True Evil

Oops. Been awhile.  Before I get to new content, may as well at least cross-post the last 6 or so articles from the class…

Is evil really a simple concept? We like to think it is, we like to think we can recognize evil as something evil, and something other. But most people don’t actually have any real experience with evil, no direct experience.

Craig Williamson was an operative for the South American apartheid government. He was granted amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He now works in a market, selling produce, but despite the official amnesty he says that he does not feel that he is forgiven. In his defense, he claims a sort of “just following orders” defense. If he’d been told it was evil to do the things he was ordered, he would have thought about it more. Apparently because it was presented to him as the “greater good” he just didn’t question anything. As weaselly as this sounds, and, really, is, the fact is that once people get into the mindset of distinguishing “us” from “them” this kind of thought process can be used to follow through with all sorts of terrible actions: it’s probably very similar to what urban gangs to do each other.

However, though at times during the documentary “The Ones That Got Away” Williamson does seem to have accepted his actions, and is genuinely trying to make some restitution and, in a way, make up for his evil, he also resents what he sees as an over-positive fairy dust solution. Part of his reasoning behind this resentfulness is that “there will be people…who hate what I did.”  This is problematic, because he should also hate what he did. Everyone should hate what he did. Forgiveness means that we shouldn’t hate him, as an individual, but apparently, somewhere in his mind, he may still believe that he wasn’t entirely wrong.

In A Human Being Died that Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who was a part of the TRC and is a clinical psychologist, believes that “even atrocities call for an apology that is sincere, unencumbered by explanation or justification.” I believe that is true. It’s very hard to make a sincere apology. No one likes to admit being wrong, and to make a sincere apology they have to be able to face what they did. They have to strip away their mental defenses against whatever wrong they committed…and even minor every-day infractions, like forgetting to take out the trash, can be very difficult to admit to, especially when the person apologizing feels they are in the weaker position: also a hard place to be.

As Gobodo-Madikizela says, an apology “clears…the air in order to begin reconstructing the broken connections between human beings.” An apology doesn’t come from weakness, but it does require the speaker to completely acknowledge their own faults—and that admits weakness. Actually truly apologizing is strength. But an apology enacted to put the apologizer in a position of moral power is even less likely to be sincere. Gobodo-Madikizela uses the example of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and her official apology in front of the commission for the death of Stompie Seipei. The young man’s body was discovered just outside of Soweto, and linked to the activities of the Mandela Football Club. A court hearing found that there was evidence that Seipei’s death was related to events that had taken place in Madikizela-Mandela’s home.

During the TRC public hearing, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela refused to admit she knew anything about anything, whether or not it had happened in her home. Gobodo-Madikizela does not give details as to what specifically she said, her focus was on how Madikizela-Mandela used that opportunity as a way to offer an “apology” and keep a position of moral strength: “She approached Stompie Seipei’s mother while the TV cameras rolled. With a triumphant smile and open arms, she embraced her.” Unlike Gobodo-Madikizela, I don’t know that I believe Seipei’s mother was stripped of dignity in this interaction, if only because she seemed to be behaving far better than Madikizela-Mandela, but I wasn’t there, and I don’t know the details of the interaction. Unfortuantely, Madikizela-Mandela was unwilling to face what she’d done, or even what she hadn’t done, much less try to heal the wounds she left behind.

Both of these people did very wrong, and hurt people. But where do they fall on the scale of evil? Is there a scale? I would judge that, at least to a certain extent, Williamson is willing to face what he did during the apartheid—even if rather obliquely. But Madikizela-Mandela does not face any possible damage she may have done, what part she played. And Williamson undoubtedly killed more people, and was far more directly involved. So should we not forgive them, because they aren’t doing enough? Perhaps so. After all, we know what’s Right.

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3 thoughts on “True Evil

  1. I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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