There’s a guy in my neighborhood who owns a Dodge Ram. It’s a horrendously loud Dodge Ram. The racket it makes could put Manowar’s loudest-ever concert to shame; turning the ignition on is like dropping a two-tonne weight on the world’s largest whoopee cushion. And this is all because the stupid thing has no muffler.

What do mufflers even cost? Certainly no more than US$100. I mean, you just buy a muffler, have it installed, and suddenly you’re not driving the carnival machine from hell anymore. Simple as that. But no, every morning, I, along with the rest of the subdivision, must be subjected to the amplified sound of a thousand people breaking wind until somebody has the sense to complain. (Nobody has thus far, to the extent of my knowledge.)

What motivates this neighbor of mine to drive a machine that sounds like it runs on steroid-laced bean burritos? Surely, to uncover the answer to this riddle is to uncover the answer to the enigmas that motivate evil and cruelty, for the root causes are virtually identical.

I

Perhaps it’s the desire for attention, regardless of the type. “LOOK AT ME. LOOK AT ME NOW. I’M DRIVING A MACHINE THAT IS JUST BEGGING FOR ALL SORTS OF TOILET HUMOR.” (Got your attention there, eh?) For the purposes of garnering attention, that Dodge works like a charm. Running it at 7:00 AM, when the elementary-schoolers are still sleeping, boosts the objective further. Can evil be attributed to such a desire, however?

Certainly. In my ninth-grade World Studies class, as we were studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our Middle East unit, I posed the question, “What’s the beef between the Israelis and the Palestinians anyway?” More importantly, what’s with the Palestinians’ use of suicide bombings to get the point across?

Now, I’m not going to pretend I came up with this explanation, nor that I remember it word-for-word (it’s been a while, I should say), so bear with me. The root cause of the fight is that the Israelis took all the best land when they migrated to the Middle East, and relegated the Palestinians to the inferior living space. The Palestinians became desperate to garner attention for their cause (getting their land back), but because the world’s sole superpower backs Israel, they must resort to extreme measures. Granted, said measures are somewhat extreme and are the main reason why Israel built a humongous wall between its territory and that of the Palestinians, but the latter still seem to keep it up.

But of course, one has to look at the other side of the story as well. With all the migration of Jewish people into the Palestine land, it stands to reason that a lot of people will be forced out of their homes. According to an article from If Americans Knew, Israel demolished 24,145 Palestinian homes as of July 4, 2009. Twenty-four thousand? Imagine how many people they've had to evict to destroy all those houses.

And here we find ourselves faced with another enigma. An enigma within an enigma, as it were. What drives the desire for attention? Most likely, it’s the deprivation thereof in the past. Pretty logical, considering the Palestinians’ example. Or maybe it’s because of a deep-seated ambition to become the greatest. You can’t become the greatest without attention (though the desirability of the title “World’s Most Obnoxious-Sounding Pick-Up” is something I don’t comprehend).

All this said, it’s beyond me why my neighbor would be craving attention, and attempting to garner it by driving a blender on wheels—still, I’ll keep it as a probable cause.

II

Perhaps it’s because of some sort of cultural influence. These days, Americans are surrounded by excess. (For all I know, it certainly could exist in other countries, but most of this culture is American-based.) The serving portions in fast food restaurants, the Hummers that are consistently freaking me out when I’m driving, the impression that the coolness of a person is determined by the brand names he wears—you name it. Ever since the 1950s, a culture of having the biggest and fanciest of everything has been taking root.

Think about it. Many people judge their peers, co-workers, et cetera, by the car they drive. It’s a prime symbol of status in American culture. A Honda or Toyota is a symbol of pragmatism (and if you live where I do, it could also mean you don’t care if the local economy’s in the toilet). A Mercedes, BMW, or Porsche means you’re a well-to-do person of high socioeconomical caliber. An SUV just means you think a large car is satisfactory compensation for small penis size.

But when you look at it from a utilitarian point of view, it’s a metal enclosure with wheels. You get in, turn a key, step on some pedals and hold a wheel, and you find yourself at a place different from where you started. The brand name is irrelevant, except to the performance of the car—which shouldn’t matter too much as long as it can do 80 mph, handles adequately, and gets miles to the gallon rather than gallons to the mile. All in all, the determination of status according to the vehicle one drives is an artificial convention invented for people to stratify themselves and their neighbors.

It applies to everything, too. House. Cell phone. Clothes. Brand of underwear. They all serve a function—to shelter, to communicate, to prevent public embarrassment, and to prevent even further public embarrassment—and to create a mental system in which the brand or quality of said possessions is supposed to mean anything is nothing more than an unnecessary illusion. What matters is that they serve their function.

That’s not to say that one should expect not to be stared at when he shows up at a wedding wearing swim trunks. Obviously, the clothes need to match the occasion. It’s when people start making distinctions between clothes of the same purpose, especially those concerning a label that’s almost always hidden behind the wearer’s neck, that it becomes simply frivolous. As for houses, some can afford more square feet than others. Okay, great, that means they’re somewhat richer. Good on them for performing better within our outdated monetary economic system! Now let’s move on and converse about other things. I heard the New York Yankees won the Super Bowl, or whatever it is.

Excess also happens to be a cause of evil, albeit of a different kind. Because we have an invisible race between suburbians to own the biggest and newest things, therefore elevating them within their social stratum, it could possibly get to the point where this sort of spending becomes the new moral imperative. When spending is more important than any one thing, just imagine what could fall by the wayside. And all this to prove one’s household the materially superior one?

Of course, we aren’t all avaricious consumption machines—but by driving one, you must be trying to prove a point. Probable cause.

III

One could also be led to believe that my neighbor didn’t bother to fit a muffler onto his Cerberus-esque noisemaker because he simply likes the noise, or because he wants to be an asshole.

To enjoy something at others’ expense—and not bother to make the small sacrifice of cutting out said something from their routine—isn’t a new thing, nor is it rare, once you consider the many ways this action manifests itself. (Pardon the Captain Obvious moment.) You have middle- and high-schoolers passing on rumors as if there was no tomorrow, ethnic and racial jokes, corporate greed and manipulation, and...and...lots of other things. Now, any sensible person would deduce that none of this is actually personal. The teenagers, comedians, and CEOs are just trading off others’ reputation, finances, et cetera to better themselves. They don’t pass rumors, tell ethnic jokes, or exploit their workers for the sake of doing wrong to others. (Granted, they shouldn’t at all, but they do.)

This brings me to the other theory: that of being a nuisance for the sake of being a nuisance. Well, okay, great, you’re rumbling up a storm with your loud-ass pick-up truck. Now, why would you be doing it? You can say you want to be a nuisance. That just begs the question: why do you want to be a nuisance? You can’t say it’s because you want to be a nuisance—that just brings us back full-circle to the question being asked. Therefore, the theory that one would want to be a nuisance simply for the sake of doing so is null and void. Surely, there must be another reason.

And, once again, I return to the theory of my neighbor’s enjoying the noise. I suppose there’s no accounting for taste, as to me the sound of the world’s largest whoopee cushion isn’t quite the melodious symphony one expects to start their day with. But to knowingly indulge in his little aria in the key of Flatulence-sharp minor at the expense of everybody else’s hearing is another story. I’m led to believe at this point that it’s just assholery, pure and simple.

But of course, I don’t really know the guy that well. Probable cause.

IV

It is certainly a stretch to compare a pick-up that is nothing more than a bothersome nuisance to the concept of evil in its many forms. Whatever evil is, anyway. Whatever is evil?

Must...resist...urge to use...dictionary...definition....

In a way, evil is like music. (But not the other way around. Just clearing that up there.) There are so many different kinds of it, that defining evil as a whole becomes a vast task. One could attempt to take the easy way out and bring together all their common elements into one cohesive definition: evil is bad.

Well...what is bad? What puts it at odds with the opposite concept, good? And who says evil can’t be good, either, instead of just bad?

Suppose I were to give somebody a piece of my chocolate bar. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about it. It’s just the handing of one person’s edible to another person. In a hypothetical perfectly-neutral society, this isn’t cause for celebration, nor for a bitter reprisal. But, taking into account the complex web of unwritten rules built into human society, the action takes on a quality which gives it a degree of either favorableness or unfavorableness. And even those words must be defined, and so we follow a word path that returns us to the words good and bad, respectively. (The roots of language and the concepts it attempts to define are elusive little swine, indeed.)

Now, my act of giving this hombre my chocolate bar instantly renders me with several grams less of chocolate to eat. To me, that’s inconvenient. (That word’s dictionary definition reeks of bad.) Only slightly so, yes, but for the purposes of this analogy, there’s no dimmer on the proverbial light switch. It’s on or it’s off. Without those extra grams of chocolate, my light switch is off.

But, at the same time, the other guy gets a few grams of chocolate to eat. His light switch is flicked on by me, so to speak. There’s still nothing inherently good or bad about that, but it’s processed by the human brain as an act of kindness.

Now scale this act up a little. A country—say, the United States—sends relief money over to another—say, the countries hit by the December 2004 tsunami. That’s less money for us. And, were we to know our economy would come a cropper just three years later, a heated debate would certainly start about whether or not the aid money should be sent.

Those on the more ethical side of sending the money would certainly outnumber those who oppose it in this hypothetical debate. Why? Well, because we’re supposed to be helping other countries. To be completely aloof to the plight of the East Asians would come across as an act of bigotry, or, at the very least, acedia towards the fate of fellow human beings.

Here’s where we start talking about life-and-death matters, issues only slightly more grave than the possession of chocolate. This is where the position of the light switch truly becomes important. To flick it on—to send aid money, rescue crews, et cetera—is viewed as an act of great goodwill (certainly more so than my breaking off a bit of my chocolate bar); to leave it off—to do nothing and let the tsunami victims fend for themselves—is a deed of gross negligence, bordering on malice.

But, as with the chocolate, neither path is good or bad in and of itself. They are merely what they are. Paths. The impressions of good or bad—which are abstract terms defined only by an invented mode of communication—are built on universal perceptions held by large numbers of humans.

In the end, things are what they are and no more, and any other qualities assigned to it are based on nothing but perception and the opinions formed on it.

V

Having said all this, the Dodge Ram is now no longer an extremely irksome machine of noise. It is just an automobile with no muffler. And its owner is no longer a slightly inconsiderate clod. He is a human being.

Following this line of thought: the United States is no longer a global superpower, but merely a rather big slab of land circumscribed by oceans and border gates; world peace is no longer a(n unattainable, but) glorious goal to ensure the natural longevity of mankind, but merely an aspiration held by those weary of their neighbors’ constant warring; Flash banner ads are no longer a garish nuisance, but merely a device for the host site’s owner to make money; the act of murder isn’t a heinous offense against a human being, but—

...

You can certainly see how this logic quickly becomes a dangerous thing to use. Now, we can see that these assigned qualities can be chalked up to more than just fatuous word-chucking. Perception and opinions are indeed useful: they’re what keep world peace and murder on two sides of the good/bad fence.

VI

It should be noted that I haven’t defined evil yet. But, in a roundabout way, I disproved its existence, and then refuted that negation by pointing out that perceptions are key to defining what is and what is not to be done to other people.

Evil, as I mentioned before, is bad. Not all bad things are evil, but evil is certainly bad. And, as I also mentioned before, evil exists in different forms. That doesn’t explain, though, how one separates evil from the other bad things. In other words, what precisely is evil?

And here’s the definition I wish to put forth, based on a considerable amount of thought: an act of evil is one which threatens the safety of or directly harms a human being, animal, or any other sort of life form—barring, of course, acts made in self-defense.

VII

So, here’s the multi-million dollar question: is my neighbor committing an act of evil when he drives that pick-up of his?

-Does it threaten anybody’s safety?
The noise by itself does not.
-Does it directly harm a life form?
Other than hearing loss on the part of the driver, that’s quite doubtful.

Therefore, no. The pick-up is not evil, nor is the driver.

Though the former is certainly an immense nuisance, and the latter is in dire need of a muffler.

Now, if only I had the address of the petrol station where my neighbor fills the truck up—my mom’s making feijoada and she needs some beans.

(I’ll let that joke be digested for a moment.)

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