationalize this sudden gut instinct to “walk,” the logical side invents an answer. Crazy.
2. The subject is asked to memorize a multi-digit number, and then walk down a hallway and repeat this number to an experimenter in another room. As the subject walks down the hall, they are stopped by another experimenter and told that they will be given a free snack in exchange for their participation in this study. They are given a choice: chocolate cake or fruit salad. The longer the number that the subject is memorizing, the more likely they are to choose the chocolate cake. This is because the chocolate cake is the visceral, “irrational” choice, whereas the fruit salad is the “logical,” more intellectual choice. That’s right, it only takes a few extra numbers to fully override an individual’s ability to make a logical decision, and instead we go with our "gut." Imagine what real life stresses must do to the same hardware!
3. The subject is handed a cup of coffee before a written exam. One of the questions on the exam is “what do you think of Joe?” If the coffee the subject was handed was pleasantly warm, they are much more likely to “like” Joe than if the coffee was cold. Our brains are the dumbest!
There are many incredible experiments of this sort out there, and while we might try to convince ourselves that we are much more “at the wheel” than the people in these experiments, we are wrong. None of us are at the wheel. All of us see neutral faces as menacing after watching scary movies. All of us make unconscious "decisions" a significant number of nanoseconds before we are aware of these decisions consciously. We are messy and unregulated and to assume that your perspective is “right” in any way that is larger than yourself is just plain silliness.
So, here I am, almost 2 AM, and I’m still writing this. What inspired me to write this? I was listening to NPR, and I was overwhelmed with frustration and sadness at the backlash from the political right in reaction to the San Bernardino shooting on December 2nd and the backlash from the political left in reaction to the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting on November 27th. I have heard “evil” used by both sides, especially in the last few days with respect to Muslims. Today, Trump put out a statement saying that if he were president, he would end all immigration by Muslims, and would not even allow American Muslims abroad to return home. This is what inspired me to write this.
This idea that the world is as simple as “us” vs. “them” is a beautifully simple delusion. I get it. It gives you purpose, forward motion, and makes you feel like you are a complete and flawless idea of a human being, crusading against those that are flawed, irrational, and morally unjust. I understand why it has been the refuge of the existentially fearful for thousands of years. But in truth, life does not have these delineations. We are all good and evil, moral and immoral, just and unjust. We all struggle to find our balance and live a joyful and just life in our own way, whether it is through man-made coping mechanisms like religion or community, or through our own personal searching and questioning. We can no longer allow us to think of ourselves as separate, “above” our foes and “below” our leaders. We can hate our foes and love our leaders, but we can never deny their humanity. Acknowledging that we are all essentially the same, save for a few synapses here and there, is the most important step to reconnecting with our essential humanness that was baked in at the outset. No matter what, we will always feel our feelings strongly, and hold deeply held convictions that we feel are true to the bottom of our hearts. This is okay. What we cannot do is believe ourselves so God-like in our ability to understand the universe that we think our beliefs are cosmic truths that exist above and beyond our experience. Everyone and everything is down in the same dirt, trying their best, and there isn’t a human, or belief, or system, or idea that didn’t have a foot on the same the exact same patch of dirt when it started out.
In these very scary times of extremist religious beliefs and violence, it has never been more important to listen, to emphasize, and to understand. To have faith in the intrinsic good of emotionally healthy people, and to invest in education and outreach before we invest in retaliation and dehumanization.
Empathy is our saving grace, and certainty erodes empathy.
“It’s weird to be a human. We get to think about things, we get to wonder. It seems like quite a privileged position in the universe. And I wouldn’t give it up for certainty because when you’re certain you stop being curious. And here’s the one thing I know about the thing you’re certain about; you’re wrong. Of course this is a paradox, how is it possible to know that you can’t know anything? It isn’t, it’s just a theory. And I remain open to being proven wrong.” - Charlie Kaufman