No doubt there are readers who have objected to the word “evil”. Readers who feel as queasy about the word as the act it describes. Readers who complain that the word is a religious anachronism, a hurdle to comprehension. It is. If we apply the word to someone, we dispatch them to a place beyond the spectrum of explicable human experience. We consign them to a metaphysical gulag, and we’re freed from the pains of examination. Evil simply is—innate and total—and we may subtly congratulate ourselves for our judgement. We both recognise evil, and know that we are not.
Opposition to the word springs from an irritation with its power to vanquish the messy context of barbarism. If we trade in cheap metaphysical absolutes, we ignore the earthier fields of psychology, sociology and economics that might explain the trespass and help us mitigate in future. As the argument goes, explanation is not endorsement or absolution.
There’s an incorruptible logic to this. It’s also bloodless. We can decry the religiosity of the word and so ignore the Bible’s trove of words for sin, redemption, trespass and suffering. It is also very hard for the mother of a slain baby to ignore the clarity and comfort of our vocabulary for sin. Hard to soften her certainty about the obscenity of the crime with generous considerations of childhood poverty.
Which doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t. But demands for explanation denies us an elemental need to tremor with repulsion. And pointing out Harley’s childhood ignores the stubborn moral vacancy of the Hicks family—deep, wretched and perfect in its awful completeness. The Hicks’ moral idiocy is aggressively perpetuated, and not the murder of a baby and the distress of a mother could halt it. They are insistently wicked and contemptuous of others’ claims to dignity or sorrow. They are convinced of their own victimhood, finding definition in their belief that they are endlessly under siege. They lack the self-awareness to realise that because they have behaved as if the world was against them, it has become so.
So I call their moral vacancy and all its dreadful consequences evil. It is something larger than their socio-demographic circumstance. I am comfortable being alternately numbed, nauseated and murderously enraged by them. Content to know that moral hazards are made when we dilute outrage with explanation. Some are incorrigible, some are made wicked, and there are times when condemnation is as powerful as explication. Or perhaps all of this is recklessly emotional. Regardless, the Badlands are unbent by liberal pieties. They rumble on despite abstracted conversations in the city. How much is an individual responsible for?