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Time and time again we revisit previous times of our lives, especially when trying to come to terms with unprecedented realities. Society works with precedent and continuity that allows people to negotiate their own individual identities. We live in a society that fostered the culture of the one, and played down the importance of the collective, especially when people in positions of power declared that they can do more with less.
One pandemic later, and we clapped at the heroes those we regarded as needy money-grabbers previously, those we acknowledge now, that we previously cast aside as low skilled workers. One pandemic later, and social movements came to prominence, asking big questions about the criminal justice system and the way it interacts with those numerous people, that are not perceived as “mainstream”. Across Western countries, people are registering the way the system is operating to maintain social order, through social injustice. Each case that appears in the news is not an individual story as before, but are becoming evidence of something wider, systemic and institutional.
Covid-19 affects people, and so we must maintain social distancing, cover our faces and clean our hands. Clear advice from WHO about the pandemic, but people also die when they drown as refugees crossing troubled waters. People also die when someone puts a knee on their throat (who knew?), people die when they have to deal with abject poverty and have no means to cover their basic subsistence. People die, and we record their deaths but officially some of those are normalised to the point that they become expected. Every year I pose the question about good and evil to a group of young adults who seem uncertain about the answer.
I was recently reminded of a statement made a long time ago by Manos Xatzidakis in relation to the normalisation of evil: “If you are not afraid of the face of evil it means that you have become accustomed to it. Then you accept the horror and you are frightened by beauty”. When we are expecting death for seemingly preventable causes, we have crossed that Rubicon according to Xatzidakis.
As a kid, one of my favourite stories was Hansel and Gretel. Like all fairy-tales it has a moral signature and is a cautionary lesson. In my mind it contracted the first image of evil, that of a witch. The illustration made it very real, but also quite specific. An oversized, badly dressed witch, with an unsatisfiable taste for children’s flesh. It was the embodiment of true evil. In later years, reading The Witches by Roald Dahl exacerbated the fear of this creature, seemingly normal but with layers of ugly under their skin. The evil that was on the face of the beholder, their intentions clear and their behaviour manipulative but clear on their objectives. This, I learn as an adult, is an evil that only exists in stories.
This kind of witch, is a demonstration of the social vilification of women and especially those who actively try to challenge the status quo, but not the evil that runs in our societies. The construction of social demons is a convenient invention to evoke fears and maintain order; well that is something a sceptic may say…but social scientists ought to question everything and be a bit of a sceptic. In my version of the fairytale the wicked witch is pushed into the oven by Hansel and Gretel, the image of her oversized bottom sticking out, whilst the rest of her body is consumed by the flames.
Admittedly, I was too old to get into the Harry Potter genre and read the books but the image of his opposition made it to popular culture. The “He who cannot be named” became another convenient, albeit complex, evil capable of unspeakable evils. An icon in its own right of the corruptive nature of evil.
The reality of course is slightly different. The big evils do not get extinguished with flames or other means. They do not cease and there is not necessarily happy ever after; social injustice and unfairness is continuous and so is the struggle to fight them. The victories are not complete, but gradual and small. If the pandemic shows us something other than death and heartache, it is the brittleness of life and the need to ask for more in a society that is geared to prime individualism over social solidarity. It is perhaps a good time, for those who never did, to engage with social movements, for those who left them to return and all find their passion of sharing human experience, that is predicated on equality and fairness.
Fairytales, are interesting insomuch of giving us some moral direction but they do not help us to understand the wider social issues and the actions people have to take. The witches out there may not carry brooms and mix spells in cauldrons but evil carries indifference, apathy and lack of empathy. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, now that is true evil. After all, is there such a thing called evil or are we content with finding easy answers?