In our home we don’t refer to anyone as “evil”. For us, it is virtually the same thing as referring to someone by a racial slur, or other non-specific derogatory appellation. Natalie and I made this choice on a heart-felt whim — meaning we had not yet realized what we were up against — and have spent the last several years continuing to swim upstream.
There is not yet any evidence out there of which I am aware that unequivocally proves this idea, but I am personally convinced that it is the power of words that has directed the largest portion of human interactions since the advent of language. For instance, with words like “evil”, and many others of equally demeaning value, humans have historically given themselves license for some of the most atrocious behavior known. If someone is “evil” — well, you can pretty much do whatever you want to them. In fact, you should by all moral propriety do something heinous, and if you don’t, then you might as well be considered “evil” too.
From a parenting perspective, we see this a lot in children’s movies and stories. The antagonist is often called “evil”, might even refer to herself as “evil”, and is summarily quashed (perhaps even killed) in the closing chapters with little or no consideration. This is often carried out as though it were the only way to deal with the “evil” one, and as though any argument for any other way to deal with (or even think of) her has already been proven faulty.
We noticed that when our kids would absorb these ideas and others like them, they would then turn and continue to act out these models in their own pretend scenarios and with their own toys and friends. And some pretty rough things started going on in honour of dealing with “evil” characters. And it occurred to us that our girls we being taught and self-reinforcing some real prejudice, which was licensing some very real violence. So we made a request – as we often ask them to do when our daughters want to see a change in some scenario or interaction. We knew it would likely be cumbersome, but we asked if they would switch to calling “evil” characters “confused”.
I know, it may seem like trivial, trite, white-washed, new-aged nonsense. But we think a “confused guy” can still be redeemed, can still be human, and more importantly is still worthy of being treated humanely. A “confused guy” is still capable of feeling, and is still worthy of empathy. A “confused guy” may make some pretty hefty mistakes, and/or act in some pretty inappropriate ways, and/or pretty seriously mistreat people. In fact, a “confused guy” can act downright evil, not because he is at base “evil” and therefore incapable of anything else, but rather because he is — well, confused.
This makes for play which more closely mimics the way we wish for our girls to see the world. There often is no black or white. There often is no wholly good guy pitted squarely against the totally bad guy. There often are just people who do something they think is right for the situation in which they find themselves, and other people who have a reaction to that action. There often is no single irrefutable measure of what constitutes right and what constitutes wrong. And when we see someone doing something we think is not the best choice, rather than write her off, we tend to think that either she needs more information, or we need more information to create a fuller understanding. And if we see someone doing something we all know is harmful, (assuming he has all the information we have) then we assume that he is confused – not evil.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I come to think that no one can truly be evil. I believe it is possible to act with evil intent, but most of us are more, and less, than what we do or why we do it. If I am wrong, and evil people truly do exist, what good does thinking that way really do me? Or you?
Click here for another look at this “confused” concept.