Perplexed by social media conversations
Over the past few months there have been many social media conversations, YouTube and TikTok videos, and news stories which have been percolating in my head. The gist of all these is a question about whether or not there has been a recent increase in jerky behavior. Behavior like yelling at others, using racist comments in public, displaying offensive signs or bumper stickers, physically harming people for who they are or for what they say.
I have been perplexed about how to participate in these conversations or how to respond to the videos which seem to miss the point and lump unpleasant behavior with that which causes suffering. I have been hesitant to engage because I wonder if these conversations and videos come from an unwillingness to call out the truth.
Then I remembered "I write a blog!"
So, if you don't want to hear me calling out evil -- really, some just plain preaching -- then stop reading. Now.
TRIGGER WARNING: Description of an assault
The absence of empathy
Empathy is the theme this month at Stories Matter and it's been wonderful to write about children's books which encourage our kiddos to walk in another person's shoes and to act with kindness. Of all the values we teach to our children, empathy is near the top of my list -- right up there with respecting others.
Empathy is not more important now than in previous years -- the world has always worked better when we extend kindness to one another. We just need to see and experience more empathy now because we've stopped practicing empathy, expecting empathy from the adults around us, teaching empathy to our children.
And when empathy is absent, yes, we can behave unpleasantly. We can be obnoxious. But, ultimately, when empathy is absent behavior arises which can only be called evil.
It's not about being a jerk.
It is evil behavior
Being a jerk is when you are thoughtlessly obnoxious. Being a jerk does not include taking satisfaction or joy in causing another person harm, be it emotional, mental or physical harm. If you look up the definition of jerk -- a contemptibly obnoxious person -- the accompanying synonyms imply someone who is a dolt. Someone who is so unaware of or uncaring about the consequences of her interactions with the world that it is extremely unpleasant to be near her.
Verbally or physically assaulting another person is not unpleasant behavior. It is evil behavior.
Let me tell you how I know, firsthand, the difference between jerky and evil behaviors.
Simple working definition
I am sure many of my friends could give you a more complete rundown on the meaning of evil, but for the purposes of this post we are going to go with this pretty simple working definition:
Evil causes human suffering.
Not much nuance, I know. But you understand that life is filled with many colors of gray and our actions, our relationships are filled with nuance. And, yet. Sometimes, we simply need to remind ourselves that there are clear cut boundaries to how we interact with others, boundaries for how our society and communities are supposed to work. Without acknowledging the boundary of what constitutes evil behavior - and living accordingly - there would be a free-for-all everyday.
Trigger: Difference between evil & jerkiness
There are two incidents in my life which help me to understand the difference between evil and jerkiness.
I suppose one could say the actions of those who were catcalling were evil since they apparently enjoyed my discomfort, but I can tell you only the first event caused suffering.
Suffering which, while muted by the passage of life, still resides in my heart. Shame and fear are the primary manifestations of such suffering -- nobody ever says suffering is logical. I did nothing to cause the shame and the creep can never hurt me again. But every once in a blue moon, I find myself in situations which draw forth twinges of those emotions and I know they are a result of being assaulted.
We give evil permission
So, if you are concerned or worried about an increase in jerks, please, please, please understand -- on it's own, being a jerk rarely causes suffering.
Let's stop lumping all the events we discuss as if we are simply dealing with dolts. Let's call each behavior for what it is -- if it's simply obnoxious, then it's being a jerk. If it's assault of any sort, then it's being evil. Empathy - a real understanding of others' suffering - requires we speak clearly about these behaviors. To do anything less dishonors most of our faith traditions.
When we see news of physical assaults or talk about friends or neighbors who are yelled at on the street for the color of their skin, then we are seeing evil. Here is the kind of suffering others experience from this evil:
Verbal and physical assault are evil. And, knowing human nature, once we no longer name it for what it is, we give evil permission to openly and repeatedly cause others to suffer.