Few words are as misused as the word 'Evil'. In the present day America, Evil seems to have become something of a myth and an abstract concept. Movies, books, and songs have inundated us one recurring theme: Evil equals Cool. Unfortunately, this proposition is the direct result of a repeatedly proven wrong line of philosophy called Aristotelian logic.

The standard progression of misunderstanding begins like this:

People with wit, style, and poise are cool.
The villain has wit, style, and poise.
Ergo, the evil villain is cool.

If the common man had paid any attention in school, they would have learned about a Venn Diagram in at least one of their classes. If the common man did learn this, and bothered to actually let their brain think for themselves, as opposed to the media, they would be able to see for themselves the flaw in the example above. But enough about the stupidity of the common man; if you are spending your time reading an online encyclopedia, you are far from common.

Unfortunately the uncommon people fall for it as well, because no one ever puts it in quite the same words as above, so let us start with an example of ultra-cool villainy from the movie The Fifth Element: Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg, played by Gary Oldman.

Perhaps one of his most memorable roles ever, Gary portrayed Zorg as an extremely charismatic, confident, and ruthless leader with the gift of gab. He knew he was evil, and didn’t care because it made him one of the most powerful men on Earth. Sure he had his flaws, but what cool guns and clothes he had! How could you hate someone who can smile and delivery witty dialogue while killing someone?

This is a man who would see all life in the Universe destroyed, and yet his character is beloved by almost everyone who has seen this movie. Why?

Because he was just so damn cool. Which in and of itself is fine. The point of a villain like Zorg is to get the audience to sympathize and understand him better before he gets his just reward. It is a writing, directing, and acting technique that, if used well, can bring dimensions to a a character who might otherwise be a flat cliché.

The problem starts when people think that Coolness and Evil are one in the same. This has been a gradual progression over the course of history. For instance:

There are countless etymological examples of how words are twisted into other meanings. None have been so effective as reuse of words with normally negative connotations. We are a society infatuated with Evil. Need more proof? Here is a progression of words that once had positive connotations:

Over the course of a few hundred years, humanity has turned its collective face away from the reality and existence of Evil, and maintained the philosophy that ignorance is bliss. Evil, before the modern-day comforts and standard of living, was a real and tangible force. People knew the reality of persecution and tyranny. In modern-day America, these concepts have been reduced to outrage at the McDonald’s not serving breakfast after 10am. As we water down the language further and further to avoid offending anyone, we lose sight of what those words meant, and what they stood for.

And yet, despite all this, most people in modern-day America still believe themselves to have a good knowledge of what is, and is not evil. In truth, most are very sadly mistaken, and such lame uses of the word “Evil” continue to numb us to the very concept the word stands for. Overuse and replacement of meaning in words have stripped society of so many concepts of Good and Evil it’s almost a hopeless endeavor to bother writing about it.

So, how does the modern American society view Evil?
  • My parents are Evil. – Did they beat you? Did they molest you? Did they murder others? Do they feel no remorse for these heinous crimes? Or have they been dubbed evil because you got grounded for two weeks for doing something stupid. There are certainly evil beings out there who have spawned children, sometimes by force. But unless they have performed acts of true evil, it is more likely that you are simply displeased with their disciplinary measures. Disciplinary measures are a sign that they care, and caring about your children is not Evil.
  • The corporations are Evil. – Does this corporation force others to buy their products? Was a gun held to your head when you decided not to buy their product? Was your family dragged out into the street and systematically shot, because you commented negatively on their latest commercial? Or do they simply produce a good or service that you personally dislike?
  • The Government is Evil. – Historically, America has made many of the same mistakes of other countries. We have slaughtered civilians in the past. We have enslaved others. We have had ghettos and concentrations camps. We have committed genocide on indigenous peoples. I daresay you the reader will be hard-pressed to find a country that has not done any of these things in the past. This is the nature of man. To destroy. The fact that our government no longer performs or endorses these actions (and fights against them) should be a testament to learning from our mistakes. Instead, it is viewed as hypocrisy. Are regret and atonement such alien concepts that we can no longer believe that even the leaders of our country are capable of such things? If the men and women we trust to run that nation cannot be trusted, how can we even begin to trust the common man? In fact, who can you trust at all?
  • My pet is Evil”. – Is it? Has your cat or dog developed such a profound understanding of right and wrong, had such a philosophical epiphany, and a knowledge of history, that it has developed a remotely human concept of Good and Evil? Domesticated animals act the way they do because either they are the Alpha leader, and thus have free license to act as they please, or they are following the example of their Alpha leader, which is generally the pet owner. If the actions of your pet displeases you, consider being a better leader.
  • The (inanimate object) is Evil! – Even keeping an open mind to the concept that an inanimate object should become imbued with an unnatural intelligence, and that this intelligence actively seeks to perform acts of evil, it is hard to ever take these words seriously when constantly used in reference to common household objects from Wal-Mart. Your toaster is not Evil. Perhaps it does not work properly, that is called a malfunction. Evil does not give a damn about technological glitches, except when they pose an inconvenience.
  • This (food) is Evil! – Food comes in many forms, some of which are animal. (see above notes on “evil pets”). Unless your food is that of a human being, or has been corrupted by dark occult powers, it is doubtful that those little chocolates or the plate of sushi is actually a force of Evil unto itself. Food may be ingested, and assimilated into the human body, but Evil lurks in the heart, or more specifically, the incorporeal soul and mind. So, unless your food consists of souls and thoughts, (which, while very low in calories, offers nearly no nutritional value), it is even less possible for your food to be evil than it is for your pet to be evil. Addictive and delicious? Perhaps. But chocolate is no more evil than cheese.
  • I’m Evil when it comes to playing (game)… – Again, the assumption that evil means “cool”, or more specifically in this case “good at”. Perhaps the self-proclaimed source of evil would even go so far as to cheat at playing this game, but if someone is used to talking smack, they don’t generally need to cheat. And if someone cheating is the worst example of Evil you ever experience in your life, count yourself lucky beyond any imaginable odds. Still, most would never consider cheating on par with actually being evil. If the gamer were truly evil, beating him or her at the game would result in your being physically harmed or murdered as an example to others.

The line between humor and denial is wide indeed when it comes to coping with tragedy. As older generations die off, content in the assumption that future generations will fix the mess they made, the younger generations are less and less exposed to true evil. What is true evil? That is a subject debated for eons. Has true evil become any less vile? Doubtful. If anything, the increase in technology has allowed evil the survivability of the cockroach and forums with which to congregate and exchange ideas.

Within your favorite hangout, evil could be lurking, but you’d never know, because the concept has become such watered-down mush that thoughts of real atrocities rarely arise. They rarely arise, because the tools to warn the next generation of the destructive effects of Evil have been systematically worn down over the last century or two. Language no longer conveys a subtle reminder of darker times. Instead, those reminders have been turned into slang terms for pop culture. Television avoids any in-depth coverage of truly horrific events such as pedophilia and mutilation, and instead concentrates on less disturbing topics. Government attempts to combat Evil, but such rampant distrust of government has caused support for these fights to wane and eventually dissolve into bickering about petty details from a press conference months previously. The few parents and teachers who care, are unable to act, because discipline in the school and home has become all but completely outlawed. Nice guys continue to finish last, and women continuously fall for assholes.

Where, in the midst of all this, have people been prepared to face the reality and ugly face of real and terrible Evil? The only two situations left to expose and train us to deal with evil are real life, and the movies. Since most Americans have never faced an evil more real than mere violence, that leaves only the movies, where, if evil even has a human face, it is an attractive and charismatic one. And so, though I am not a Christian, I close with this quote by Charles Baudelaire

'Dearly beloved, never forget, when you hear anyone vaunt the progress of enlightenment, that the Devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist!’ - The Generous Gambler, 1864.

"Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

The title of this node interested me enough to click on it and wait the 45 seconds or so for the page to load, but whilst I read it, two questions came to mind:

  • What is the point?
  • When will this end?

I strike quickly being moved.

I submit that the author of the above has confused some samples of pop culture and the use of slang by the teenage population in America for the state of the country at large.

Movie villains are NOT cool because they're evil. They're cool because they're cool. Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (although I'm not sure that's the best example) is cool because he walks with a limp, carries around an odd looking multi-function ZF1 (another Zorg invention), and says things like "Tell ya what I do like. A killer. A dyed-in-the-wool killer. Cold blooded, clean, methodical and thorough."

I say that Zorg isn't the best example because "The Fifth Element" is a classic example of archplot/protagonist. Zorg is an interesting character, but no one watching the film roots for Zorg to succeed. It's all about Korben and Leeloo (and to a lesser extent Ruby). If you rooted for Zorg and 'Mr. Shadow' to win in the end, Besson's vision was completely lost on you.

A much better example would be Charles Bronson in "Death Wish", Michael Douglas in "Falling Down", or the McManus brothers in "The Boondock Saints". These are classic antagonists, somewhat-regular guys angered by some misfortune in their lives (in the case of Bronson, it's the murder of his wife and daughter. For Douglas, it's things as small and inconsequential as traffic jams and Korean store owners not making change).

The key for making an antagonist cool is to develop an interesting character. Ed Harris' inner conflict and resolve in "The Rock" made him a cool character to watch on screen. Audiences walked out with a wry smile after hearing a cripple named Verbal Kint spin yarns about a 91 million dollar dope deal gone bad. And there's hardly a character in "Snatch." or "Reservoir Dogs" that one could argue has positive moral fiber, yet you'll find some of the coolest bit villians in recent memory.

At the same time... how cool were the villians in the Indiana Jones trilogy? Can you even name them? (For the record, they're Belloq, Mola Ram, and Donovan). Who's the bad guy in "12 Monkeys"? How about "Casablanca"? Did people walk out of "Schindler's List" remarking, "Wow, Ralph Fiennes' character was so cool!"

Being evil has nothing to do with being cool, both in reality and in the perception of the movie-going public, and I doubt many people would disagree with this assessment. Well-written characters with smart dialog and likeable qualities responding to difficult circumstances are cool.

Next issue.

Ah yes, etymology. Let's ignore for a second that the etymological assertions above are tenuous at best (these words have multiple meaning, not just one new one that happens to fit the author's cause). Let's put aside that I've never personally heard the word evil used in the context described above. And let's also let slide that cool used to mean "moderately cold" and now it means "excellent; all right; fashionable" (Thanks, Merriam-Webster!).

English is a living language and as such is subject to constant change (I'm sure we could pull some words out of Shakespearean texts and lament at how their meanings have been twisted). Slang is at the cusp of new linguistic meaning, and the new meanings that such words as bad, awful, and scam have been bestowed are not grounded in the fact they're "negative" words. Ghetto has a negative connotation in its "King's English" usage, and still maintains a negative connotation in the street vernacular. Other neutral words such as tubular (having the form of or consisting of a tube) and radical (marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional) have a positive connotation when used in a slang context. There are also negative words that function in both contexts; the word shit becomes positive or negative depending on whether or not the definite article is placed in front of it.

People are all too aware of the evil that surrounds them each and every day, and if you think television's current crusade is to mollify the masses by averting their eyes from true evil, I subject that it is you who have averted your eyes. Evil is not "something of a myth or an abstract concept". Evil is a pedophilic priest in Boston thrown in prison and then brutally murdered by another inmate, to the dismay of hundreds of his victims (not because murder is wrong, mind you, but because they didn't think he suffered enough). Evil is a bunch of extremists hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings. Evil is a bearded motherfucker declaring jihad against a nation of people, who, given their druthers, would really just like to get along with everyone else regardless of where they live or what religious tenets they hold to. Evil is a man like Uday Hussein, who would strip a man naked, drag him across broken glass and sand, then make him jump repeatedly into a pit of biohazardous sewage -- because he didn't want to play soccer for the Iraqi National Team. Evil is a father and son on the roof of a building, sniping people in the Beltway as they pump gasoline or go to a steakhouse for dinner.

People know what evil is, whether they use the "right" words or not.

What? Is Evil not the same as Cool?

It is not my intention to enter into polemics with the Learned Noders above (even if I’m leaning toward Orange Julius as far as the argument is concerned, and toward TheLibra for some pseudo-etymological giggles).

Dwelling on terms

Rather, I would like to dwell for a moment on the terms "evil" and "cool", as they may appear to (1) unreflected audiences of down-to-earth Earthlings and to (2) dispassionate observers from Outer Thereabouts.

In an everyday conversation "Evil" and "Cool" have clear-cut usages:

"Evil" is used for specifying negative behavior that should be avoided

"Cool" is used as a positive statement about something likeable or admirable.

Usage vs. meaning

But usage is not the same thing as meaning. Meaning presupposes an objectively ascertainable reference. The observer from Outer Thereabouts, having made some serious statistical surveys of how "evil" and "cool" are used by Earthlings, would get into significant trouble when trying to identify specific references that could be termed uniquely "evil" or decidedly "cool".

Killing is sometimes termed "evil" (Sept 11), sometimes "cool" (Saddam's son Uday), sex is as "evil" (for Judeo-Christian-Moslems) as it is "cool" (for the rest of us). In fact, the observer’s statistics might very well indicate that the converse of the statement "Evil is not the same as Cool" can be regarded as equally true as the statement itself, statistically speaking. This apparent contradiction is perfectly resolvable, provided that the terms "evil" and "cool" don’t have any objective reference, i.e. if they are in fact completely meaningless. So Evil is Cool, and Cool is Evil.

Analytical morals

Well, the above is of course nothing else than a pedestrian presentation of the way analytical philosophers like A. J. Ayer and C. L. Stevenson tried to do away with the categorical moral imperatives of Immanuel Kant and that lot. It is anybody’s guess whether they succeeded or not, but the phenomenon itself may still be worth pondering.

Beyond divine absolutes bekcons democracy, sort of

A way of practically tackling the problem might be to think of moral statements and ethical systems as strictly intra-societal affairs, devoid of applicability outside mundane human contexts. We seem to have an unfortunate subconscious tendency of understanding morals as something absolute and immutable. This may be due to the fact that most time-honored moral systems refer to absolutes outside the human sphere, to "extra-human" divine absolutes.

If we were to restrict ourselves to the human sphere exclusively, then our morals would become what we –- as responsible members of society -– choose to make of them. Of course, this is what morals in advanced societies have tended to develop into, over the centuries -– into an ideal of an active democratic society, a society that places more moral responsibility on our human shoulders than on some Divine Scriptures or Categorical Imperatives. A different question is whether this ideal is attainable, so let us not digress.

Make my day

However, if you want to make Evil into Cool, or Cool into Evil, then you are welcome, provided that you get my vote, the votes of the Jones’s and the votes of most of the rest of us. This doesn’t happen every day, but regularly enough.

Evil has always been cool:

Homer, Illiad and Odyssey: The Illiad begins: "Sing muse the wrath of Achilles ...". The theme is not Achilles' virtues, his beauty, courage, and skills as a warrior, but rather his blind fury when his friend and lover, Patroklos, is killed in battle by the Trojan Hector. Achilles' flaws are what make him interesting.

Likewise, the "wily" Odysseus. He's a lying, theiving bastard, whoring his way across the Mediterranean, after participating as a mercenary in the sack of a city. When he gets home he kicks butt, at one point skewering several men with a single arrow, for no reason other than they were wooing his wife after he had been gone for over a decade and presumed dead. Not what I would call a "role model"

Virgil, Aeneid: After having an affair with Dido, the widowed Queen of Carthage, our hero simply leaves her. "Sorry, babe, I have a city to found! Later!"

Milton, Paradise Lost: The star of this epic is no one other than the brightest angel of them all, Lucifer, who decides it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Goethe, Faust: Doctor Faustus is of course the protaganist of this one, but all the best lines go to the devil, Mephistopheles.

Mozart and Soren Kierkegaard, Don Giovanni: Mozart in his Opera, and Kierkegaard in his masterwork on aesthetics, Either/Or, both portray Don Juan, the notorious seducer, as the coolest of the cool. The climax of the opera is when the Don gets dragged off to hell by a statue.

I'm sure I missed a few but those are my favorites.

Inspired by Oolong, who could not understand why I ed-cooled this node, and provided me with the excuse for making myself cool as liquid nitrogen. BWA-HA-HA!

The Modern Fable

One day a young man was walking alone on a beach.

Suddenly in a puff of smoke, there stood before the man The Devil himself.

"You have led a hard life," The Devil said, "and I wish to ease your pain."

The young man stood still for a moment. "Ease my pain?"

"Yes. You were born poor, and your parents died when you were very young. The orphanage mishandled your case, and your foster parents were very cruel to you. You never even learned how to read. You have no real friends, no home, no job, and -" the Devil clicked his tongue while examining the bag the man was carrying - "five empty soda bottles to your name."

"I live my life as I live it, I don't make any excuses. Now if you don't mind, I need five more of these bottles if I'm gonna get any food tonight." The young man continued walking.

The Devil followed closely behind, hands behind his back. "What if I could offer you the comforts of the world? All of them, whatever you desire. Food, money, a warm bed, women .."

The young man kept walking, scanning the beach for bottles.

"I could give you powers beyond your wildest dreams. You would be the most respected man on the face of the earth."

"Leave me alone. Dinner's served in an hour, and the manager don't like stragglers. Unless you want to help me find bottles."

The Devil rolled his eyes and snapped his fingers. There in front of them appeared five bottles. The young man peered at the bottles for a minute. Then he turned to The Devil.

"You think this is a game? I struggle to survive. You just snap your fingers and your desires are fulfilled. How pointless is that? Do you even have a struggle? I clean this beach, the manager buys me dinner, it's that simple. I sleep on the beach, I wake up on the beach, I clean the beach. It's not terribly easy, and certainly no one ever thanks me for it. For awhile, I didn't think there was any point to living. But I haven't given up yet. I am completely resolved to kick your finger-snapping ass with my hard work. So you can take those bottles and your powers and your comforts and shove them! The sun's almost down, I gotta get back to looking."

Before the last word left his lips, another puff of smoke appeared, and then no one was there. The bottles were gone, too. He was back by himself on the beach, alone. He stood for a moment, considering all he had forfeited - and he smiled sadly at his human condition. He resumed his march down the beach, slowly picking up any bottles he found.

"I don't understand it!" The Devil seethed to Mephistopheles. "It used to be so easy! They all just gave up their souls for a taste of it all. But now, you can't convince this generation to do anything for their own good!"

"There, there," Mephistopheles offered sympathetically. "These young kids today, they don't think they're owed anything like the generations before them. It's almost as if they all know the going rate for souls these days. It's a bear market, that's for sure."

"All of this philosophy! Existentialism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism - metaphysics used to be the simplest thing to overcome! You think therefore you are! I could blow that perception out of the water in seconds flat! Now they're all suffering for themselves. They don't even trust themselves to do good with the powers. They question everything. Hell, half of them last year thought I was the next David Blaine doing a hidden camera special. Little bastards."

Mephistopheles chuckled to himself. "Well, Master, it's true what they say: evil is not the same as cool."

The Devil sighed. "Wanna hit up the Bush twins? I hear they're itching for another chance at Ashton Kutcher." Mephistopheles smiled and nodded, and two ascended back to Earth, where the garden of delights awaiting them had never looked so thin.

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