Blake, William, 1757-1827; Satan Calling up His Legions
Blake, William; Satan Calling up His Legions; National Trust, Petworth House; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/satan-calling-up-his-legions-219773

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
California Press.



7 thoughts on “Evil

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  1. I think another interesting angle on this is that, from the perspective of the survivor, it can be difficult to process/work through the trauma if the perpetrator is otherwise “good” – it can be a source of quite a lot of cognitive dissonance because either a) That person is “good”, so why did they do these evil acts, or b) That person is “evil”, so why are they now also doing acts which are generally considered to be good? It’s much harder to accept that the perpetrator can be a mix of the two, and I think that’s partly due to the way society frames it, as you’ve discussed.

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    1. One drop of arsenic in a pure glass of water makes that water poisonous; one evil act committed by an otherwise “good” person, makes that person evil. Most serial killers do good, pro-social things most of the time. Do not drink the poisoned water, no matter how clear and sparkling it looks.

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  2. I think pointing at others who fit the image of evil monster also allows people to feel better about themselves and their own shortcomings. Something along the lines of “I may have slapped my kids when they’ve been naughty, but I’m nothing like Ian Brady, so it’s ok”.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thank you for this. I think people couldn’t understand why I was reluctant to leave my young children with even those I’d known for years. I wasn’t able to tell them why as this probably would have been seen as me ‘accusing’ those friends. Therefore I came across as anxious and obsessive/possessive. The perpetrators rely on gaining the trust of family members and close friends. Those evil people who harmed me were very popular, fun, generous and credible whilst I was a ‘trouble-maker’. Evil often wears a warm smile!

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  4. Hi, evil wow as one interviewed, since my interview I have found out I was raped by yet a third at 18 months old. However, strangely enough given what I am facing at the moment, I thank my rapists every day for the strength they have given me, the integrity that I have and the willl to survive

    Evil yeah but the only way to respond is with great love and compassion. I do not wish them well though for the lessons they have taught me and I hope every day that they are either in jail or not alive but I will not reject that part of me which is special. Their seeds were meant to dominate, to degrade, to humiliate but instead have given me wings to overcome new evil

    I am grateful to Claire and all others bravery at the moment who have the courage to bear witness


    Liked by 1 person

  5. “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?” YES! The word “evil” undermines victims of sexual abuse, because of the extreme images it conjures up. Perpetrators make a point of appearing “normal” as cover for their crimes. They often win over their communities and choose victims who are socially vulnerable. I do believe that sex offenders are evil, but most of them do “good” things most of the time. Just as it only takes one drop of arsenic to make a whole glass of water poisonous, it only takes one evil act to make a whole person evil.

    Liked by 1 person

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