A Problem With "Emergent Evil"

Apparently, my last post on emergent evil – the idea that good individuals can nevertheless be part of an evil collective – resonated with a lot of people! More than I thought it would. (sidenote: It even got a tiny write-up on KillScreen, for some reason.)

But even though I think 'emergent evil' is a powerful idea, there's a problem with it that still makes me... uncomfortable.

Let me tell you a story that happened to me recently. Last month, in fact. Just a heads up, it's a bit dark, and, I've not talked about it publicly before so – deep inhale – okay here goes.

• • •

Two months ago, I moved into some place I found on Craigslist. The landlord was some 73-year-old guy, who seemed nice enough, if a little bit strange. Let's call him Carl, because he looked a lot like Carl from Pixar's Up. (And I'm the Asian kid)

Carl lived in the same house with us. I wasn't the only housemate. There were also two other young men, similar to me. (I'm 21 years old and male-bodied) A bit weird that 73-year-old Carl would want to share a house with three young guys, but I chalked it up to the old man being lonely. (Just like Up, I guess)

Anyway, long story short, as if I haven't hinted at it enough already, Carl turned out to be really, really, really creepy. He started out subtle at first – advising me on how to dress more attractively – and escalating it up slowly – making sexual jokes while in a car alone with him, driving past an empty woods, while resting his hand on my back.

But, here's the thing, and here's the point of this post:

Every single time, I used the idea of "emergent evil" to excuse his actions.

Blaming the collective society rather than him, the individual. I told myself that he was this way coz he was raised in an anti-queer, sexually-oppressive town. That he was messed up from the trauma of being sexually abused when he was a kid. That he was the real victim here, the psychiatric and criminal justice systems failed him. (sidenote: Of course, as I've written before in another popular blog post, an explanation is not an excuse. And yet, I forgot my own lesson.)

Oh, the criminal justice system?


It turns out Carl went to prison. He raped three teenage boys.

They were age 13 to 15, he was 50. It happened in his home, over two years, while he secretly filmed them. Carl got out of prison early, serving only five years, because he agreed to go through a rehabilitation program. As far as I can tell, all the program taught him was to creep on vulnerable college-age kids instead of high school kids. Technically legal, I guess.

I found this out by DuckDuckGo'ing his legal name – not the name he gave me – and found an article in the Boston Globe detailing his crimes, and how he recently got fired from his job filming youth orchestras. (For a "rehabilitated" child rapist, he sure goes out of his way to videotape, live with, and hit on young people.) (sidenote: Coincidentally, the article was written by Michael Rezendes, one of the people on the Spotlight team that uncovered the Catholic Church child sex abuses. How many dang Boston-based child rapists can there be? A question I don't want to know the answer to.)

I'd like to tell you this was the point where I decided to high-tail it outta there, but no, I still excused it in my mind – I mean, I care a lot about criminal justice reform, and I care about rehabilitation, so, wouldn't the morally right thing for me to do be stay, be the emotional support for this recovering man? He can't help who he's sexually attracted to! The guy is just lonely, and he got fired from his job, he's already suffered enough. Forgiveness is a virtue, right? I want to be virtuous, right?

...I wouldn't want to contribute to the emergent evil of the society that made him this way!

So, I stayed.

Only for a couple weeks more, thankfully. Around mid-April, I had a very vivid nightmare involving Carl. I did not wake up well-rested. Even my colleagues noticed when I went into work, and were concerned. Because my default mode is to be emotionally open and trusting, I told them what was up – all the while still defending Carl to them.

From their outside perspective, they helped me realize that, no, holy fuck, none of that was okay.

My colleagues were really great, and I'm eternally grateful for them – they helped me move out ASAP, referred me to friends who were renting out rooms, and one of them let me crash on her couch for a couple weeks while I found a new place. (And I did!)

I think this really proved that – even though maybe being "too trusting" was how I got stuck with Carl – trusting is still a good long-term strategy. I finally got out of Carl's place, relatively unscathed, thanks to the help of friends I trust.

Without them, things definitely would've gotten a lot worse.

• • •

The moral of this story is I can't watch Up anymore.

The other moral of this story is that I'm a "compulsive helper", an epiphany I came to this month.

The other other moral of this story is to be careful with the idea of "emergent evil", the idea that collectives shape individuals. To quote my favorite alcoholic cartoon horse:

So what you’re saying is, everything is society’s fault, and we as individuals never need to take responsibility for anything? Yeah, I like that. I didn’t do anything wrong because I can’t do anything wrong because we’re all just products of our environment, bouncing around like marbles in the game of Hungry-Hungry Hippos that is our random and cruel universe. Yeah, it’s not my fault. It’s society. Everything is because of society! Hooray! Everything is meaningless! Nothing I do has consequence!

And you know what, I still don't know how to resolve this dilemma. It's not just "emergent evil". As science progresses, we're only going to find more and more "root causes" for why people do bad things – mental disorders will be categorized, genes will be identified, social factors will be listed ad nauseum...

...and then what?

Where will moral responsibility lie? Is the whole idea of individual moral responsibility in jeopardy? That would be catastrophic, since, as I showed in my post on emergent evil, the diffusion of moral responsibility is how evil like genocides and massacres can emerge.

Methinks we'll have to rethink our (very individual-focused, retribution-heavy) theories of morality and justice, to fit a world where complex systems really do extend beyond the reach of any one individual... beyond me, beyond you, beyond people like Carl. (sidenote: The hardest thing for me to admit: I now deeply, personally understand the desire for retribution, for revenge. I want to hurt Carl. But I won't. Unlike him, I actually have some goddamn self-control.)

But, rethink it to what? I don't know.

I don't know how to reconcile these two ideas:

  1. Individuals aren't always the main cause of their bad actions.
  2. Individuals have to take responsibility for their bad actions.

This blog post doesn't have an answer. It's just this question.

What do you think?

P.S: Fuck it. Here's the Boston Globe article.