The greatness of a quotation sometimes surpasses time and context. We often do not know for certain the origin of a great quote because so many people adapted the message over the years that its roots got lost in history.
“The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We attribute this statement most frequently to the British statesman Edmund Burke. The basic concept, however, dates back many centuries further, at least to Talmudic writings. Another variation of the quote reads, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for men of good conscience to remain silent.” While widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, no such quote exists in his writings.
In the end, the source of the idea bears little relevance. The sentiment remains as true today as ever in the course of human history. Wrongdoing requires not only the will on the part of the perpetrator, but the blind eye and closed lips of the spectator. Evil and tyranny can only succeed with the consent of the masses, either through indifference, complacency or silence.
What is evil?
Few of us would deny the presence of evil in the world. But what exactly constitutes evil? Is evil the counterbalancing force of good? Is evil a malignant mutation of good? Is evil a concept relative to the society’s sense of immorality? Is evil anything that causes suffering, whether natural or human-made?
Since we can do little about floods and hurricanes, let us deal only with human acts of evil. I believe we can characterize an evil act as possessing three essential characteristics — the act is intentional, harmful and unrepentant. In order to commit an evil act, we must first intend to commit evil. The act must cause direct or indirect harm or suffering to others. And we must feel no remorse for the act or its consequences.
For example, accidentally harming another person is not evil because you had no intent. Wishing harm on someone is not evil if no harm comes to the person as a result. And harming someone intentionally is not evil if you truly regret your action and seek forgiveness.
Therefore, actions by those who don’t call god by the same name as you are not inherently evil. Acts by those of a different nation, skin color, sexual orientation or social class are not by definition evil. Evil comprises acts perpetrated counter to the universal themes of the religious teachings of humanity. Therefore, for instance, all murder is evil. Continuing failure to love your neighbors unconditionally is evil. Ongoing idol worshiping — be it money, guns, power or status — constitutes evil.
The magnitude of evil
Obviously, some evil acts exceed others in severity. Genocide, torture and institutionalized oppression are the acts of nations. Individual citizens can hardly be held completely accountable for the acts of nations. Generally speaking, the larger the act or authority of the perpetrator, the less personal responsibility we bear.
Some responsibility for national acts, however, does exist for individuals. Every white American of European ancestry carries a small portion of blame for the mass murder of indigenous peoples. Every male American can be held accountable for our shocking statistics of sexual assault and domestic violence against women and children. Every straight American shares culpability in hate crimes against gay and transgender individuals.
I doubt that any reader of this editorial ever killed an indigenous American. I hope none of you has ever raped a woman, or beat a child. And few of you have assaulted a gay person, or murdered a transgender man or woman. And, if you did commit one of these direct acts of evil, our criminal justice system has procedures for dealing with this evil. The system falls far short of perfection, but we make a strong social commitment to the attempt. Regardless, because we support our institutions, we all share in the imperfections of our social systems.
In addition, we are, and cannot be perfectly moral creatures, so we are all directly guilty of some acts of evil. These acts may be small, almost minuscule. We cheat on a test, take claim for another’s work, fudge some numbers to get a more favorable result. We all bear the burden of evil in some small way.
No amount of faith, prayer or good intentions will eradicate evil. To destroy evil, we must act. Following basic rules of morality is a good start. Whether you read the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur’an, or any other sacred text, you will find a common core of sound ethical rules — don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, help people, love others as you love yourself.
But while those rules help eliminate evil acts from your personal life, they do not help with the larger evils. Those rules did not help America from enslaving millions of African Americans; from polluting every river; from keeping millions needlessly in poverty; from abandoning veterans, the homeless and those who suffer from mental illness; and from allowing advocacy groups and lobbyists to reduce our democracy to a commodity to be purchased.
In his novel “1984,” George Orwell envisioned a society where war means peace; hate means love; spying means freedom; and conformity means happiness. Those are the conditions of a dystopian society. Those are the conditions of hell.
Silence = Death
In 1987, six gay activists in New York began plastering posters around the city featuring a pink triangle on a black background stating simply “SILENCE = DEATH.” The symbol derived from Nazi Germany, when known homosexuals in concentration camps were forced to wear inverted pink triangle badges, just as Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David. The Silence = Death Project compared the Nazi period with the AIDS crisis, declaring that “silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.” The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussing safer sex and society’s unwillingness to resist injustice and indifference.
Fifty years ago, events in Selma, Ala. created a similar moment of people coming together to combat evil. There, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, armed officers attacked 600 peaceful civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to the state capital of Montgomery. That day, March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. subsequently called upon clergy and citizens to come to Selma to stand united against the injustice of racism and the indifference of society to the plight of Negroes in the South.
Shocked by the televised images of savagery against unarmed and peaceful marchers, his call was answered. Two days later, a second march of 2,500 people crossed the bridge, prayed and then obeyed a court order to return to Selma. That night, Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb was brutally murdered outside a KKK hangout in town by four white men. The subsequent shooting of Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist homemaker from Detroit, prompted the federal government to act. The march from Selma to Montgomery was successfully completed a week later.
A new model
Many people died to secure the civil rights of African Americans. Tragically, more work remains. Quiet acceptance of institutionalized poverty, racial profiling, unjust incarceration and shooting of African American men, and recent assaults on voting rights have continued our legacy of oppression into the 21st century. Today, this work requires sankofa. Sankofa is a word from the Akan language of Ghana often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” Sankofa means that we sometimes must look backwards and learn from our past before we can move forward into the future.
We need to look back, to remember the events and people in Selma 50 years ago. We need to hear the voices raised up in song and prayer. And we need to channel those voices now through our own mouths. For we as individuals can only fight the evils of society by speaking out. We can remain silent no longer, because silence only means more evil, more tyranny, more death.
Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We cannot change unjust laws and practices through our current model. At a time when we are electing representatives who are intellectually dogmatic, scientifically illiterate and religiously bigoted, we cannot look to government for change. We must be the change. With our voices, we can change society by saying that we will no longer accept our nation’s evils. We must stand united and shout as one that we will no longer accept needless suffering at the hands of special interests; we will longer accept the rule of violence and force; and we will no longer accept the dismantling of our inalienable freedoms by misers, bullies and zealots.
We must come together and reject the Newspeak saying that religious discrimination equals religious freedom; that right to fire equals right to work; that privatized profit equals free markets; that easy access to guns equals more safety; that homophobia equals family values; and that anti-woman equals pro-life.