Graphing evil: an insane and superfluous thought stroll

As the iconic figurehead of an overwhelmingly despised multinational terrorist organization, Osama bin Laden was bound to be an unpopular guy. His death has set off a media frenzy unparalleled in recent memory - I haven’t even heard a peep about Will and Kate’s honeymoon! Indeed, Osama bin Laden was a wicked man. His actions were condemned by billions around the world. Many people have drawn connections between Osama bin Laden and other famous superstars of evil, the most trite of which can be summed up as “OMG! OSAMA AND HITLER’S DEATHS WERE ANNOUNCED THE SAME DAY! SAY HELLO TO KARMIC JUSTICE, MURDEROUS BITCHES!”
The obvious point here is to draw a correlation between the deeds, identities and demises of bin Laden and Hitler, as if to suggest that they cosmically aligned – two peas in a bloodthirsty little pod. Obviously, factoids like these intended to elicit deeper consideration rarely stand up to threat of analysis,
but the rhetoric over the past few days has gotten my mind racing about our shared cultural notions surrounding exceptionally evil people. So much so that I made a graph!


At this point, please remember that I am not an economist, mathematician, analyst, statistician, ethicist or anyone with the credibility demanded to present this graph as anything besides a visual representation of my thoughts. My methodology was limited to mulling things over, and using MS Paint.
In any exercise ascribing value to something that does not inherently or obviously carry it, it is instructive to define one’s terms. I haven’t exactly established criteria, but in my admittedly somewhat subjective evaluations, I have considered the following things.

As for my x-axis, good and evil are obviously loaded concepts. I apply them here relatively externally - I am not attempting to delve too deeply into the internal psyches of people who are not me. I basically conceptualize good as improving the lives of others and making positive contributions to the world. I conceptualize evil as the opposite – people who leave their world in a worse position than it may have been without them. Whereas a good person might work to improve the lives of others, the evil one might work to destroy them. Still, this introduces a host of questions: in judging relative good and evil, how important is the number of people effected vs. the intent of a deed or policy? To what degree must we consider personal actions and stake in a given activity, vs. their influence over a set of measurable effects? Does the spiritual content of a deed matter?

These are deeply important questions, and I do not have an answer for them here. I can only say that I weighed each case individually, with deference to the particularities of circumstance.

As the Y-axis of my graph, the issue of ‘consensus’ was tricky as well. For the purposes of this graph, ‘consensus’ refers to my assessment of the public attitude regarding the good or evil of a given person, and the relative enthusiasm of their beliefs. The higher the value of a given person on the Y-axis, the more I perceive the general public to be in strong agreement regarding them. Someone who is extremely polarizing would have a value of 0, someone who elicits strong agreement would have a very high positive value, and virtually unknown people would have a negative consensus rating.

Obviously, I approach this little dalliance from an American worldview. I have tried to expand it to be more international, but I do not claim to have much expertise or ability to comment beyond my own national borders.

…Anyhow, here is my rough key for the graph as I drew it.

Red: I would argue that only one human being could possibly be represented by the red dot, and that is Adolf Hitler. He is the unequivocal villain of Planet Earth. Although he is an immediately obvious choice, other “honorable mentions” – Stalin and Mao, for example – have been argued in various forms to be ‘worse’ than Hitler. According to this graph, they are wrong. Hitler still takes the “top spot” as the sole occupier of the intercept of evil and consensus. This is for a combination of reasons: for one thing scholarship of genocide deems the act to be the inherently worst crime a human being can commit. As far as Hitler may lay claim to a big fat chunk of responsibility for the Holocaust – the most deadly, analogized, referenced and memorialized genocide in history – he is already in a pretty prominent position. Clearly, we know that Hitler’s crimes go beyond genocide as well – more than any other person, he was also responsible for the onset of the deadliest war in human history. Moreover, this assessment of Hitler has an incredibly strong consensus – he is an undeniably reviled man. Indeed, there are ugly examples of neo-Nazism – skinheads, Holocaust denial and the like – but they exist on the fringe of society, and Hitler is someone that nearly all of the civilized world can be unified in hating. Contrast this with the aqua dot.

Aqua: I would argue that Stalin occupies a space somewhere around here. I do not mean to downplay his contributions to the field of mass murder – they were indeed vast. But there are some important differences. For one thing, Stalin never quite got as ‘genocide-y’ as Hitler did. I add the –y because arguments have absolutely been made arguing that Stalin IS a perpetrator of genocide, specifically for his role in engineering a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-3. Even if a person accepts numbers that place the deaths in the Ukrainian Holodomor as higher than those of the Holocaust, (and, some historians have made this claim,) I would argue that the lack of an intentional, coherent ethnic feature of Stalin’s murderousness places him a wee bit lower than Hitler on my graph of evil (this goes too for the Great Leap Forward and the like – sorry, Mao.) Genocides, after all, do kill many – but they are also serious attacks on communities, ideologies, and cultures. So genocide gets the edge. Stalin gets docked to aqua dot status as well because his consensus is lower than Hitler’s – more people are on his side. He simply doesn’t elicit the hatred in popular memory that Hitler does – not even close. This is especially true in areas of the Former Soviet Union. People certainly acknowledge and condemn Stalin’s crimes today more than they did at the time they were committed. But while Hitler died along with the Third Reich – Stalin is often regarded as the leader who led the USSR out of the war to victory. It is worth remembering, too, that some 28 million Soviets died in World War II (as compared to 400,000 Americans.) Many people who live there, especially the older generation, hesitate to desecrate that sacrifice by completely denigrating the image of the man at the helm.

Some of the other dots write themselves.

Blue: The upper-left indigo dot was a toughie, insofar as there is a very small pool of people who could occupy it. It is saved for very famous and uncontroversial do-gooders – Mother Theresa, for example. As far as I know, most people agree that Mother Theresa was a thoroughly decent person. The trouble with this space is that the person has to be very, very good and very, very famous – and, as we know, those are two things that it is difficult to be at the same time. To provide perspective and contrast, I added another dot.

The dark purple dot with the yellow inside could be someone like Bill Gates. He has a very high profile, and people generally conceive of him as being very good. I think that reactions to him are very positive, and he has certainly facilitated a lot of good deeds. I put him slightly into the ‘more good’ side of the axis, but not by much – I very much admire that he has done some very positive things with his money and influence, but I also do not think this is inherently exceptional. I would like to think that I would do similar things as the world’s richest person. Moreover, whereas Mother Theresa’s good works generated her fame, Bill Gates’ case is reversed – his high profile and means facilitated his exertion of goodness. One issue here is that one could easily make the argument that Bill Gates has probably qualitatively altered more lives than Mother Theresa did. I concede to this point. I also think that relative levels of sacrifice and the degree of personal responsibility come into play here. Mother Theresa regarded good as an endpoint, whereas for Bill Gates it is more of a dividend. It would be much more difficult for a soul to resign itself to being Mother Theresa than Bill Gates. But even beyond spiritual judgment, one must contend with the issue of personal responsibility. Mother Theresa, as far as I understand, dedicated her entire life to the mission of improving the lives of others, which is substantively different than funding a foundation, however impressive it is.

Though they do not express it this way, I am sure that the Nobel Prize Committee awards its honor for Peace to those who they see as landing as closely to the upper-left of my graph as possible. And, indeed, Mother Theresa won that very award in 1979.

The importance of the Y-axis will become more obvious now. In judging the contributions of individuals to the world, consensus and inflence is vital. The orange dot on my graph would be some sort of unsung hero. It would have to be someone very, very good, but practically unknown. I assume that clergy people serving the poor in far-off lands could occupy this space. If their work attracts attention, though, then they ascend to a higher spot on the Y-axis. And sometimes, if the work is good enough to fulfill the undefined criteria of being very, very good in the first place, it must reach a considerable amount of people, which garners attention. So you see, it is a very tough spot to fill, and I suspect that not many people do.

The bright green dot would be pure evil with no consensus, which is also logically troublesome. Evil, I think, is a title that in and of itself implies a sort of consensus, which is why I made this graph to begin with. I suppose that the green dotters would be unknown assassins, and nameless masterminds behind influential evil things. Their acts are generally understood to be egregious and reprehensible, and so they are evil but anonymous - their identities are obscured or secret. This is key, because a green dot may be just as powerful as a red or aqua dot by some measures. But they do not elicit passion or hatred, and they will not assume a place in history books, because people – almost by definition, require a name.

My graph is supposedly absolute, and so the pink dot would be someone like Barack Obama – he is very famous, but polarizing - and so his consensus is near zero. I admire the man as a president, but I don’t have a pressing human argument to slide him into the good or bad side of the X-axis.

The yellow dot is me – and you, and probably most of the people we know. We are private citizens living private lives. We try to be generally good, I hope, but we don’t do too much and we don’t yield strong results, either. The measurable meanings of our lives occupy a very small space – we are anonymous, one of about six billion dots halfway between good and evil. The good news is that, in a 5 by 5 inch representation of the totality of moral judgment of the human species, if you are reading this – you are likely to be a solid few inches off of Adolf Hitler.

The question I intend to beg by this discussion is this: Where should Osama bin Laden fall on my graph?

He is, undoubtedly, in the upper-right quadrant. He is one of the world’s most reviled villains, especially in the days immediately following his death. That entails a strong consensus. But what about his relative level of evil? How will history, culture, literature, and philosophy judge Osama bin Laden?

For one thing, the concept of terrorism in general presents its own unique intellectual challenges. Osama bin Laden, as compared to many historic and contemporary dictators – has racked up a relatively low number of corpses. I do not mean to make light of his actions; I only mean to point out that 3,000 is a number significantly lower than millions. Evaluating bin Laden’s evilness, then, relies on one’s conception of the moral content of terrorism. One could make a strong argument that terrorism, like genocide, is something that pervades its literal, physical effects. It is a tactic that depends on psychological victims, and it effects large groups of people by design. The 9/11 attacks terrified all Americans and imbued us all with a deep and lingering sense of anxiety. That is exactly what they were meant to do. Our foreign policy over the past decade has been dominated by the repercussions. In a sense, every American is a casualty of bin Laden’s actions – but most of us, save the 3,000 victims of that day, and the men and women since who have served in our military – not only survived al Qaeda’s attacks, but have lived normal lives. Another important factor to consider in judging terrorism in relative terms is the fact that by definition, terrorism is propagated by those outside of the traditional power structure. States have the legitimate authority of force; terrorists do not. Most “superstars of evil” were the heads of states for a reason – they had the resources to wreak havoc. Not only did they control money, law enforcement and the military, they possessed the psychological legitimacy of leading a state. They were regarded as leaders, within their own states and without. Terrorists are not. Does that inherently limit their ability to harm? If a state fosters or supports a terrorist, is the evil of his deed diluted as responsibility is evenly distributed?

I do not have a clear answer as to where bin Laden deserves to land on my makeshift little graph, but I do have one strong suspicion – given enough time, he won’t be anywhere on it at all.

Indeed, in designing a graph that attempts to depict somehow the influential figures at the intercept of fame and moral judgment, I am struck mainly by the fact that they are all so new. In considering evil, I mulled over Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosevic - and it suddenly became all too clear that my examples were extracted exclusively from very modern history. Certainly, history presents us with no shortage of callous, bloodthirsty and vindictive people – but Attila the Hun, Ivan the Terrible and Genghis Khan hardly inspire the resentment that modern villains do.

Modernity breeds both the resources and the requisite sense of indignation required to land someone a spot near the upper-right of my graph. An aspiring evil person needs resources – methods of destruction and a sophisticated propaganda structure - to perpetuate terrible things. Memory, though, depends on shock and raw emotions – it is the enemy of the passage of time.

Every day, more and more people die who can deliver accounts of the atrocities of Hitler. Fewer and fewer people can cite family members as being among those directly affected by history’s recent dictators. Soon, there won’t be anyone left who remember the 9/11 attacks, and the narratives of our lifetimes will feel as quaint as those of our grandparents. Moral indignation, however justified, has a shelf-life – and, given that we are the ones who tell the stories, I suspect it is about as long as a human life. In the terms of my graph, everyone is destined to seep down toward the bottom.

I am curious where bin Laden will be placed, then, because I want to know how history will grapple with this. I want to know what the early 2000s will look like to a student who doesn’t remember seeing the Twin Towers fall on TV. I am curious where the chips of history fall in the aftermath of passion. In a world free of the spectre of bin Laden, I wonder how his legacy will be judged.

1 comment:

  1. Osama will probably never achieve "pure evilness" notoriety that Hitler, Stalin, or Mao have. His actions resulted in plenty of deaths, but nowhere near the scale that any of the above-mentioned totalitarian troika. But the ideology that Osama stood for was arguably more hideously reactionary than those belonging to Stalin and Mao. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is infinitely more backwards and anti-modern than Uncle Joe or the Chairman. Truly frightening.

    You'd be surprised, though, how many people still venerate Mao and, by extension, Stalin. And they're generally better organized than the dumb skinheads who still worship Hitler. There are two fairly substantial Maoist organizations operating in U.S. The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the unabashedly ultra-Stalinist Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO-frso.org branch) are both pretty active, with large contingents in Chicago. Seriously, I couldn't make this shit up. I wrote an article on these weirdos.

    Anyway, where would you put yourself on the Good and Evil chart, Natalie?