I’ve become a little obsessed with something Vladimir Putin once said.
Putin has, of course, been much in the news lately here in the United States as various interested parties try to figure out exactly how involved he has been with our President. And so I finally got around to reading a book I’ve been wanting to read since it came out: Masha Gessen’s ‘The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin‘.
My edition has two afterwords. The second, a postscript written in 2014, concerns the autocrat’s violent anti-gay ideology. Gessen is herself gay, and it was the persecution of homosexuals which finally drove her from her country, and so in a book with many emotionally difficult portions, it is one of the most upsetting.
And, in it, Gessen quotes, among other things, Putin’s State of the Federation address to Parliament in 2013, in which he said,
“Today many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning.” (p. 312)
It is always fascinating to watch someone invoke the fight against evil in order to achieve evil. It begs the question: do they know that they are about to commit an evil act? If not (surely not), then why don’t they know? If someone else committed that act, would they know it was evil? Are they hypocrites interested only in the accumulation of their own power, or are they true believers?
Vladimir Putin and I agree that evil exists, but we have very different notions of what it is, what it looks like, and who is doing it. In fact, we probably believe that the other is a pretty near approximation of an evil actor.
Putin believes (I am persuaded by Gessen on this) that evil is personified by liberal, democratizing, Westernizing forces which corrode the conservative, traditional power structures of his country.
I believe that the evil person is one who seeks to accrete power, wealth, or to experience joy or relief, at the expense of the natural rights of other people: at the expense of their safety, health, freedom, or life. I believe evil is that which requires that the rights of the other be sacrificed to achieve the goals of the self.
So how can Vladimir Putin and I use the same word and mean such different things? If ‘evil’ means ‘someone I disagree with very, very much’, or ‘someone who does something I find personally repugnant’, does it really have meaning worth preserving? Is ‘evil’ just another level on our personal scale of badness, or is it another thing altogether, a distinct category of human behavior? If it is the latter, shouldn’t we make sure that our use of that word is spare? Shouldn’t we make sure not to dull its edge by overuse?
Obviously, I cannot stop Putin from saying or doing whatever he pleases (apparently, no one can). But I can object strongly to his use of that word, ‘evil’, which is incorrect and dangerous.
Whether you believe that homosexuality is right or wrong (and I would like to be clear and emphatic here: I believe that homosexuality is exactly as right, as normal, as healthy, and as natural as heterosexuality), surely we can agree that one person’s homosexuality does not deprive any heterosexual person of their natural rights, and, therefore, is not evil and should not be so called. Tolerance of homosexuality, then, is not a commitment to neutrality in the battle between good and evil – that is a preposterous idea.
We may disagree about what is right and what is wrong, but we should not disagree about evil. There are many things which are considered ‘wrong’ by some portion of the population but which we all ought to have the right and freedom to do: take the Lord’s name in vain, get a divorce, tell a lie, have a child out of wedlock, smoke marijuana, marry someone of the same gender, cheat on our spouse, work on the Sabbath. You may think one or more of these things is wrong, but, if I do them, I do not violate your natural rights, and so my right to do them should be respected. We can agree to disagree.
I don’t believe that we can afford to agree to disagree about evil – there are lives at stake. And so I don’t believe that we should be using the word ‘evil’ when we mean ‘wrong’; I don’t believe we should use the word ‘evil’ except when we mean it. Because we’re going to want to have that word at our disposal, potent and not diluted, when we need it (to, say, describe a man who is having opposition journalists killed).
And we are going to need it.
Featured image from abc.com, anti-Putin protests in the UK sparked by the Russian crackdown on gay rights in 2014.