We Are All Capable of Evil

In a previous job, my primary work was with people who had been arrested, incarcerated, were on probation or Corrections supervision, or had accepted mental health and substance abuse counseling in lieu of other consequences.

As a case manager, my roles included supporting these folks in both getting the mental and emotional skills they needed to improve their lives and find better solutions to their problems, as well as helping them to find and apply for the resources they need to live a life within the bounds of law. It was my first job out of graduate school and I wasn’t great at it. Being a middle class person with a graduate degree didn’t help when I had no experience or expertise in navigating social service systems or surviving homelessness. Other clients were more adept, savvy, and familiar with the system that they knew where to apply and what to do.

As part of this work, I had a number of clients who were registered sex offenders. A few were in complete denial of their history and remained elusive to accountability, but others had done their time, followed their probation, engaged diligently in their mandated treatment and wanted to simply find a place where they could live and work and stay out of trouble. The highest level offenders were highly isolated, had few social and economic resources—even the folks who formerly made more money than I ever would struggled to find anywhere to live. Legally, the constraints were significant, and beyond that it was hard to find a landlord willing to rent a space. Forget about getting a job.

That’s an extreme example of the kind of problems my clients generally faced. Hopelessness was high, and in many cases the relative structure of incarceration seemed more tolerable than the freedom in which they received so little support.

I’ve reflected on this in the recent weeks since so many revelations of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and coercion continue to surface in the media. I have this sense that in the larger culture, we don’t do accountability well. The dominant cultural pattern is to underrespond and overreact.

  • We underrespond: In so many of the stories coming to light, we hear the theme that the perpetrator’s abuse was an “open secret” for years. Colleagues and employees colluded. Friends and peers justified or minimized the abuse to the assaulted people. So many victims of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault find their stories doubted or disbelieved because the perpetrator was respected in community, a friend and colleague, or else the perpetrator was so powerful and threatening that pushing back seemed worse than tolerating the abuse.
  • We overreact: Through some mysterious confluence of events, someone is believed and then all the stories come out. Or stories that have been out for years suddenly get taken seriously. That’s not the problem. The problem is that suddenly the perpetrator went from misunderstood person to complete evil demon who is a piece of shit. People, often seemingly male, make loud public declarations that “If anyone I knew did that to a friend of mine, I’d kill them,” without apparently contemplating the possibility that someone they know has done it, and it may well have been their best friend, their sibling, their religious leader. Or they may well have themself violated someone’s boundaries and consent at some point in life.

There are definitely exceptions, individuals and groups that are doing the work to protect each other while identifying and managing sources of harm. In the larger culture, however, the criminal bears the symbolic weight of the community’s evils, even after they’ve experienced the consequences of their behavior.

Image of a brown owl. A human hand is grabbing the owl from below.
Photo by Zachary Bedroisan

I think this tendency extends into communities where certain behavior and ideas are not legally criminalized but socially proscribed. When an accusation finally gets taken seriously, what follows could be the accused engaging in ritual confession and then seeking “treatment,” which typically is a way of avoiding accountability by reframing the problem as a personal struggle. When that is not possible, or the accused is not savvy or avoidant enough, they may instead be cast out.

What’s hard to do is engender effective consequences and accountability processes that keep the community together and recognize the personhood of victim and perpetrator. This is even harder to do when trying to interrupt patterns of abuse and harm before they escalate to tragedy and trauma.

There is no issue with prioritizing community safety, self-defense, and freedom of association. When someone is causing harm, the first task is to stop the harm, and then repair it. The wellbeing of those harmed comes before the comfort and success of those causing the harm. For those who use their positions of power to abuse and harass, I see the loss of that power and influence as a form of harm reduction. Rather than “ending their careers” it could be more like reducing the power they have to something safer for others.

What I take issue with is how collective outrage seems to allow the rest of us to ignore our own evil tendencies in a way to make us feel somehow safer. The sex offender we recognize—publicly known in community—is less of a threat than the one we don’t yet know about. The one who’s in our community. The one we like. The one “no one would expect” but sometimes people wonder about, quietly to each other.

When I say “evil tendencies” I don’t mean that all of us are going to directly commit violence in the course of our lives. But I suspect more of us than we want to acknowledge have either committed, contemplated, or colluded with some act, ideology, or bias we otherwise find morally repugnant.

Those of us who speak the loudest about others’ evil, who call for the greatest and most merciless violence against the people who they think embody evil—I don’t trust those people. No matter which ideology they espouse, which political party they vote for, whether they wrap it up in social justice language or speak with religious rhetoric. To me they’re as suspect as all of us who minimize evil, justify it, make excuses for it.

I’ve caused harm in my life, and I’ve suffered harm. I’ve taken the drug of self-righteousness and fueled vitriol against others. I’ve been silent when speaking could have aided others. I’ve failed to recognize what was happening and act when I could. People have confronted me with my harm and I’ve responded defensively, and sometimes I’ve responded with listening and accepted accountability.

When I consider that we’re all capable of evil, then I come to feel we need to confront each other with a compassionate heart. I want to offer good faith opportunities to the other person to hear the harm they’ve caused and give them an opportunity to redress. I also need to be ready for the other person not to show up in good faith, and know how I will protect myself and my community. I want to listen to my trust and mistrust alike, but seek with that synthesizing virtue named by Erik Eriksson, hope.