Are the Tories evil? What is evil, anyway?

Picture of Iain Duncan Smith, a white man in a dark-coloured jacket and trousers, white shirt and blue tie, standing with a microphone in his handOwen Jones: Cruel? Certainly. Unforgivable? Beyond doubt. But the Tories aren't actually evil - Comment - Voices - The Independent

Last week Sunny Hundal posted an article on Liberal Conspiracy in which he made the choice that the Tories were evil because they advanced policies which caused misery, suffering and even death, lied to the public about it, suppressed the truth about global warming by removing it from the school curriculum, and supported dictators who were mass murderers. Mark Ferguson on LabourList countered by claiming that the Tories actually think their policies are for the greater good, and that calling them evil devalues the term, which really belongs to the likes of Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler. Owen Jones argues that calling someone evil makes it impossible to understand your enemy:

“Evil” is a comforting, but worrying concept. Its connotations are so extreme that, by applying it to someone, you at a stroke strip them of their humanity; you cease in any way to be able to imagine their rationales or thought processes; they simply become a cartoon villain, for whom the ultimate thrill is the inflicting of misery. As soon as you fail to understand your enemy, they have already defeated you. It would be easy to imagine the Tories as a cabal of upper-class sadomasochists, spending their evenings plotting ever more devious ways to hunt children on council estates like rural foxes. But it misses the point.

We tend to think of “evil”, when applied to people, as best applying to the most egregious criminals who prey on others either for personal pleasure (like rapists) or money (as with the ‘boiler-room’ scammers who were jailed yesterday for swindling pensioners out of their life savings), those who harm others and are motivated by hatred, as well as a handful of 20th-century dictators: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Ceausescu are the most common, while Idi Amin is often regarded a just too mad to be included (although many people who lived under his rule disagree). The people who disagree on calling the present Tory government ‘evil’ make a difference between being misguided and dangerously wrong and being outright evil, this depends on the presumption that the people concerned actually care about the greater good. It is not true to say that calling someone evil “strips them of their humanity”, as Owen Jones claims. Only a person, and a sane one at that, can be evil. We do not put down a dog that mauls a child because it is evil, but because it is dangerous and may attack another person without warning, either because of its training or its genetic heritage. We blame the owners if a dog is out of control and harms someone or even another animal; a person is morally and legally accountable for their own actions.

A few years ago, Simon Baron-Cohen proposed a ‘science’ of evil, suggesting that people’s empathy circuits turn off in the brain so as to enable people to commit vicious acts such as murdering their own children to spite their ex-partner or cutting off someone’s finger in a public place so as to steal their ring, and later applied his theory to Anders Breivik. I countered:

Whether Breivik’s empathy circuits were impaired is immaterial; history is full of people whose empathy circuits functioned perfectly when dealing with people they respected, but somehow switched off when confronted with someone they regarded as inferior, or threatening. Whites in the American Deep South in the early 20th century are a classic example, as are Germans in ethnically mixed eastern areas when Hitler started his invasions.

Some of the most callous people, in terms of the way they treat others and the decisions they make about others’ lives, are capable of being sweet and caring when it comes to someone they do care about. We are all familiar with the pictures of David Cameron and his (now dead) disabled son Ivan; some disabled people, and their relatives and carers, may have been deceived that he had sympthy for them and perhaps deceived into voting for him. My philosophy teacher at school offered the example of Ronnie Kray who, despite his murderous record as an East End gangster, loved his Mum and “only ever killed other villains”. This is why, contrary to Baron-Cohen’s suggestion, empathy on its own is not a good means for devising moral codes, because people empathise with those with whom they identify, and those they respect. If you do not respect someone, it is possible that you will not be affected by their suffering, even if it is caused by your own actions.

Sue Marsh, in her article A Few Bad Men, published today, noted that Lord Freud, currently minister for welfare reform, has repeatedly displayed his contempt for poorer people, portraying them as feckless and idle, prone to cheating and always on the lookout for a way to get out of work at public expense, betraying his attitude in a series of callous remarks, and suggested that:

You cannot design a compassionate system if you have no compassion for those dependent upon it. You cannot achieve justice and equity if you believe in a fundamentally unfair and unequal society. You cannot empathise with the lives of others if you believe that people are inherently greedy and selfish.

It is widely perceived that the Tories around David Cameron actually believed the rhetoric about the “big society” in which people look out for each other and in which “big government” might have less of a role. Labour, before the last election, put out a video in which a harassed mother takes calls in her kitchen as the parole board and the police and, finally, a 999 call, while her daughter is said to be tired from having been out tarmacking the road. (The video is no longer online.) It was observed even then that the rhetoric was just a cover for “breaking down the NHS, breaking down local education authorities and taking apart public services and people’s lives along with it”. These days, he does not even mention the term or pretend he ever believed in it, and various other promises from before the 2010 election (such as a “National Care Service”) have been conveniently forgotten as well.

The present government have had it pointed out to them on numerous occasions that their policies will cause harm to vulnerable people, but usually they resort to flat contradictions or to political point-scoring. They spout the rhetoric of “fairness”, making comforts look like luxuries and appealing to a base resentment of having someone else get hold of one’s money. The “bedroom tax” policy, while it may make some sense if applied to new housing benefit claimants, is the clearest indication possible that the Tories do not care for the consequences, as people who often cannot move house as there are not the rental properties available, who often have disabilities or mental health problems and need the ‘spare’ room for equipment or because one of the householders cannot share, face a needless cut in their income purely so that Iain Duncan Smith can make a political point, since the savings must be minuscule.

Front page of the Daily Express, a British newspaper, from July 2007. It shows a police woman and a group of women in black clothes and niqaabs with one holding a sign that says "British police go to hell". The headline reads "Outrageous: how these Muslims are repaying our hospitality".The “right” under consideration is somewhat wider than the people at the centre of the present government’s welfare “reform” project: the same cruel streak is clearly visible in the mainstream commercial press, particularly the Daily Mail, Express and Sun newspapers, which run sensationalist stories vilifying powerless people in order to sell copies. The targets have varied but have included Gypsies, Muslims and more recently benefit claimants of various types; they manufactured a backlash against the Muslim women’s veil in 2006, which has led to women who wear it being barred from some public buildings where they were not before, and also manufactured the “foreign prisoner scandal” of 2006 which led to numerous long-standing British residents, many with families and children here, being deported or threatened with deportation and laid the grounds for such incidents as the killing of Jimmy Mubenga, whose wife and family live in the UK, during his attempted deportation to Angola in 2012. Granted, the press did not actually bring in these policies — the Labour government, which proved itself over and again not to have courage in the face of power and aggression, did that — but it promotes a kind of reflexive harshness that is intolerant to reason and does not care about the consequences, either in terms of people whose lives are made difficult by changed policies of people attacked in the street.

It is something of a straw man to suggest that Sunny Hundal was calling Tories in general evil, or suggesting that any policy associated with “the right” or the Tory party is cruel or evil. He was referring to the current policy of welfare reform as well as a handful of other present right-wing policies. These policies are evil because they are cruel, because they mess with people’s lives for no good reason, and because they are supported with lies and public vilification of ordinary people in the commercial press with the resulting harassment that entails. Whether or not Iain Duncan Smith or Paul Dacre is evil (though the latter is also known for his foul personal manner, particularly towards staff who displease him), they can behave the way they do for the same reason as military dictators and their supporters, terrorists, rapists and all those we do call evil: because they have no empathy with those they inflict suffering on; they are just story fodder, or people taking their money, or layabouts, or dirt. This mechanism exists in all of us and we all have the potential to harm those we do not care for, but for someone in a position of power, they can damage the lives of far greater numbers and their culpability is increased accordingly.

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