The way politicians have been using the word evil in the last few years has been really bothering me. The latest example was Tony Blair saying on Tuesday, after the attacks in Baghdad and Karbala:
"If there was any clearer struggle between good and evil, it is between those on the one hand who want to build Iraq as a decent country in which people from whatever religious quarter live together in freedom and in peace and on the other, those who would destroy that and replace that by religious hatred."
The use of this word bothers me for several reasons. Evil is a theological concept meaning the opposite of good represented by God. I can understand that as this is a central tenet of Christianity, Tony Blair, a committed Christian, may analyse certain situations as a fight between good and evil. However, he is also a political leader representing a diverse society. In this sense he is on shaky ground when he bases his judgements and actions on a moral dichotomy that is far from being shared by everyone in the country he represents. It is all the more noticeable to me as in French, there is no such religious and supernatural connotations to the equivalent expression, "le bien et le mal" (the good and the bad).
Although I was brought up as a catholic, I don’t believe in good and evil. And I certainly don’t believe that America and England are "good" while Iran, Iraq, Korea and French fries are "evil". Demonising people and whole countries, applying an "us versus them" solution to the world’s problems as well as being very simplistic, is actually rather dangerous; it has the perverse effect of absolving us from responsibility. Saying that someone is evil dehumanises him or her; they become a lost cause, rotten to the core. What’s the point of trying to understand these people? The responsibility is solely on them; they are freaks of nature. But doesn’t this conveniently distance us from them, hence stopping us from examining ourselves and our actions on the "good side" (try not to laugh) that might provoke such acts of hatred and such despair?
So why do Tony Blair and George Bush use this word so much? I did a search on "Tony Blair" + evil on google: 134,000 hits. Then "George Bush" + evil: 273,000 hits. Of course this is hardly a scientific tool, but here is better evidence: "President Bush’s State of the Union message used "evil" four times in 2003 and five times in 2002. In 2001, he did not use the word. President Clinton used "evil" twice in 8 years". (The Rhetorical impact of "Evil" on public policy, by Jonathan Anderson).
I think it’s because evil is a supernatural term that instils fear. It implies that there are higher forces out there that want us all dead. I think that George Bush and Tony Blair like using it because it is scary; a lot scarier than, say, "bad" or "heinous", "abhorrent", "wrong", etc. Besides, it’s incredibly vague. Evil can’t be explained, you don’t have to prove its existence, but it must be destroyed before it destroys you, so it’s acceptable to use any kind of force to weed it out. Just point the finger at an organisation, call it "evil" and that gives you all the argument you need to bomb it into oblivion. Maybe if we’re scared enough and convinced enough that the dark forces are out there to get us, we’ll let our leaders do whatever they like.

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:08+00:00 March 8th, 2004|Words|2 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. steve March 9, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    regarding your google results:
    i have no evidence for this either, but i would be inclined to suggest that the term “evil” comes up more often in relation to Dubya because there are more people actually calling him “evil” on the Internet (not only because he uses it more often)…just a hunch.

  2. Rym Rytr March 11, 2004 at 4:00 pm

    “and frequently, evil is substituted for “wrong”. Right from wrong. The people who blow themselves up killing innocent civilians; those who set off bombs at train stations, as in Spain this A. M.; the group that flew Airplanes into the twin towers in New York, killing amoung others, children in a day care; those that today, in Africa, buy and sell 11 yr old girls; those that rape, molest and randomly shoot others on the streets because it is “cool”, for me, they deserve the title of Evil. And you make me see that it does, indeed, come close to some sort of possion of a spirit or other-wold being whose only reason for existance is to do “harm”, to bring unhappiness and pain to other life-forms. Religious? Not absolute by definition, but not totally seperated either. It leaves one with much to consider…
    Rym Rytr

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