The Difference Between Error and Evil
When does error become evil? Clearly the two tend to go together very comfortably, but they are not the same thing. You can be wrong about something without being evil, and I suppose you can also be evil while being correct. When does your erroneous prejudice concerning someone or something become evil?
Please note that I do not believe all prejudice and discrimination are erroneous or wrong. The belief that all prejudice is wrong is one of the great fallacies of modern liberal philosophy. Is it wrong to have a prejudice that fire is dangerous, even while acknowledging that it is useful? Calling such a prejudice wrong let alone evil would be the height of folly, and refusing to discriminate against fire would be nothing other than stupid. Not all prejudice is wrong.
This is the case even when we are dealing with people. If a black man saw approaching him what appeared to be an angry group of white men dressed in white sheets and carrying a rope would it be necessary for the black man to ‘give them the benefit of the doubt’? Would the black man be required to create some bizarre improbable fiction to explain their behavior; perhaps they are merely trying to dry their laundry until such time as they are able to find an appropriate place to put up their clothes line? No, of course not. It would be wholly appropriate for the black man to see the approaching group of white men as a very real and personal threat to his well-being and to take appropriate action to protect himself, his family, and his property; even if those actions were discriminatory against those white men. This is because his prejudice concerning white men wearing white sheets and carrying ropes is a valid prejudice based upon real facts. Now would the black man be justified in discriminating against all white people? No, that would be an erroneous prejudice since not all white people support or approve of this behavior. Would he be justified in immediately using violent and deadly force against these men? Probably not. After all they may not have violent intentions even though their appearance is menacing; they may just be playing a prank in poor taste, or expressing a political opinion that may be hateful but not immediately dangerous. Having a menacing appearance, a bad sense of humor, or an ugly political view should not be a death sentence. But showing appropriate caution in the face of a reasonable threat would not be wrong.
If it is appropriate for a black man to have a valid and reasonable prejudice against certain white people and to discriminate against them because of this, would it be appropriate for others to have similar such valid and reasonable prejudices as well? I would say yes.
I point this out in order to distinguish between valid and reasonable prejudices and erroneous prejudices.
Thus, back to my question: When does an erroneous prejudice become evil?
My question is based upon a recent experience I had on Facebook. A ‘friend’ will occasionally express anti-Israel and anti-Zionist beliefs that border on and occasionally cross into Jew-Hatred. In fact I think it would be fair to say that if he is not a Jew-Hater he is certainly a Jew-Skeptic believing all sorts of conspiratorial stories concerning Jews and their control of just about everything. Another ‘friend’ confronted me and accused me of tacitly supporting this anti-Jew prejudice expressed by the other person because I ‘associate’ with him, and do not always aggressively attack this person’s ideas when he states them.
(I do not use the term anti-Semitism as that term was actually coined by a radical German racialist in the 19th Century as a basis to hate Jews, and it is as inaccurate now as it was inaccurate then. It encourages false beliefs even among people who do not share those anti-Jewish sentiments. Firstly, not all Semites are Jews, and not all Jews are Semites. Judaism is a religion that is shared by many different races, cultures, and creeds.)
My immediate response was to point out that not all people who have erroneous prejudices against Jews are evil. As such, I would prefer to confront bad ideas with the calm use of facts and logic where possible. Other than his anti-Jewish beliefs my Facebook ‘friend’ is quite a nice fellow and we share many common interests and beliefs. I do not know why he has these anti-Jewish feelings and beliefs, but when I try to confront him on it he avoids explaining the basis for them. Instead, he posts articles by other people that often contain a certain amount of truth which is then twisted to support an illogical conclusion regarding Jews and Judaism as a whole. Since he is otherwise a well-spoken and reasonable person, I presume that his anti-Jewish beliefs have more to do with negative feelings that were either inculcated into him at a very early age by his family and friends, or created by some negative experiences he had that involved individual Jews that has since poisoned his views of Jews as a whole. Of course this is all speculations, and I really do not know.
Am I tacitly supporting and approving of Jew-Hatred by not constantly attacking anyone and everyone who express such beliefs? I do not think so. I try to confront bad arguments with good arguments, bad facts with good facts, and lies with truth. At least as best I can. I think there is a real risk that when we respond in a highly emotional, accusative, and angry manner to such irrational and erroneous prejudice we only reinforce it, and perhaps even encourage hatred. I do not want to be part of making a bad situation worse.
I do not believe that everyone who has erroneous prejudices is an evil person. There are a lot of reasons why we can be wrong other than being evil. Furthermore, if every erroneous prejudice means that we are evil, then we are all evil since we all have erroneous prejudices about some people or some things. This makes the term ‘evil’ meaningless.
The example I use in this article is about Jew-Hatred. This is because I believe that it is the most long-lived and profoundly erroneous prejudice you can find in the world today. There are many other examples out there, but few approach the outrageous falsehoods as those that are leveled against Jews. Furthermore, Jew-Hatred is particularly widespread present among virtually all races, religions, cultures, and nations. The lies are so absurd and unbelievable as to be laughable if they were not so insidiously persistent.
Does anyone really believe that Jews kill non-Jewish children to use their blood in Jewish religious rituals? It is ridiculous but such slurs continue to spread and are believed.
More troubling are those accusations that have a bit of truth behind them: Jews control the world through their ‘domination’ of business, finance, media, science, and the arts. Clearly, there is a bit of truth here: Jews are more prominent in these endeavors than their percentage in the population would suggest. But it is the insertion of the term ‘domination’ that turns a simple fact into an outright lie. There are still more non-Jews in these activities than there are Jews so that Jews do not and cannot ‘dominate’ anyone or anything, and certainly they do not control the world. What about other important areas where Jews show no particular prominence; sports come to mind as well as politics?
I do not want to suggest that those who experience discrimination from other erroneous prejudices suffer less, or that the discrimination experienced is in any manner more justified or acceptable. Only, that Jew-Hatred is the most absurd, and thus should be the easiest to eliminate.
Yet, it persists beyond almost all arguments, facts, and truths.
I suppose this is where the issue of evil comes in.
It is one thing to credulously believe a false statement that someone else says and to even negligently repeat it to others, but it is quite another matter to spread such beliefs when you know they are false and injurious. We cannot spend our entire lives verifying each and every fact, assertion, opinion, or contention, but we should never knowingly spread lies for the express purpose of injuring and hurting others. That is evil.