The problem of evil

Charles Manson

As I see it, evil is the willful infliction of pain and suffering on others. It’s been with us for a very long time, and will continue to plague humanity into the future. Although people have wrestled with the problem of evil in various ways – mythologically, religiously, legalistically, and even magically – no matter the method devised, evil defies solution. In many cases, the proposed solution is revealed as evil itself; the Spanish Inquisition comes to mind, as do the Salem witch trials, but there are countless examples. 

The ancient Greeks explained the existence of evil through a mythology that externalized human emotions; it was believed that human beings are controlled by external gods such as Ares and Aphrodite, who played their ways with human emotion and destiny itself. By displacing responsibility in this way, shame and blame were also displaced. 

Western religious traditions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – dealt with the problem of evil by placing it at Satan’s door, setting up a primal struggle between good and evil. This Manichaean approach relies on acceptance that evil remains a constant force in the universe and can be counteracted only by the equally constant force of good, but like the ancient Greeks, assigns blame externally; “the devil made me do it.”

Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism use Karma – the effect of past actions, including thoughts – to explain evil. This too is displacement, but displacement into the past, effectively casting blame on the effects of one’s behavior in a previous life. That notwithstanding, frightful demons and punishing hell realms are also part of such cosmology, and theoretically await those who commit evil acts in this life.

Our legal system places evil within the confines of blame. The application of effective causality seeks to assign personal responsibility to our actions and inflict punishment accordingly. This approach eliminates the need to understand evil, and merely seeks to punish it. Although some effort is put into determining motive and/or mental state, these address the nature of punishment, not the nature of evil; ironically, our system of punishment inflicts additional trauma on perpetrators of evil. So it goes. 

As psychologist Sue Grand notes in her book The Reproduction of Evil, the perpetrator of evil is generally someone who has suffered as a victim of abuse and trauma, and seeks to escape the torment of that trauma by transferring it to others. These new victims then reproduce that evil by abusing others in turn. However, Grand also observes that evil propagates through a complex system of complicity requiring participation by bystanders. The role of bystander is the act of forgetting; denial, dissemblance, changed narrative, and altered facts all serve to eliminate history and therefore absolve perpetrators. We saw this process at work during Hitler’s Third Reich and more recently in the complicit behavior and willful evasion of truth by the Senate Republicans during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. 

The transfer of evil from individuals to a wider culture-at-large requires an act of mass-forgetting, and when this happens evil is reproduced on an enormous scale. The genocide of America’s Native Americans could only have happened through collective, social acceptance of denial, dissemblance, changed narrative, and altered facts. 

Although evil will always be with us, a commitment to gaining a deeper understanding of its mechanisms and our contributing role as bystanders may help us weaken evil’s chain of torment.

The homelessness Tsunami

Sonoma County estimates 3,000 people are homeless in the county, and is struggling to respond to this human crisis. $11 million was recently allocated by the Board of Supervisors, this largely in response to a homeless camp now occupying the Joe Rodota trail in the West County, but the larger solutions to reducing homelessness remain out of reach

Given the size of the aging baby boomer generation, baring an exceptional turnaround in public policy, I expect the homeless population in Sonoma County to grow to 10,000 within the next five years. While some boomers have retired in comfort, a vast number have little in the way of savings just as they become increasingly dependent on others due to health problems, dementia, and a too-pricey housing market. Accordingly, the homeless population is increasingly elderly, easily victimized at the hands of predators and subject to dumping by hospitals eager to unload unprofitable patients

What began with Ronald Reagan’s decision as Governor to close all of the state’s mental hospitals has now grown into a statewide homelessness epidemic. Combined with Jerry Brown’s elimination of local redevelopment agencies in 2012 that supported the creation of low-income housing, the aging of the boomer population, and rising rents, a deepening fog of poverty and desperation has moved over the State of California. Unless a massive program is developed, the reality of homelessness will be increasingly felt

The Trump administration is threatening to intervene in California’s homeless problem, but how that intervention might look remains a question. Given how refugees and asylum-seekers at the border are being treated, caged behind barbed-wire in detention camps like criminals, it’s likely that a “humanitarian” federal solution will include rounding up the homeless and placing them in cages, too. The privately-owned detention center business is highly profitable and their number is increasing rapidly. Such human warehouses purport to treat people decently but an increasing number of reports indicate otherwise. There’s no reason to suspect such facilities to house the homeless will be any better, particularly given the medical and mental health needs of an aging population.

In order to get ahead of the situation, local jurisdictions will have to sacrifice other types of priorities; caring for people properly is expensive and there’s no profit in it except knowing that needy people are treated kindly. Multiple year-round shelter facilities must be constructed in locations that are accessible by public transportation, staffed by medical and mental health professionals equipped to treat a vulnerable and often unstable population. Cities must be prepared to accept a role in providing care and facilities, and local law enforcement agencies must be engaged to insure that such activity is properly monitored. Being homeless, however, is not illegal and people who are mentally unstable cannot be locked up unless they present a danger to others.

Sonoma county has enjoyed a vibrant tourist economy for many years; new hotel construction continues and vacation rentals have exploded. Significant revenues from tourism are diverted into tourism promotion, but its increasingly likely that dollars devoted to caring for the homeless will begin to need to be siphoned off from other sources, like tourism. Raising taxes and imposing fees is nearly impossible, and the money to address the homelessness problem doesn’t grow on trees. Major financial sacrifices will have to be made from other programs like road repairs and public transportation. Get ready for the homelessness Tsunami.

Upon knowledge, generally

Benjamin Franklin, a generalist

We live in a time of specialization. Higher education for example, has primarily become a workplace on-ramp preparing top students to enter professional careers in which to specialize and make lots of money. Scholarship and acquiring knowledge for its own value has become secondary to obtaining the specific credentials necessary to get a high-paying job.

No matter what segment of the vast professional work force we examine, we find it filled with specialists who in many cases often cannot see the whole picture. Our current economic crisis is largely the result of financial world specialization. Creative “bundling” and “derivatives”specialists created vulnerable investment vehicles so complicated and obscure that virtually no one else could, or can as yet, fully sort them out. Lo and behold, the specialists created such a horribly tangled mess that the only ones we can rely on to straighten out the problem are…the very same specialists! This sorry fact does not help me sleep better at night.

Ironically, what we really need today are generalists, not specialists. I’m not saying there are not benefits derived from those who intensively study and master a particular discipline, to the contrary. However, I am saying that too many specialists often “miss the forest for the trees.” We live in a highly interdependent world wherein causes and effects radiate throughout the whole, not just parts. Accordingly, the decisions made by financial specialists have had broad effects on matters well outside of their area of expertise. The absence of a general understanding of the wholeness of our natural and man-made systems, the ability to grasp a larger view of decision making and choices based on a general appreciation of the big picture, has produced a persistent and pernicious form of professional myopia.

Our modern penchant to divide the world into discreet parts and ignore those in which we have no interest has led to a haphazard, disjointed and inefficient world, one where individual greed and self-interest have trumped building greater societal or ecological value. Specialization often breeds tunnel vision, tunnel vision blocks greater understanding and a lack of understanding underlies poor decision making. The unfortunate result is that we lurch from crisis to crisis, always trying to catch up with the unanticipated effects of what we have wrought through our specialized ignorance.

It’s hard to find a high-paying job as a generalist, I will admit, yet it is the one specialty we sorely need right now. Only the generalist, who by intelligence, intention and deep curiosity learns and masters diverse subjects and varied disciplines, can see the true wholeness of things. Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and R. Buckminster Fuller are a few examples of historic generalists and benefactors of great measure. Through the generalist’s lens, all the myriad activities of humankind are seen to have a rightful place in planning and decision making. Be it in art, music, language, philosophy, science, medicine, law, cooking, farming, child-rearing, politics … you name it, in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways everything fits together to produce what we call our world.

Discerning interdependence inevitably leads to deeper understandings of how inextricably connected everything is to everything else; nothing occurs in isolation. The generalist understands, and with this comes the wisdom that what we seek for our own benefit must be of benefit to others. If not, eventually we will all suffer.