Tolerating Evil

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How much tolerance do you have for evil? Most of us like to think we have very little and, on one level, that may be true. As long as we are fairly certain that what we are considering is truly evil and as long as we feel we can actually do something about it, our tolerance is pretty low. Damn right I would step up to stop Hitler! But what about Goering? Some nameless Captain in the SS? How about the skinhead next door? Would you slap down the well-dressed and well-spoken head of a neo-Nazi or alt-right group?

Probably – if you didn’t think you would get stabbed.

Still, actually figuring out what is evil is the hard part. It’s easy in retrospect. Obviously whoever lost the fight (i.e., the Nazis, the slaveholders) was evil. Or, where there is no clear winner or loser, we can all agree that evil was done – though sometimes we can’t quite figure out by whom.

But that’s retrospectively, right? In the late 1930s, there were plenty of people—including the former king of England—that thought Hitler wasn’t a bad sort, if a little hysterical. At first, Idi Amin had his supporters and, given that he lived out his life in comfortable exile, continued to have them after he was deposed. Alt-right guys probably think they are doing the proper thing—if only the 99% of people who don’t support their agenda could see it.

They say that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. But that, of course, presumes you have the capital T truth about what is good. Missionaries that wound up destroying indigenous cultures and supporting the slave trade justified themselves by saying they were bringing salvation to the heathens. Communists who instituted the Cultural Revolution in China surely did it to bring about the glorious freedom of pure socialism.

But let’s bring it down to some simple things. If you see a man hitting his spouse or a mother wailing away on their child, would you personally intervene? Would you call the cops? Would you say: It’s a private manner?

I once witnessed a mugging. One of the muggers (they were all pretty young but there were five of them) showed me a knife. I decided not to do anything except watch it unfold. I had time to decide that, if no one got hurt, I would let things unfold. It was only money, right? Afterwards I realized that waiting until after the victim was stabbed would have been too late (no one got stabbed by the way). I was furious at myself but would I do any different today? I hope so but I’m not sure. I’m getting old but I’m not quite ready to die.

I see a lot of hate on Facebook – almost as much of it from the left (whose agenda I largely agree with) as from the right (whom I find hard to bear). Occasionally, I say something about it but I find it a useless expenditure of time and emotional energy. I’ve come to understand that a small percentage of people you meet are assholes (most don’t come close to qualifying and if you think they do, you should take a long hard look in the mirror) and that an even smaller percentage are irredeemable and dangerous assholes. I can only hope someone steps up to stop them before they actually hurt people. But it probably won’t be me.

Not much fun to admit but, I suppose, admitting weakness is the first step to overcoming it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Hackers

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The recent dumping of millions of e-mails and other information from Ashley Madison clearly demonstrates one of the central concerns I’ve always had about hackers revealing confidential information. While we might enjoy the discomfiture of people like Josh Duggar or other moralizers and even applaud the work of Edward Snowden for revealing surveillance carried out by government agencies in the name of freedom, one should still recognize that individuals like Snowden and groups like Anonymous have still made a fundamentally egocentric (perhaps even egomaniacal) decision to place their own personal values at the pinnacle of moral standards.

The motivation of the group that revealed the Ashley Madison data is clear. They do not believe that people should ever have sex outside of marriage. While they claim to think that cheating is bad, they have indiscriminately decided to embarrass many people who were essentially using the site to get dates. Some of these people were single; at least one (who launched a class action suit) was widowed. I may not believe ‘life is short, have an affair’ is good advice but so what?

Is cheating on your spouse a good thing? Probably not. Does it damage marriages? In some cases, yes, but in others it may well preserve them. In any case, there is no one size fits all set of rules for human relationships. I wouldn’t impose my values on you – so don’t try to impose yours on me.

The larger issue in any case is not the revelation of people’s sex lives but rather the issue of how far should anyone go to pit their own moral standards against those of the majority or of the state. Was the use of surveillance and other extra-legal measures excessive in the wake of the passage of the Patriot Act in the USA and will it be excessive under the new legislation (Bill C-51) in Canada? Almost certainly.

Should the entire system be torn down by individuals who are offended by any sense that the state has a right to protect itself and its citizens? I’m not convinced.

The biggest issue is that governments have used fears of terrorism to extend the power of the state in unacceptable and, most importantly, unnecessary ways. They have refused to develop sufficient rigorous oversight mechanisms to ensure agencies don’t abuse these powers. Oversight in the USA is weak; in Canada it is virtually non-existent.

It is little wonder that individuals might feel the need and the necessity to speak out. The over-reaction of governments against those who reveal the secrets that should never have existed in the first place hardly discourages others.

So where does the answer lie? Well, not in anonymous cyber-attacks. Anonymity cuts both ways; it may protect the hackers but it also makes it easier to suggest that the hacks don’t come from moral warriors but from rogue states.

Greater transparency, more accountability, better oversight, and punishment of officials who break the rules are all good starts. But that requires people to demand that governments change. Democracy, as always, is up to us.

And that’s ten minutes