Rhetoric of Evil

Some people have tried to convince others that letting your children watch this fellow borders on an act of evil

The construction of evil is very reminiscent of approaches to writing. In both we have to consider purpose, audience, and intent. In writing, if our purpose is to persuade a particular audience, what is our intention, why do we want to persuade the audience? Rhetoricians of yore made sport of persuading for the sake of persuasion, but in real life application outside of academia, persuasion also carries with it an additional weight. It is a means to an end.

There is little difference in the construction of evil. The distinction between purpose and intent is rendered more apparent than in writing. But the language is juxtaposed due to legal terminology, particularly the phrase “with intent to kill.” The intention in an act of evil, thus, becomes equivalent with “purpose” in writing, and motivation in murder or other manifestations of socially-recognized evil equates with what we recognize in writing as “intention.”

A psychopath might harm someone with the intent to kill, as dubbed by legal terminology, but what is their purpose or motivation? Do they intend to kill to squelch or satiate some unconscious, sadistic impulse? Is their motivation revenge? Generally speaking, in most modern societies motivation is a means to solving a crime, but it is not an essential criteria for evil itself. All that is needed is intent to commit a socially recognized act of evil.

Motivation is a fickle mistress. Intention to commit a socially recognized act of evil without an apparent motivation is often one of the most fear-inducing manifestations of “evil.” At the same time, intent to commit a socially recognized act of evil with a clear motivation can be dubbed either evil or good, depending on the rhetoric employed to justify or condemn the act.

For example, in war the intent to kill can be justified by a motivation to squelch a greater evil. The greater evil is generally established by two things:

1. chronology: the greater evil is the force that initiated the intent to kill through provocation.

2. quantification of innocence: the greater evil intends to kill those who do not wish to reciprocate, innocent civilians rather than willing soldiers. The quantification of innocence rests on a continuum in which children rest at one end with unwilling participants following and willing participants resting on the other end of the spectrum.

In coming weeks (interspersed by interviews and random reflections on other topics) I plan to explore the rhetoric of evil in greater depth by looking at how theological depictions of evil are used to justify socially recognized acts of evil while simultaneously condemning other socially recognized acts of evil. Also, I hope to look at the ways that rhetoric is used to transmute acts we might not normally view as evil, like political viewpoints and alliances, into heinous crimes against humanity.

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