Speaking of Evil: Are human rights a new religion?

On a Sunday afternoon, I joined a large protest march in London denouncing the Turkish assault on Rojava, with Kurdish flags and banners waving and chants denouncing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a terrorist and fascist, next to images of the face of Kurdish Leader Abdullah Ocalan, the leader and founding member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, summarizing and iconizing the bloody history of this particular tragedy. And as I moved with the crowd toward Westminster, bumping into friends and having casual chats on the situation, my mind is somewhere else — I am only half-present. I am thinking of Cairo, struggling to connect all the tragic events since September 20 into one single narrative. As usual, I am obsessed with visualizing patterns and narratives, in a desperate attempt to resist the fragmentation of my attention and pull it away from the hold of the internet. It is a political duty to pay attention, I remind myself. Although, I can barely pay attention to anything, wandering freely between Rojava, Egypt, London, Istanbul, Washington, where else? The word evil comes to mind out of nowhere, promising to bring some coherence to this mess of betrayal and the threat of a crime against humanity or to the mass arrests and torture at home. When I go home, I think about the all-too-normalized connection between the aesthetics of evil and the global concern with humanitarian emergency. Is it a coincidence that I’ve also been reading about the global history of torture for weeks now? Torture, too, reminds one of evil. 

There is something about those scenes of utmost cruelty that requires something beyond the sanitized language of bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers. There is something more biblical or mythic about them, let’s say. Picture this: the cinematic character of the torturer is unlike the usual representation of the “criminal.” It is easy to identify with the “criminal” as an anti-hero who defies the hypocrisies of the moral order (think of the Joker). But can we identify with a torturer or a soldier engaged in ethnic cleansing? Evil is qualitatively different from criminality. Evil suggests sadistic monstrosity, excess of cruelty, much more consciously and strategically exercised, yet without much justification in terms of selfish gain. It is cruelty for cruelty’s sake in a theater of violence. Lawyers can only go so far describing this for us. Maybe only cartoonists and theologians can do it justice. 

I am being intentionally melodramatic for a reason (or is reality itself melodramatic?). I want to highlight the connection between the aesthetics of cruelty and evil on the one hand, and our human rights imaginary. I want to repeat the question, which has been repeated ad nauseam, concerning the religious element in human rights. This problem might come as a surprise to human rights activists in Egypt, long accused of being fanatical secularists by Islamists. But an attentive listener to the Islamist accusation will detect a deeper issue. The Islamist considers secularism itself to be a secret religion that will not call itself as such. 

But beyond this superficial political point-scoring, more important issues are at stake. The committed human rights advocate must believe in the sacredness of the human body and must demand the guarding of such sacredness from the ravages of sacrifice and its cruel excesses. Human rights discourse inherits a long tradition of anti-sacrificial thinking — that is, it denies that any individual should be sacrificed for the sake of the community. The scapegoat is one of the oldest anthropological archetypes, a figure who is singled out from the rest of society and is meant to carry the guilt and the blame for the entire nation’s failures. The scapegoat is the surrogate victim. That is why sacred has so many contradictory meanings: it can mean singled out from the rest, or taboo and prohibited, or holy and untouchable. The scapegoat is ambivalent because it is both absolutely innocent and guilty, a victim and a criminal, a figure that requires special and exceptional rules and rituals to deal with. 

So when human sacrifices are prohibited, this does not abolish the place of the exceptional, the tabooed and the sacred in our imaginary — on the contrary, it strengthens it. But such prohibition exposes that strange and troubling double character of all sacrifice. By asserting the sacredness of a body that must not be sacrificed on the altar of the nation, the human rights imaginary does not abolish the mythic and exceptional qualities of sacrifice. Rather, it indefinitely suspends the consummation of the scapegoat mechanism and lives on the memory of what could have been if we had not recognized the ambivalent guilt and innocence of the scapegoat. Or in other words, anti-sacrificial thinking — which is at the heart of human rights — does not abolish the sacred, but asserts it more strongly and adds more and more prohibitions and taboos and narratives around it, so as to expose its contradictions, suspend its enactment and limit its scope. And it broadcasts this message globally: the age of human sacrifice is over. The human body is the sacred exception to regular sacrifice. 

Now the problem with the account I am giving is that it assumes that there is such a thing as a human rights discourse with an official canon and creed. I do not believe that this canon or creed actually exist. The history of human rights is a strange, confusing collage of many events from across the world: the Reformation, the French Revolution, the Holocaust, decolonization and self-determination movements, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the founding of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and many more such events. And the story that one chooses to tell depends on the argument they want to make. That’s why I do not want this to be read as a story of origins. Nevertheless and despite this variety of origins, referents and authorities that define the meaning of human rights, we can detect some tropes and motifs that tie those threads together, tropes and motifs that cannot be made transparent unless we take a look at the deeper layers beyond what is being stated from this or that document. 

Perhaps the motif of evil is nowhere clearer than in the centrality of the Holocaust in the global (especially Western) human rights imaginary, alongside the fall of the Soviet Union. Although, as I just said, historians of human rights now realize that the Holocaust is only one of multiple defining narratives for the rise of this discourse, and, yet, the Holocaust is important because it is where the theological tropes of human rights reveal themselves most clearly. Just look at the term itself: holocaust literally means a burnt sacrifice offered to a god. 

The social and political theorist Robert Meister wrote a mind-blowing book about this particular problem called After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights (2011). Meister’s concern is that the motto “Never Again!”— the slogan that gained popularity after the full extent of Nazi destruction became more well-known — is indebted to a specifically Christian view of history. In this story, sin belongs to the past and is “never again.” We live under a new order that is after evil, where the guilty past takes on a new meaning and significance to become the mark and memory of redemption, the memory of what we could have been had we not known. Under the new gospel, evil takes on a new meaning. It is to refuse to believe in such a transformation. It is to belong to a time that has been left behind. In other words, the Holocaust is strangely transformed and assimilated into Europe’s civilizing mission, both of itself and others. And yet, this new temporal order is not a time for reparations and redistributive justice, because it is already too late for this (the long history of oppression is therefore preemptively forgiven) and too early (there is still time for those who do not believe to be converted to the new faith). This new time is indefinitely transitional: it lives on the memory of the sins of the past but would not avenge for them nor establish justice in the now, because there is still enough time to come forward and confess. As Meister demonstrates in many cases, such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the model for transitional justice adopted by virtually all late democratizers), or the Nuremberg Trials or Reconstruction in the post-Civil War United States, the story is always the same — the current afterlives of oppression are relegated to the past, and justice is always postponed to an indefinite, never-arriving future. The crimes are too big to be punished, the argument goes, because this will renew cycles of violence and revenge. The only thing that can be done in this case is to enlighten the bystanders about what happened so that it is not repeated. Revenge and sacrifice are no more. 

From this perspective, evil is this cycle of revenge and sacrifice, which we (those faithful to human rights) proclaim to transcend, by bearing witness to the possibility of pre-figurative and pre-emptive reconciliation and restoration. Transitional justice is indeed the model we implicitly assume when writing and reading reports of human rights violations. We are always implicitly summoning a future in which a truth and reconciliation hearing actually takes place. Meister’s parallel argument is that such an understanding, with its themes of revenge, sacrifice, forgiveness, universal victimhood, etc. replaced another model: the revolution. The revolutionary understanding of justice is different: it demands reparation and redistribution now. It demands that the perpetrator and the benefactor of injustice give up their gains and privileges now, at whatever cost. 

This may not be the only problem with our implicit reliance on a concept of evil. Some, in fact, have a more qualified understanding of the role of evil in our moral vocabulary, which does not dismiss the role of forgiveness out of hand. Take Hannah Arendt, the preeminent authority on the philosophical response to the horrors of the 20th century. Arendt’s reflections explicitly invoke a notion of radical evil. Arendt, however, departs from the Western tradition in very important ways because she is insistent that this tradition had a narrow view of evil, in which evil arises only from egotistical motives, so-called human nature. Arendt insists that the 20th century has proven that there are indeed crimes that are not motivated by any selfish pursuits. They are not behaviors to be explained away by interests. Their radical-ness is not rooted in human nature but rather in their effects, in that they erode the foundations of our humanity: plurality, spontaneity, creativity, trust and capacity to judge. Famously and following the Eichmann trial, Arendt added another layer to her disagreement with the Western tradition. She famously wrote in a letter to fellow thinker Gershom Scholem that she no longer believes that evil is radical: it is only extreme. This is the famous (or infamous) banality of evil argument: evil does not arise out of megalomania or demonic motives. It is not a symptom of a pathological lust for power or tyranny. It can come in much more ordinary and trivial forms than this: in stupidity, in opportunism, in blind obedience, in thoughtlessness. This is already an extension to her original position that evil is not motivated by egotism — this would already be to explain its specificity away and fail to perceive its insidiousness. She was now stating this point much more bluntly; evil is human, all-too-human, but not in the ways we usually imagine it to be. 

Although Arendt is indeed departing from the Western tradition, it could be argued that there is still a shadow of Saint Augustine in her account. Indeed, Augustine would say that all evil stems from self-love, but he also famously inaugurated another hallowed tradition: privatio boni, or absence of good. This is Augustine’s attempt to escape from his former Manicheism — the doctrine that the cosmos has a dual character, both Good and Evil, engaged in cosmic war. Augustine is clear: Evil as such does not exist. It is not Evil with a capital “E.” It is not an entity. It is only an absence, a lack — the darkness that lingers wherever light escapes. Evil, then, is only the corruption of human free will rebelling against the primacy of the Good. 

This is significant. This may give a hint of where the contemporary discourse of Evil falls apart. It has no corollary notion of the Good, an account of what could be aspired to. Indeed, the most vocal Western advocates of human rights – especially following the end of the Cold War – are suspicious and skeptical of any attempt to reinstate a notion of the Good. The argument is usually something along those lines: because of the radical plurality of values in modernity, any attempt to reinstate a notion of the common Goodwill quickly slide into tyranny. That makes the Good an antiquated ideal that we better get rid of. What we can do instead is to focus our attention on the worst evils and pick the lesser of them. Now Evil will be the absolute horizon of our moral reasoning. The evils of cruelty, torture, humiliation, genocide and fear are more worthwhile foes than the attempts to seek common goods. The only fear is fear itself. This is Augustine turned on his head. 

But then, if Evil takes primacy, what actually is evil about it? What is it about torture that makes it so viscerally repugnant? Is it the mere fact of pain? Maybe, if you’re a hedonist. Is it mere cruelty? I can think of so many instances of cruelty that would not pass muster as a human rights violation. Or is it the fact that some forms of cruelty indicate, more than others, a social system of hierarchy and status, where torture marks and stigmatizes, divides and demarcates, sets up each individual on a scale of more or less human. And therefore, evil here is not just a mere practice nor crime — it speaks to a denigration and dissolution of human solidarity. It speaks to a failure on the part of a society to honor its members. Therefore, if there is no notion of what binds humans together, and what makes them see each other as equal and worthy of belonging to the same community, of what they can collectively aspire to and achieve, then the specific psychological and symbolic significance of things like torture will not make sense. Liberal pietism about cruelty is not enough. 

A politics of the Good — which politics traditionally is — is a politics of negotiating and realizing this common good from within the plurality of values and virtues that shape our bonds and solidarities. And here, evil will be the all-too-ordinary human failure to realize those goods. It will not be absolutized or mystified. It will not be extraordinary. This does not eliminate tyranny from the realm of possibility, but this is exactly where liberal piety fails: it makes the fear of tyranny so absolute that it fails to see its concrete, ordinary, common sources. “This cannot happen here” turns from an ideal to a statement of fact. It slips from avoidance into denial that it could happen. The absolutist insecurity and suspicion against tyranny professed by liberalism turn into easy complacency and cliché. And once evil loses its familiarity and ordinariness, once it becomes so extraordinary and hence unfamiliar, it will be projected onto the outside world. Insecurity breeds resentment. Resentment breeds defensiveness and splitting. And splitting breeds projection and aggression.

It has also been a cliché since 9/11 to designate the so-called war on terror as overly religious in tone: Bush’s axis of evil, the fanaticism of the new American Christian right, or Sisi’s favorite iteration, ahl al-shar (people of evil). I am far from suggesting that the human rights movement is the source of this, far from it. I refuse to bolster the right-wing argument, first announced by Carl Schmitt, that humanitarians and liberals are directly to be blamed for moralizing politics and turning it into a battle between Good and Evil. Schmitt was being quite disingenuous. Authoritarians, or sovereigns, are more culpable than anyone in blurring the distinction between cosmic war and political rivalry. What I am suggesting is that the human rights discourse around cruelty and evil may not be enough to resist this — it unintentionally creates a space for this Manichean cult of war to crowd it out and disarm it. And therefore, it ends up defeating its own purposes, because it has no notion of politics that may temper the rampant moral pietism around us. 

The question of whether human rights are a new religion is a deflection, too, from a deeper issue. As I demonstrated above, human rights do have an undeniably religious character. Insofar as contemporary humanism is a religion, it is not doing a very good job at offering a viable alternative to existing theologies. And insofar as it is not a religion, it cannot offer a narrative of secular political virtue and practice beyond Evil, either. And if the very dilemma between religion and politics cannot be definitively resolved, then denying it will not help. 

Arendt reminds us that there is something very anti-political about evil, when it removes our capacity to enter the public sphere, to think and judge and reflect, to take care and maintain the remnants of our solidarity. Both evil itself and the language we’re forced to use in response stifle and shock. They know only emergencies. How then, I wonder, can we think and speak of this cruelty, to be able to narrate it without becoming complicit in its paralyzing anti-political effects?

Nader Andrawos 

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