Speaking of Evil After a Tragedy

      The subtitle for a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “How ‘Evil’ Became a Conservative Buzzword” states that “the left and right rely on different moral languages in the wake of tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting.” The article’s author, Emma Green, writes that, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, conservatives ascribed blame to “pure evil” which cannot be “regulated” while liberals talked about the failure of government to better regulate weapons. On the surface, The Atlantic’s assessment seems correct. Consider this quote regarding the Las Vegas shooter from an article in The American Conservative: “in Stephen Paddock, the conscience was dead. He was a dead soul, a moral nihilist, a post-Christian man in a post-Christian age, a monster.” You would be hard pressed to find a liberal CNN pundit who would affirm or use such language in her commentary on the (tragedy, act of terror….?) If this is the language required to speak of evil, it seems impossible indeed that a liberal pundit could ever speak about evil. But of course, as Green helps us see, what is notably partisan here is not our belief (or lack of thereof) in evil per se, but only the language with which to speak of it.

      I want to suggest that while there are perhaps plenty of liberals who philosophically just do not believe in evil, this doesn’t seem to be the case for the majority. Sure, some might simply be utilitarians who reason pragmatically that if others have guns, their own risk of death increases. But the calls for policy changes that ring so urgently on the Left after mass shootings suggest that most liberals care very deeply about morality, which is why they believe so strongly in our moral obligations and responsibilities to pass preventive measures. So if it isn’t that liberals don’t believe in evil (immorality, lack of good, etc.), why then the partisan divide restricting speaking about it? I think one simple answer is that liberals are concerned that when conservatives pinpoint evil as the cause, it works to absolve politicians of responsibility and further cements an ideology that won’t pass gun control legislation. Consider that earlier quote from The American Conservative: if our attention is on how Paddock was “a dead soul,” what role can government possibly have in addressing this?

      Liberals are right to critique the language of conservatives as being governmentally impotent. But I think this explanation isn’t enough. Conservatives who are “traditional” have an uneasy relationship with classical liberalism, the foundation on which rests our (classically) liberal democracy. Meanwhile liberals – who tend to be more reliably classically liberal (in this area) than “conservatives” who are a spectrum of traditionalism and libertarianism (classical liberalism) – are quite cozy with liberalism as such. Thus, when a Leftist-but-not-Liberal writer like Elizabeth Bruenig writes to defend belief in the devil in her essay “The Devil We Know”, it challenges those liberals in fascinating ways. Bruenig asks us to consider the following thought-experiment: “suppose that the devil really was real, and so was evil, and the complex systems of politics and society were not morally neutral but as rife with moral intent and meaning as anything else made by human hands.” Such a thought experiment is likely uncomfortable for the classical liberal who believes in a value-neutral public square, whether he votes for Hillary Clinton or Rand Paul. It is only the traditionalist, whether the Democrat voting for O’Malley or the Republican voting for Bush, who tends toward this kind of language. But the more fundamental question that Breunig’s thought experiment asks – the question that unsettles the liberal, but also the average Bush voter, and likely even Bush himself – is this: “could our very political structure be somehow inadequate for perceiving, talking about, and responding to evil?”

      I certainly have beliefs about what our language should be concerning evil. But I don’t want to prescribe a common language, nor could I even if I wanted to. I don’t want to prescribe such a language because I think we as a society need to develop one that is the authentic result of our dialogue with each other. Partisan divides that give one group a monopoly on speaking about evil are not helpful. Instead, as a starting point for this dialogue, I suggest we all step away from stock categories like “liberal” and “conservative” or “Republican” and “Democrat” and instead begin to ask, each of us for ourselves, two questions: “does evil exist?” and “if it does, how should I speak of it?”

     Sources; The Atlantic; The Hedgehog Review

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