“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
John F. Kennedy Edmund Burke Charles F. Aked Every Activist on The Internet.
The above quote, which has no verified source, but seems to me most likely to have originally come from John Stuart Mill, has been driven at me so often and so hard that I am beginning to flinch every time I see it headed my way: the overloaded hitch-trailer of indignation pulled by the immaculately buffed car of self-righteousness. It tends to dangle from the end of pleas, or worse, demands, that I join the caravan of this champion of justice, or be an agent in the triumph of Evil.
Well, I really can’t afford either the Saville Row suits or the traditional black leather that comprise the current Agents of Evil dress code, so I’m not a fan of being relegated to their ranks. But the popular wisdom that has been misattributing this quote to Edmund Burke for the last hundred years is hard to refute, yes? I mean, Hitler could have been fought at the gates of Prague rather than at the gates of Moscow if Chamberlain and Daladier had just stood up to him, yes? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You can find countless anecdotes throughout history in which this is true. If only the good men had stood up to the evil when it was small, how great the past would be.
And it’s all complete and utter balderdash.
Let’s look very carefully at what the users of this argument are asking us to accept without any examination on our part here. Firstly, they want us to accept that what they are fighting against is evil. Note that this is an entirely different proposition than the idea that what they themselves are doing is good. Good people want us to join them in building up what is good. The proponents of this aphorism want us to join them in a crusade against Evil. Do we remember that the Crusades themselves were launched more or less on this very principle? Do we remember what we think of the Crusaders, and the Popes who unleashed them against the “evil” of Saracen occupation of the Holy Land (land the Saracens and their predecessors did, of course, conquer themselves). For a more modern example, however, we can turn to something a bit less extreme, but damaging enough:
“The earliest known citation showing a strong similarity to the modern quote appeared in October of 1916. The researcher J. L. Bell found this important instance. The maxim appeared in a quotation from a speech by the Reverend Charles F. Aked who was calling for restrictions on the use of alcohol [SFCA]” (O’Toole).
And we all remember what a rousing success Prohibition was, right? How many lives were saved because “good men” stood up and fought the evils of drink, yes? Would it not be wise to remember that much evil, if not more, has been done by “good men” who stood up and acted without seriously considering what evils they themselves might be tempted to, driven to, or simply accidentally unleash in the name of their crusade?
But let us say that we have considered it, and the target of the cause is indeed evil. The warriors of righteousness are fighting Hitler, or his moral equivalent. Those people exist; I’m not a moral relativist. But now look at what they go on to say, and this is the real issue I have with those driving this particular load of guilt around. Their fight is so important, that they get to draft us into supporting their fight. We are either for them, or against them. We will either speak up every time they want us to, at the volume and pitch they want us to, or we are not their friend. We are not their ally. We are instead their oppressor and their enemy. Well, I think that’s sad, because many of these people I like, but the cost of that friendship is just too high.
Because the real statement here, and it’s fairly insulting if you think about it, is that they get to choose for me what my moral energy goes into fighting. And that is one thing that no one should get to do besides God and me, in that order. The people making this statement do not want allies. Because allies have a voice in what you say, what you do, and how you say and do it. They have an interest in your success, and you have one in theirs. What these people want in you is not an ally. The word we’re looking for here is “subordinate.”
“But, Scott,” I hear you say in the comments (assuming you, like me, are the kind of jerk who throws Hitler into every argument), “Are you saying that there’s nothing everyone is obligated to fight? Wouldn’t every good person have been obligated to join the fight against Hitler?”
Leaving aside for the moment that there were many who considered themselves good who didn’t join that fight (I’m not a pacifist, either), I do agree that there are some extremes in which one must act, indeed must act instantly and violently, against evil (and if you’re waiting for an exhaustive catalogue of such things here, good luck to you), but they are for most of us, rare. I don’t know how I would act when presented with one of them. I hope I would act honorably, but I distrust those who are sure before they’ve been tested. Octavia Butler once said in my presence, “Hitlers are rare. That’s one of the reasons they are so popular.” But while I’ve heard a lot of people try to enlist me in their cause by claiming their opponents are fascists, I’ve yet to agree with that assessment.
Of course, some of you are seething by now, because you’re sitting here saying, “Sure, Scott, you can talk, but those ‘rare situations’ are my LIFE! I’m one of the victims of this injustice you say you don’t want to spend your precious ‘moral energy’ on.” Okay, let me slow down and answer that one with utter, dead seriousness and respect.
I’m sorry. Truly, I am. And if there’s a specific thing you want me to do for you, personally, you contact me and ask, and I’ll do what I can to help you. Your pain is not meaningless. Your pain is real. I’ve been the victim too (and if it’s ever relevant in this blog, I may even tell you of what) and it sucks. And I was fortunate enough to have people to help me.
But I’m not going to pick up your banner for you. I’m not going to devote my life to your cause because you threaten to disrespect me for that or call me names. I have my own causes that I champion, my own callings to help the less fortunate that I follow. And neither you nor anyone else has the right to override that and call on my aid for your cause to the exclusion of the others unless you can demonstrate a clear, immediate, and overriding threat. We live in a world overflowing with injustice. We’re up to our eyeballs in it, and the stink of it is in our nostrils to the point it’s sometimes hard to distinguish it anymore. I’ll fight the injustice with you, but understand it may not be the exact injustice you’re most committed to. And that’s for the simple reason that my pain is not your pain. And we should respect each other’s pain, not fight over whose is worse, and whose need is greatest. Someday, God willing, we’ll meet up on the same side.
From somewhere in orbit
4 thoughts on “Popular UnWisdom #1: What the Good Man Doesn’t”
Good stuff Scott!
Thank you for this text, Scott, which I’ll probably quote from regularly. The term ‘moral energy’ is great, did you coin it?
It is unfortunate that among Christians too few admit that in most cases WWJD leaves room for interpretation, not to mention HWJDI*
* How would Jesus do it?
As far as I know, that term is original with me, though it’s generic enough that I couldn’t swear to it.
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