It’s been a while since I blogged. I’ve been typing up interview transcripts – a long and complex job and investigating future possibilities – more of those in later blogs. Now the University teaching year has started I’ve been teaching seminars and covering my supervisor’s lectures about the sociology of evil. It’s really interesting stuff so I thought it’d be a good subject to blog about.
Different disciplines approach evil in differing ways. Theology views it as the great battle between good and evil. Psychologists and psychiatrists look for its origins in people’s childhood experiences and neuro-biologists scan brains for damaged or missing areas.
Sociologists ask a different question. What is evil for? Why do we use the term? Why do we describe some people or acts as evil and not others? Alexander (2001) argues that evil is used to highlight good – we talk about things being evil to make it clear what we, as a society, want people to do instead.
As an example, child sexual abuse is generally seen as an evil act. This highlights our horror at people hurting children because, as a society, we want children to be cared for. This is good – the abuse of children is extremely wrong and could definitely be described as evil. Society wants to underline that abuse is wrong.
There are, however, a few unintended problems with this. Firstly when we think of ‘evil’ people we imagine monstrous, almost bestial, people. The vast majority of abuse is carried out by family members or acquaintances, not demonic strangers, so most abusers appear completely normal. If we are looking for ‘evil’ are we ignoring what is happening in our community, street or even home? Does this mean we are more likely to dismiss or ignore accusations?
Secondly ‘evil’ is seen as something catching. So there is the idea that people who have been abused go on to be abusers – something that there isn’t very much evidence for. This means that people who have been abused are scared from talking about it – so perpetrators get away with more crimes. It also means that families encourage children (and adults) to stay silent, to avoid the shame – but why would there be any shame unless there was this idea that people who have been abused are ‘tainted’ in some way?
So what do we do? I absolutely think that as a society we need to define what is acceptable and what is not. Abusing a child is not acceptable. It is utterly selfish to take what you want regardless of the harm done to another – particularly a child. But society needs to talk about it and learn about it. The label of evil, whilst an understandable way of expressing our horror at abuse, means that we don’t talk about it and we silence those who do want to talk about it. Openness is the key here. Silence allows abusers to get away with their crimes and prevents recovery for people who have experienced it.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2001) ‘Towards a Sociology of Evil’, in Maria Pia Lara (ed.)
Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives, pp. 153–72. Berkeley: University of