This live feed of oil belching into the Gulf is currently one of the most “popular” on the Web.
I can see why. It has the horrible fascination of obscenity — a kind of never-ending money shot. The relentless, black, viscous gush into the Virgin-Mary blue of the floodlit water makes for an almost perfect visual metaphor of evil:
Yes, I am aware that ‘evil’ is a religious term. How can a proud agnostic use such a word? I trust my guts. As I look at this, I am sickened. The feeling starts in my throat, travels down to the pit of my stomach, then makes its way up again into my throat, leaving me with such a deep disgust that I feel dirty, degraded.
I think this visceral reaction is simply a human response to evil. You don’t need religious, satanic formulations to recognize evil when you stare it in the face. If you doubt that evil, the NYT today reported on an internal BP document which makes it clear that though there was a better way to secure the mile-deep well, BP chose a riskier and less effective way as “the best economic case.” In the name of the Father Profit, that is.
But then I may be wrong. Perhaps the popularity of this feed is simply due to the desperate hope to see it stop. Or to the fascination with the pornography of oil-drilling language — “junk shots” and “top kills.” Or to the gruesome obsession with disaster, as with the endless replaying of the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. Then the pretty patterns were white on sky blue; now they’re black on water blue. Either way, they’re obscene.
I vote “gruesome obsession with disaster”.
Where was your visceral disgust at this “evil” when it was happening — is still happening — in Nigeria? They’ve had worse than this every year for decades in the Niger delta. Or is it only disgusting when it happens within view of Americans?
See today’s http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell
Thanks for sending the link to that excellent piece of reporting. We need more like this. But — still tougher a question — would it even have made the pages of The Guardian without the blowout in the Gulf?
Yes, I am aware that ‘evil’ is a religious term.
“Evil” is not a religious term. It is a moral term. “Evil” is (therefore) a religious term only to the extent that moral judgments are the exclusive domain of religion. That is, not at all.
As a “proud agnostic”, you should consider that such rhetorical tics do not make you seem reasonable or balanced, but instead concede the whole argument to the religious folks you are implicitly addressing. Yes, they say to themselves reading your post, there is no morality without religion. She can’t even TALK about morality (“evil”) without discussing religion.
It’s a question of framing.
A question of framing? With all due deference to George Lakoff, I disagree. Morality is a relative term — what is moral in one society or group may be immoral in another, whether for social, traditional, or religious reasons. Morality is a matter of what is acceptable. Evil is an absolute term, which is why I used it — in full awareness of the dangers of absolutist thinking. An agnostic’s dilemma, perhaps.
Thanks for replying, Lesley.
If evil is an “absolute” term or concept, and “morality” a relative one, then you need to be able to define “evil” without regard to morality at all. If you define X (“evil”) with reference to a relative term (“morality”), then X is by definition not an absolute.
In practice, “evil” is frequently defined in direct reference to morality. E.g., Google “define: evil” and look at the top results (top three: “morally objectionable behavior; morally bad or wrong; that which causes harm or destruction or misfortune”). The former two are relative, the latter is arguably absolute. The Wikipedia page for evil (imperfect, but a good consensus statement on popular understanding) references morality directly.
So if you claim that evil is an absolute, then it falls to you to define it, in absolute terms, without reference to anything subjective including morality. And then it falls to you to defend that definition as predominant in society.
I am not snarking when I say that I’d be happy to hear what you have in that regard; however, I think you’re fighting an uphill battle here.
I think it gets tangled in that religious people define evil at least partly in terms of morality, and define morality in absolute terms (god said so). It seems to me that you’re rejecting the premise (morality is absolute) without rejecting the consequence (evil, a quality of morality, is absolute).
Moreover, my feeling is: use the word evil, and be an agnostic, and _don’t apologize_. Apologizing seems to contradict the idea that you’re a “proud” agnostic.
Or, if you must caveat your usage, note that the word “evil” is an absolute term; not that it is a “religious” term. When you talk to religious people and concede that “evil” is a religious term, you are essentially conceding that morality is also religious. Thus, you reinforce the idea that there is no morality without religion.
Wonderful reply and challenge. No, am not taking you as snarking — what you’re doing is demanding, quite legitimately and interestingly, that I be more rigorous in my thinking. Rigor takes time for me, though, so bear with me while I ponder on this. Sooner or later — when oil spills and naval assaults let go of my mind — I’ll post at hopefully greater depth on evil. True, I may indeed be fighting an uphill battle, but that’s no reaosn not to enter the fray. Thanks, and do stay tuned.
Thanks so much! I look forward to it! Best.
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