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Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side Hardcover – Illustrated, February 26, 2019
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About the Author
- Item Weight : 14.4 ounces
- Hardcover : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1419729497
- ISBN-13 : 978-1419729492
- Dimensions : 6 x 1 x 8.5 inches
- Publisher : Harry N. Abrams; Illustrated edition (February 26, 2019)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #574,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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The answer, by the terms of her own book, should be, sure, why not? After all, he's not evil, just misunderstood. That is the overarching message of this book: there is no evil, only that which we label evil. But throughout the book, Shaw repeatedly demonstrates that she has very little understanding of what true evil really is. Somehow, because we all might have a tendency to, say, lash out at a loved one in a moment of frustration, we really can't judge a Hitler or a Ted Bundy. The absolute pinnacle in moral relativism.
In my college writing tutorial, we always had to say something positive before we could give any criticism. I remember one paper I shared with some of my dormmates in an attempt to find that positive thing. One of them suggested, "You used nice quality draft paper." I'm left feeling a little like that in my attempt to review this book. I guess the best I could say is that if my sixth grade daughter had written it, I'd be reasonably impressed (although I'd wash her mouth out with soap).
Shaw is all over the place in talking about all kinds of topics that could, theoretically, have to do with evil, but all of her topics are so shallow and disorganized that there is very little substance to them and often the connection with evil is tenuous, at best. Many topics I was left wondering why she talked about them at all. For instance, she spills a great deal of ink talking about sexual fantasies. Who the hell cares? I don't care what's going on in your mind when you're alone in a room with your right hand occupied. But that's not what's evil about sex. What's evil about sex is when it's used coercively to hurt other people. So are rapists and child molesters evil? Shaw herself raises the question, but can't bring herself to answer it. I think it's pretty unequivocal that they have voluntarily chosen to do evil acts. So why does she stop short of using the word evil? And no, just because I might do something like snap at my husband does not mean that I am just like those rapists and child molesters. There is a line.
In another instance, Shaw asks whether cyberbullies are evil. Previously, she had defined cyberbullying as relentlessly stalking and harassing another person online. But as she goes to answer her question, she diverts into an utterly pointless discussion of internet trolling, which is in no way related to cyberbullying. And she doesn't even understand what trolling is. Posting a snarky come-back is not trolling. Trolling is the intentional derailment of an online discussion by repeatedly and deliberately posting distracting, circular, meaningless or ad hominem arguments. In any case, she conveniently leaves her question unasked - so is it evil to stalk and harass someone to the point of breakdown or suicide? It is certainly cruel. Is cruelty not evil?
In fact, Shaw clearly demonstrates her lack of understanding of evil when she talks about "trustworthy" vs. "creepy" people and uses Nobel Peace Prize winners as her examples of "trustworthy" individuals. Is she aware the Henry Kissinger has won that prize? Aung San Suu Kyi, who was involved in the Rohingya genocide? Barack Obama who ordered the assassination of an American sixteen-year-old, not to mention the devastation of Libya, Honduras and Haiti? I'm sorry, but winning a Nobel Peace Prize is no guaranty of trustworthiness.
Another flaw is the supposed "science" in the book. Sure, Shaw references dozens of studies, but either they were poor studies to begin with or Shaw does a poor job of explaining and elucidating them. In one study, for instance, participants were left alone in a waiting room after being told that a woman with schizophrenia would be joining them. This alleged woman's things were on the second of seven chairs. The participants were then observed to see how far they would sit from this alleged schizophrenic woman. They found that people sat an average of 2.4 chairs away from her. The obvious flaw in this study is that it apparently didn't include any non-schizophrenic control situations. I don't know about you, but I would sit at least two to three chairs away from *any* stranger in a waiting room. What were they expecting - that people would sit right next to her when there were other open chairs available? That's not evidence of bias against mental illness, it's just how people space themselves in a small room. There were many other odd studies of this nature, plus, of course, she has to haul out the Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiments, as if there's a drop of new insight to be culled from those.
Probably the fatal flaw of the book is that she never addresses the issue of power. In fact, she conflates a man who kills his significant other because she was leaving him with a woman who kills her abusive significant other in a long-winded discussion of "murder fantasies". She does understand that getting away from an abuser is not about a "murder fantasy", right? And never does she speak about political power and all the devastating evil that neoliberalism has wrought - the dozens of countries invaded, millions of people killed and displaced, our world-wide network of torture "black sites", the starvation of Yemen, the "Dirty War" in Argentina in which dissidents were captured, tortured and ultimately dropped, alive, out of airplanes into the ocean, etc. - all for U.S. imperialistic and profit motivations. Can Shaw really say with a straight face that those acts - and the people who engineered them - were not evil? Was Hitler himself not evil? Or is there no leap for Ms. Shaw between a regretful instance of yelling at a loved one and throwing Jews in ovens?
Shaw wants us to empathize with "Pharma Bro" Marin Shkreli because he grew up in a culture that values money more than people. Guess what? We all did. Yet most of us would never let AIDS patients die because our obscene profits are more important than people being able to afford their medicine. In fact, very, very few people would do what Shkreli did, and it's not just because most of us don't have the opportunity. It's the reverse, in fact. Most of us don't have the opportunity because we're not so blatantly ruthless that we would even think to pursue "opportunities" like that. We have words for people who are that blatantly ruthless. "Evil" is the first that comes to mind. (Oh, but Shkreli totally proved his humanness because he cried at his sentencing, so it's all good. Spare me.)
Oh, and we can all understand and sympathize with Jeffrey Dahmer - he was just lonely. I know when I get lonely I carve up a teenage boy or two and stuff them into my fridge. Oh, wait, no, I don't. I suspect you don't either. (BTW, she completely messed up the story of Dahmer's discovery and arrest, which is pretty sad considering it's right there on Wikipedia for free.)
I agree with Shaw that we have to be wary of "otherizing" people and dehumanizing them. But calling out evil where there is clearly evil is not dehumanizing. In fact, the one thing Shaw got right is that evil is part of humanity itself. I would argue, in fact, that failing to see the evil is dehumanizing because it erases a large aspect of human experience. To be fully human - and to fully see the humanity in others - requires seeing and recognizing evil.
Shaw opens with Hitler, someone that nearly everyone considers as evil; the question is why. There was no trauma in his childhood. He did not torture small animals. Even to the last, he was kind to his dog. Yet, he is responsible for the deaths of millions. Others seem to fit this mold like Charles Manson, or Josef Stalin. They have little in redeeming qualities.
What is evil? Is there a definition that can be applied — a tipping point for actions. Shaw does punctuate the chapters of the book with Nietzsche quotes that tend to imply that the answer is no. The Trolley Experiment is an excellent example of the sliding scale of right and wrong, and that experiment can be played on many different levels and settings. These experiments have no right answer many times. If letting a child die to save a person wrong, what about if ten people were saved, or one hundred? Where is the line drawn? Is someone who kills a person by accident or negligence deserving of the title of “murderer” the same as a serial killer? We all have a dark secret of some kind or something we are not proud of in our past. Should that label be made public and remain with us for our entire lives?
Shaw does take some twists that are unexpected such as with Jeffery Dahmer and those who commit murder. Recidivism rates for murder are extremely low, and most murders are between people who are close. Someone who kills is doubtful to kill again. Her search for why sometimes clouds the actions. However, some crimes are of necessity. Would anyone considers Jean Valjean to be evil?
Evil has changed over time. Homosexuality was considered a crime or a mental illness. Some people thought it was contagious. Some aspects of sexuality today were considered crimes in the recent past. Others remain on the taboo list. Shaw also likes using lists that make the reader feel increasingly uncomfortable to the point that each reader comes upon an action they consider evil. We all do not stop at the same point. We oppose slavery in the modern world but where is the line drawn. Paying someone a non-living wage is permissible, but slavery is evil. Killing puppies or kittens is considered evil, but the industrial slaughter of cows, pigs, and chickens is allowable.
Nietzsche said, “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” Although many of us can agree that evil exists at one edge of the spectrum, how far does it extend to the center? Shaw gives examples and situations to show how large the grey area is between good and evil. Time moves the marker. Differences in our own thinking and experiences create different tipping points for each of us. We all agree are that there is evil, but what is evil varies between people.