There’s a song I’ve heard only once in my life, about seven years ago, that will never leave me. Zimbabwean artiste Oliver Mtukudzi was giving a concert, courtesy of the history department, and some unknown soul, a Chris Berry, was opening for him. This was drawing close to the end of the first year of college. We were there to be politically informed and have a good time (in that order). And then this Chris Berry began to sing. It was catchy and made you want to dance. The chorus rang out: “ Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong?” Those simple words touched a resounding chord within me. Yes! WHY do we do that?
I think of this song not only in obvious times (discussing the death penalty, for instance), but also whenever I’m confronted with the sort of mentality that finds the death of an “ enemy” an occasion to celebrate. I find such behaviour paradoxical and deeply disturbing. Of course, I understand that when people do The Worst Thing Imaginable, we want the punishment to be of the same calibre. This is justice, right? To put it most simplistically, however, in order to support punishment in kind, we have to, in a way, become “ that which we loathe”, as the saying goes. In order to navigate the ambiguous moral area where suddenly two sets of people have done the same thing but only one of them is censured, we have to satisfy ourselves and others with the idea that one of us is less than human. Because we would never want it said that we rejoiced in the loss of life itself ( generally, this is the Worst Thing Imaginable), but in Evil losing one of its minions. We use very black and white terms: We are Good. That guy is Evil.
What does this have to do with you and I? Well, I believe we have reason to be wary of good and evil dichotomies. Once we are comfortable branding people, instead of people’s behaviour, as evil, we have achieved a certain psychological distance from them. With this distance, we may find ourselves excluding them from moral consideration. We may find it all right to treat them in, what in other cases would be considered, abominable ways. We may think that these people don’t have basic rights to respect. We may think that violence is not only acceptable but the best way to deal with them.
There’s a reason why studies have shown that such rationalisations have propelled genocide and other gross human rights violations. When we have come to such a conclusion, we are no better than those people were to begin with. I think it is arrogant of us to suppose that we are somehow inherently different from one another, so unique, so special, that we ourselves are not capable of the Worst Thing Imaginable. I think it is dangerous to believe that certain people are just evil. I think future atrocious behaviour could very well spring from within our midst. I think it is short- sighted to not see that for every paragon of “ evil”, there was an instance when we as a community failed to sufficiently care for one of our own.
Instead of rejoicing, we ought to ask ourselves this: What leads to such appalling behaviour in the first place? What social or psychological ( or other) considerations did we fail to take into account? What actions do we have to take to effectively avoid similar future occurrences?
Originally published in the Guyana Times, October 2011