Who Is ‘Evil,’ and Who Is the Victim?

23 September 2016

Published by New York Times

This is the eighth in a series of dialogues with philosophers and critical theorists on the question of violence. This conversation is with Simona Forti, aprofessor of political philosophy at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy, and a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in New York.Her most recent book is “New Demons: Rethinking Power and Evil Today.


Brad Evans: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, right up to today’s battles with the Islamic State, politicians have had no hesitation using the concept of evil to achieve their aims. George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” or Barack Obama’s assertion in his Nobel Peace Prize speech that “evil does exist in the world” are obvious examples. But as the philosopher Richard J. Bernstein points out in his book “Radical Evil: A Philosophical Investigation,” intellectuals have been reluctant to deal with the concept. Do you believe that is true? And if so, why?

Simona Forti: Evil has been a powerful mobilizer for centuries, going back long before Sept. 11 — from the Crusades, aimed at purifying Christianity of the evil of nonbelievers, to Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of the Soviet Union as the “empire of evil.” Speaking in such ways proves very expedient as it can be a powerful political strategy to revive the theological and metaphysical dichotomy between good and evil, with the latter obviously presented as the essential trait of the enemy we must defeat.

Bernstein is right in noting the recurring “evil talks” following Sept. 11. At the dawn of the 21st century, these simplistic formulations were coming under attack in the intellectual world. But the egregiousness of the Sept. 11 attacks lent itself very easily to a vision of good-evil dualism and a radical account of evil based on that vision.

Today, we can see that both fundamentalist militant ideologies and the Western rhetoric of antiterrorism deploy a similar good-evil scheme as an instrument to divide the world along a simplistic dichotomy.

Take, for instance, the recent example of the Islamic State. If we were to write of its violence as being merely irrational or even barbaric, our condemnation wouldn’t resonate as strongly in the popular imagination. Presenting the violence in terms of “evil” not only ensures that the fight against it is imperative, it also places us, unreservedly, on the right side of moral history.

B.E.: What if someone were to argue that the concept of evil itself is philosophically and politically compromised, as it necessarily leads to such absolutist moral proclamations that leave no room for discussion or deliberation?

SF: Calling attention to such absolutism is exactly what I aim to do. If we heed discussions about political evil, in the classics of political philosophy and elsewhere, we notice that behind the most diverse arguments stands a similar pattern. From the critics of the French Revolution, to today’s public speeches against radical Islamism, the question of evil and the power it unleashes is nearly always subsumed under the sign of nihilism. Evil, in short, becomes shorthand for the unleashing of death.

It was the literary genius of Fyodor Dostoyevsky who gave this nexus between evil and power its most iconic configuration, embodied in the main characters of his novel “Demons.” In Dostoyevsky’s writings, there is a particular logic to evil born of the desire to take the place of God and his infinite freedom. Since finite creatures are unable to create the world from nothing, they try to become Godlike by reducing being to nothing, by destroying. This is how evil enters the world for Dostoyevsky and for the many who, knowingly or not, follow in his tracks. It signals a condition where evil is said to enter the world as a diabolical disease of power, a power that, because it exceeds all given limits, can only be the pure energy of oppression and domination. This is the basis for thinking about absolute violence.

Of course, Dostoyevsky’s conception of evil is much more complex, but I believe we can talk — beginning with “Demons” — about a “Dostoyevsky paradigm” as a theoretical framework within which many philosophers inscribed the evil they saw in the history of the 20th century. It is as if the book offered transhistorical models of an exemplary scene of evil. We see this embodied in Nikolai Stavrogin, the most malicious character in this work, who directs its plot of nihilistic destruction.

Sucked into a destructive maelstrom of unlimited freedom, he seems to finally give a true representation of the “radical evil” glimpsed and named by Kant. He sexually violates a young girl, Matryosha, without apparent reason or desire. His perversion reaches its apex when he stands by impassively as the poor Matryosha hangs herself. For Dostoyevsky, this means Stavrogin goes past the point of no return as evil has as its object and target the absolute innocence of the victim. This expresses what I believe is Dostoevsky’s idea of evil in its absolute, pure form.

The problem, however, is that the Dostoyevsky paradigm captures only this final scene. What is more relevant for the question of evil today is to critically question everything that happens before this utterly asymmetrical relationship between the perpetrators of violence and their absolute victims develops. 

B.E.: How then might we rethink the relationship between evil and the victim to allow for a more nuanced understanding of historical and contemporary forms of violence?

S.F.: Without doubt, the way in which Michel Foucault rethinks relations of power opens a way here. He allows us to deconstruct the easy partitioning of the political field into just two distinct main characters, one with all the power (and, for this reason, guilty) and the other an absolute victim (thus, totally innocent.)

Evil doesn’t always require absolute negativity, as it does in the Dostoyevsky paradigm. It can in fact be made by mediocre actions and actors, and thrive through the gradual accumulation of unnecessary suffering over time. By “mediocre,” I am referring to the unremarkable or the seemingly mundane.

Inspired here by the powerful and unsettling work of Primo Levi, I would say that before we reach a stage of domination polarized between victims and perpetrators, there is a “gray area” of strategies of power, domination, co-option and resistance. This calls on us to address many challenging ethical and moral complexities that defy absolutist positions.

For example, Foucault’s now widely cited reflections of biopolitics (the politics of life), and its ever possible slippage into thanatopolitics (a politics of death), reveal that the evil of domination comes not only from a will to destruction and death, as the classics imply, but also from a will to maximize life.

To understand this, consider that killing often takes place so that certain ways of life can thrive, not just out of some nihilistic urge. It was, in this sense, quite enlightening for me to read some key Nazi texts — texts of so-called “philosophical anthropology” — and to note how, despite how comforting it is to think of the perpetrators of genocide as absolute nihilists, such actors often think of themselves as maximizing some conception of life. They see themselves as the “true humanists” who fight against a “culture of death” (the Jewish one, in this case) in the name of “the value of life.”

All of this further puts into question the Dostoyevsky paradigm. Now, the characters are more than two (malevolent demons on one side and absolute victims on the other) precisely because the plot of political evil does not center only on death and the will to power, but also on the unquestioned priority of “life,” and the dangerous ways it can be pursued and conceived of. Out of the shadow emerge mediocre demons, and their desire for normality and positivity.

B.E.: Your mention of “mediocrity” and evil inevitably recalls the work of Hannah Arendt. How does all this relate to her now infamous dictum on the banality of evil?

SF: My debt to Hannah Arendt here is obvious. She was the first to grasp the complexity of a system of evil, to understand that it does not live only of evil intentions. With “Eichmann in Jerusalem she no longer speaks of radical evil, but of the banality of evil, that matter of fact way that the officer Eichmann and other Nazis pursued the day-to-day operations of genocide. Thanks to this theoretical shift, Arendt makes available for us a constellation of concepts, even though she did not have the time to arrange into a fully developed philosophical reflection. My goal is to pick up where she left off, while addressing the limitations of her important and empirically grounded work. Talk of “banality,” in my opinion, runs the risk of turning merely into a linguistic provocation. If we talk about normality instead, a whole new field of insights comes to the fore, including that of compliance with a norm.

Our present times, in the West, are ruled by a paradoxical kind of normativity, where on the one hand there is a stated commitment to universal claims regarding rights, as if this discourse is now uncontroversial for liberal societies, yet on the other hand the painful reality for many is the experience of unnecessary suffering and hardship.

For example, consider the unnecessary violence represented by the frequent drownings of people fleeing to Europe. The treatment by European leaders and officials of this situation as in a way normal, in the absence of serious political commitments to resolve it, could be usefully spoken about in terms of normative or mediocre evil in the world today.

B.E.: Looking at the other side of the relationship, it seems that an essential political strategy for many groups today is to present themselves as the undeniable victim of violence and suffering in order to stake out their own moral claims. How do we make sense of this?

S.F.: For a long time in European history, being identified as a victim of a war or a genocide carried with it the shame of not having been able to defend oneself. This is one of the reasons, for example, in the first few years following World War II, the Jewish victims of Auschwitz could not fully tell their story.

In the last few decades the situation has completely changed. Not only does the status of victim elicit respect, but it has become the object of some kind of competition. Who is the true victim? Who is most victimized? Who can boast about being an absolute victim, free from any compromise with power and from any responsibility? 

The identity of victim can produce political benefits. But most of all, it allows us to think of ourselves as morally superior and innocent, and therefore holding the right to inflict violence ourselves, but now a violence that is morally legitimate, and hence a nonviolent violence. It is an identity, then, that dulls our perception of abusing our own power, of having become perpetrators.

Let us be clear: Victims exist, as perpetrators exist. There are different degrees of responsibility and abuse, because all actors are not equally guilty. Yet, as Primo Levi teaches us, being a victim in itself does not automatically confer a certificate of innocence. Before and after we were victims, we have been and are responsible: for actions and inactions, for wrongs and indifference, for negations and shrugs.

B.E.: Where does this all leave us in terms of Nietzsche’s famous critique of all forms of dogmatism and the violence it can cause, thinking instead “beyond good and evil”?

S.F.: I do not stand opposed to Nietzsche. In fact, in many ways I would place myself within a philosophical context that embraces at least some readings of his work. And that is the challenge: to take his “untimely,” contested concepts, and to try to rethink them within a new ethical and political framework.

The problem I aim to solve is that despite his appeal to think beyond good and evil, Nietzsche himself cannot quite step out of that distinction. He can change its terms, overturn them, but he does not escape from the dynamic of ethical judgment, which distinguishes between actions that are good on account of the ways they affirm the “human,” as opposed to actions that are patently dangerous and negate those qualities that enable a dignified life.

Instead, I believe that the distinction between good and evil, just and unjust — the very act of distinguishing — is constitutive of the human animal’s search for meaning. And if people think deeply, they cannot but ask themselves questions, questions not only about the existence of things, but also about the meaning of actions, and the relations that exist between humans living in a shared world.

If we believe in the critical function of philosophy, we cannot, and more important, should not stop talking about political evil, precisely because of the expressive and provocative force of the term and the concept. It is the most powerful way to signify the complex entanglement of subjectivity, facts, ideas, intentional and unintentional actions, indifference and, passivity, which come together in a fatal weave of atrocity and destruction.