At a time when the term “evil” gets bandied about by politicians as a convenient rhetorical device, one UVA researcher is taking a harder look at the concept of evil and how people use the word.
“I’m interested in how people talk about evil, either those who have committed it or suffered it,” says Jennifer Geddes, an associate professor of religious studies and co-program director for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. She’s currently studying Holocaust testimonies and memoirs at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Her book, The Rhetorics of Evil, is expected to be completed next year.
As she’s delved into the horrific stories from that period, she’s been struck by an essential difference between the perpetrators of evil and their victims in their reasons for telling their tales. “The perpetrators depict themselves as victims and try to elicit sympathy, whereas in victims’ testimonies, they are more interested in telling what happened and giving an account, rather than seeking out sympathy,” she says.
The study of evil has traditionally been a problem for theology, but these days more scholars have become interested in the subject. As the term has gained wider usage in public discourse, and as people have become more aware of world events, particularly since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the word “evil” and what we mean by it has become a central question. “People are now more interested in why people do evil things,” she observes. “There seems to be a raised ethical consciousness about the evils going on around the world.”
And while most people agree on certain heinous acts that fall into the category of evil—child abuse, torture, premeditated murder—the actual definition of “evil” is elusive. Geddes notes that its misuse often leads to evil actions: “As soon as you label the other ‘evil,’ there are no limits on the violence or the suffering you can inflict.”
“It’s a tricky word,” she adds. “If it’s used to describe people, it’s a justification to do anything to them. If it’s used to describe a situation, it’s a moral imperative to do something about it. It’s used both to name injustices and to justify them.”