See no Evil, Hear no Evil

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.


Be well.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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17 Responses to See no Evil, Hear no Evil

  1. Melissa says:

    I agree! I think the words we choose to say can have powerful effects, and the distinction between “evil” and “confused” is a big one. How quickly the empathy returns for a “confused” guy! I was recently looking a children’s book titled “No Matter What” by Emma Dodd and was disappointed that the message of a mother’s unconditional love included loving her baby when “Sometimes you’re good. Sometimes . . . bad.” It would have changed everything if only it had read “Sometimes you do good things. Sometimes you do bad things.” These nuances of language may seem too small to quibble over, but to me the implications are huge. Thanks for this post.

  2. Pingback: The Confused Queen | "A Beautiful Place of the World"

  3. hakea says:

    Hi Nathan

    There is the work by Dr Dan Hughes’ on shame and guilt. He has been working with attachment theory for many years with foster and adoptive families, and created a model called dyadic attachment family therapy. I love his work, especially what he has to say about the long-term effects of shaming children.

    When I was working with somewhat tricky kids in foster care (through no fault of their own) I would say “they were all born perfect”.

  4. Janel says:

    As usual, eloquently put. We don’t use that word,or “stupid” or “hate” if we can help it for similar reasons. We also really try to monitor and limit media for our 5 year, while we still can, and modify the words used in stories when reading to him. Soon he will read and well, hopefully “being silly”, “dislike” and now maybe “confused” will already be a part of his vernacular.

    • Janel —

      I love that you mention all of the things that you mention, but especially the reading part. I completely forgot about that, and would like to have included that in the post as well as some of the other things you say. We often changed the reading of certain passages in various books to avoid “evil”, “hate”, etc., and also (and perhaps this is going a bit far for the average family…) even possession — as per my post on the word “mine” (“Possession — 9/10 of the Problem?“). I am reading Harry Potter to all three of my girls and still edit to say “Harry picked up [the] firebolt” instead of “his firebolt” or “Harry put [the] wand back in [a] pocket”, or “Harry pulled books from the bag he had…” (avoiding both “his”es in that), etc. etc.. It’s a little goofy, I’ll admit, but it works. In our family we have a running joke that occasionally shows up because one of us accidentally says something like, “I bonked the knee I use…”; then we all laugh at the relative absurdity of it, but we also inadvertently/indirectly underscore that our bodies are our own(s). I mean our whole family knows that avoiding the concept of “mine” (except with respect to our bodies and some private items) is a choice that is peculiar to us, and that it is not necessarily translatable in the outside world, but we are also in the comfortable habit of it, and feel good enough about it that we go right on with the arguably cumbersome modality of saying, “the _______ I use/am using”. But it does feel better. I think the same is true of avoiding “evil” and “hate” — it feels more like we want to feel.

      Thanks again for adding your thoughts, Janel.

      Be well.

  5. jo johnson says:

    hey nathan,

    this is pure buddhist thinking as far as i understand it – the idea that humans are basically inherently good; that we all want to be happy and that for all of us, until/unless we learn otherwise, ignorance clouds our every thought and action. so we are all operating out of ignorance (which roughly correlate with unconscious drives) and lack of clarity. as buddhism is an ancient, tried and tested, highly sophisticated set of techniques for “awakening”, i think it would be ridiculous to label what you’re doing here with your girls as “trivial, trite, white-washed, new-aged nonsense”!

    incidentally, as no doubt you know, buddhism is also about awakening compassion for ourselves and others; which is very much a thread that runs through all of your and natalie’s writings. (i wrote to natalie a while back regarding terminology as i actually prefer “compassion” to “empathy”, though i think of them as pretty interchangeable.) for me, parenting is fertile ground for this kind of mindfulness practice. a huge amount of my understanding of this particular take on the world derives from my parenting…what do you think? is it something that’s in your background, or, as the buddhists themselves would say, is it the dharma itself at work; the spontaneous arising of timeless wisdom?

    • Hiya Jo —

      Certainly I have explored many spiritual teachings, ideas, and paths, including various Buddhist ones. I happen to consider myself a bit more neo-Taoist when it comes to labels though. I think Buddha either got it wrong or more likely was misquoted/mistranslated — “Life is [NOT] suffering”. Life is a game and the awakening that so many of us are seeking has been part and parcel of the whole operation since any one of us began, but it has nothing to do with avoiding the dream, as so many Buddhists I have known are want to do. Shakyamuni seeing all in its right place, wouldn’t really need to tell anyone to avoid what is here and now for the sake of something that is also already always here and now and unfolding perfectly as it will. All the chasing and practicing and aching for awakening is in my experience often not much more than another trap of ego to keep one stuck longer in the deferring of what already is. “Tat tvam asi” as they say — “I am that” — whatever it is: enlightened, awake, suffering, enslaved — wherever my attention goes, I am that as well. And for me, rather than getting away from the dream (which will never even have been when I inevitably awaken from it), I’d rather be in it. Up to my bloody neck! That is what I am here for.

      Sidenote — have you ever come across any Poonjaji? Wake Up and Roar is an excellent book collected from satsangs with Ponnjaji. I think you might like him. He says in no uncertain terms that we already are free except that we’ve bonded ourselves to the concept that we need to be free…

      But you’re right, this “see no evil” kind of thinking is very Buddhist. I was definitely planting a hyperbolic tongue firmly in cheek when I called it “trivial, trite, white-washed, new-aged nonsense” — but I also like the sound of the phrase, and wanted to sort of identify with someone who might think, “this is all a buncha hooey!”. A Tai Chi disarming technique to agree with all of your adversaries’ worst jabs at you… 😉

      I also sometimes want to use “compassion” instead but I usually don’t go for it because I think empathy is human nature — it’s wired in and we do it without being able to stop ourselves. We feel each others’ pain, and sorrow, and joy — our brains actually prepare us for what we experience others going through! If we just get intentional about it, it is already there doing it’s thing. Compassion takes some kind of Zen mastery that nobody thinks they have — even the Dalai Lama is still working on his compassion. I just happen to think that it is easier, if slightly less noble, to get more of us onboard with getting intentional about what we are already doing than it is to get active about developing an enlightened skill. More than likely I will use both words choosing only the appropriate time for one or the other, but generally still lean toward empathy (even though I love the word compassion more than most other words I know).

      Parenting is, in my humble opinion, the best spiritual work. Very few people who haven’t been parents know anything about residing in peace while the wild storms rage, or about the level of joy and love that one human can hold, or even about who they really,really are. I think the spiritual potential in parenting is actually what overwhelms more parents than anything else — they just aren’t quite ready to face themselves that much… But for those of us who are at least closer to ready, there’s no better, more worthwhile journey to take in this life.

      And isn’t it only ever always “the Dharma itself at work”?

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jo. As usual, I love where they take us.

      Be well.

  6. Jessi says:

    I love that you have been thoughtful and intentional enough in your parenting to point out to your girls the difference between who we “are” (how the world and how we see/judge ourselves) and the notion of how our decisions and actions affect our lives. What we do, the choices we make, the actions we partake in, do NOT define who we “are”. Though our culture very much likes to promote the idea that we are defined by these things – movie stars are “awesome because they make lots of money and chose to dress in fancy cloths and chose to undergo cosmetic surgery…”, doctors are “awesome if they save lives and are criminal if they chose to help ease the end of life passing”, people are “good if they chose to do good things, therefore are deserving of respect – bad if they chose to do bad things, therefore deserving of disrespect”.

    I have for along time been aware of how my own self-image is influenced by these concepts of “who I am is determined by what I do”…this is false, and a huge part of my heart knows that it is false, but it’s hard to stay conscious of that all the time while living in our culture.
    I had never stopped to consider how much children’s stories, movies, books, cultural folk-tales really introduce and reinforce this concept of self-identity through action. Thank you for so clearly pointing it out! I look forward to having the conversations with my own students and children about how who we are is not completely defined or determined by the choices and actions we make…yes those things affect how we interact with the world, how others see us, and can affect how we chose to see ourselves…but they do not completely encompass or define all that we are as an individual.

    Hard to define, what then, DOES define us as an individual….I think that part of what defines us is how we choose to act, part is how we chose to interact with the rest of the world, part is what we believe and think, part is what we like and dislike (as in, my favorite color is black and this tends to influence what I wear, buy, enjoy and connects me to other people who like dark colors – or – as in, I dislike super spicy food so I do not enjoy eating the super spicy food that my boyfriend enjoys eating)….part of who we are, I believe, is defined by the experiences we have in life (our personal stories that we share and tell with/to others) – these experiences are part personal choice (I chose to sing in choir in high school) and part are circumstantial (I chose to hold my party at a local park and it rained, changing the expected course of events drastically – circumstance)….

    Any thoughts on how you choose to define yourself, and the model you use with your kiddos?

    • Hey Jessi!

      I’ll just say flat out — I resist definition. I know that probably seems like I am sidestepping the question, but it’s true — ask Natalie! I do not like to be defined, categorized, sized-up, or generalized about. I know that in itself is a variety of definition, but in this case, I mean both that I don’t want to be defined, and I do my best not to engage in the activity of defining myself. As I type it out, that seems ridiculous coming from someone who is so public about himself and his family and what he believes and does and hopes for that he actually blogs about it, but it’s absolutely the truth.

      At the same time, I like to think of myself as decent, and mostly kind, and mostly happy, and mostly cool. I like what I am into, though I generally also like that others are into what they are into and think it has just as much value for them as what I like does for me. I do catch myself thinking that I sometimes have it somehow more right than some others, but I also recognize that it is just because I am suiting my own preferences which are just that — my preferences. I also am pleased by the idea that I can live in my own world just as I believe it is preferable for it to be, with me just as I want to be in it, just as everyone else can live in their own worlds, etc.. This helps me make room for everyone to be themselves and for me to be myself — whoever that is at any particular time. But the more I try to get specific about who that this I is, the more it slips, and the more uncomfortable this me gets with what sticks…

      We is all LOVE looking to be LOVE and share LOVE. That is all we really need to know for sure or forever about who we are.

      In terms of my girls — I do my best, though I don’t always succeed — to only try to keep them from limiting themselves. If they want to claim a characteristic, I just help move them toward the most self-kind, balanced version of it that I can. So whenever I hear them say something that closes them off from possibility, I remind them of the temporariness of that condition or perspective, or I point out how they are also something else, or I remind them to say what they’d prefer rather than getting mired in rehashing and reinforcing what they don’t prefer.

      Not sure if I was able to give you what you were looking for with your question, Jessi — let me know if there is more or something different you wanted me to address.

      Good to see you recently, and great to read your comments here!

      Be well.

      • jo johnson says:

        what a fascinating and worthwhile discussion and how fitting it should stem from a parenting issue!

        i don’t think anyone really wants to be categorised. while we might find security and ego gratification in feeling that we irrefutably “belong” to some tribe or other, sooner or later something within us is likely to find that that limits our expression of who we really are.

        i hate to use terminology about myself such as “i’m a yoga teacher”. i AM, but identification with such labels means also accepting other peoples’ projections about what that is (and therefore what i am). i think that can cause all kind of difficulties! instead, i say “i teach yoga”, and the subtle difference is really important to me.

        i had a break from teaching a few years ago and it was partly to explore how i felt when i no longer had such worthy labels and definitions to cling to. it was interesting to see how much of my self-worth was bound up with other people’s’ ideas about who i must be because of what i do…and, to return to the subject of parenting, disheartening if not exactly surprising to observe people’s reactions to my firm “i’m at home with children” stance!

        finally, about the only label i embrace wholeheartedly is that of “parent”. that’s because the job has letting go built into it; our children grow and leave and though once we’re parents, we’re parents for life, the form of that changes and in fact, if we’re over-identified with that job, we’re not doing the job as well as we might as far as i’m concerned. (i’m the product of that kind of family.)


      • Jo —

        I keep nodding and saying “YES!” and “Exactly!” to all that you’re saying here. I wish I could “like” each line…

        We are definitely on the same page with this. When you said “about the only label I embrace whole heartedly is that of ‘parent'” — my heart leapt. I feel that so deeply but had never said it to myself or anyone else before.

        SO glad you came back for more on this one, Jo!

        Thank you so much.

  7. Gina Osher says:

    This is how I have always talked about “bad guys” to our kids although I hadn’t actually considered giving it a different name. I know what you mean about it seeming insignificant, but words do have power. Confused definitely is something different than Evil. And for myself, even as a young girl I always thought to myself about the idea that everyone was once someone’s baby. Everyone was once innocent. Even the people who commit the most heinous crimes were once sweet children. It does give you a different frame of reference when you look at things that way. Of course, it does’t mean they didn’t make awful choices, but I know in my heart no one is born evil & no one is evil through and through. I hope my children grow up knowing that all people have good inside of them…even if they are confused. 🙂

    • Yes Gina!

      You’ve hit something squarely there, that I have been actually dogged by in recent months. We were all “once somebody’s baby”! We are all of us almost all how we were parented. Whether we were given enough or not during that tender time of early nurturing defines the breadth and height of all that we will become. They always say “he was such a nice boy” of the serial killers and think that sums up his character, but being “nice” isn’t all there is to being a decent (non-homicidal) human; and more importantly, being “nice” in the right light doesn’t mean you were parented well enough to be kind or gentle or in this case not a serial killer. We are all basically products of a force that works on us without the rest of the world really seeing it, and mostly without our even being conscious of it — that is, our own upbringing.

      SO anyone we see being “rough”, or “unkind”, or struggling with substance abuse, or mistreating loved ones, or even being a total f*cking jerk — probably didn’t get enough of the right kind of love and attention in their own homes growing up. Almost certainly. They’re not “evil” — they are literally “confused” by habitual mistreatment, and unable to process clearly. And what they need — what we all need — is for us to meet them with compassion not derision. And when someone does something truly out of line and others are hurt, it is the society’s and the parent’s responsibility far more than the actual actant’s. The person acting out is just suffering and looking for connection — even painful connection. Right?

      Thanks for joining in the discussion, Gina. Great to hear from you, too!

      Be well.

  8. I think this is so important, Nathan. Kids are brilliant at sensing the grey areas, being able to accept the possibility for change, as they themselves are constantly changing, evolving, developing. I like that you and Natalie leave the door open for someone’s personal evolution, rather than rubber-stamping them “evil” and closing the case. Life is more dynamic than that, thank goodness.

    Thank you for all your thoughtful words and work.

    • Hey Rachel —

      I agree — kids really can sense the grey areas and can easily make space for a broader more flexible understanding of people as growing and changing, too. Though I also think that if they are sold the “rubber stamp concept”, so to speak, then (even if it doesn’t exactly feel right to them) they will tend to act accordingly unless/until enough information seeps in to broaden it for them… Having grown up in the South, I saw a lot of kids slowly come to the realization that the blanket perspective of racism with which they’d been inundated didn’t fit their experience. I wasn’t raised that way, but I knew many who were, and you could see the conflict in them and the ways they tried to manage it — inventing exceptions to the rules and/or rebelling against the rules completely, and then at turns falling “victim” to their own programming and reverting to a temporary racism that they might not otherwise regularly uphold.

      Thanks for joining in the discussion, Rachel.

      Be well.

  9. hakea says:

    Dan Gartrell coined the phrase “mistaken behaviour” to replace the word “misbehaviour”.


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