A Perpetrator By Any Other Name, Part I: Reconciling With Evil

The title of this post – and of my project more generally – already carries with it the heavy burden of naming. The word “perpetrator” has a history and a set of biases: it circulates in specific ways, and it calls to mind particular images. It designates something or someone, although never neutrally. Therefore, whenever I use the term, I am always aware that I am coming up short.

When I initially decided to write about the stories of those who do harm, I knew that I needed a term that was capable of describing a particular grouping of individuals: 1) people who had committed acts of sexualized and/or gendered violence; 2) a term that applied equally to those who had been convicted of crimes through a legal process as to those who had not; 3) a term that did not limit my analysis to a particular type of harm (i.e., rapist, batterer, murderer); and 4) a term that would be widely recognizable in both public and academic discussions (where perpetrator studies is already an established field).

In the end, my reason for choosing the term “perpetrator” was that it checked all of the above criteria, and I liked that the word not only evoked the idea of an active agent who caused harm but also, perhaps, spoke to the ways in which committing harm against others is also perpetual, that is to say, not that it is necessarily inevitable, but rather that the effects of sexualized and gendered violence can be long-lasting and wide-ranging for both individuals and communities.

And yet, I still cringe a little bit when I use the word, largely because the origins of the term still locate it firmly within a school of thought that categorizes people who hurt others (especially through acts such as rape) as monstrous or evil. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word “perpetrator” from its Latin and Middle French origins through to its first recorded use, in 1570, as a word that means “a person who perpetrates something, esp. a crime or evil deed.”

One need only look to the next two recorded uses of the word, from John Reynolds’ 1635 “The Triumphs of God’s Revenge against the crying and excreable Sinne of Murder” and Benjamin Keach’s 1681 “Sion in Distress: Or, the Groans of the Protestant Church,” to see that the word is intractably tied to a worldview of those who commit harm as meriting punishment from God, or as constituting, as Keach puts it, “the vilest Wretches, and the worst of men.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 5.46.16 PM
[Image description: a screenshot of the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the noun “perpetrator.”]
Undoubtedly, there is a religious–and more specifically, a Judeo-Christian–bent to the ways that we have historically conceptualized perpetrators, even in a now largely-secular public sphere. But even beyond that history, I think that the idea of perpetrators-as-evil satisfies a desire for distinct categories and easy answers in the fact of atrocities; certainly, I know it has for me.

As I mentioned last week in my post on research bias, one of the biggest challenges in my research is that I constantly have to push back against my instincts to lapse into the black-and-white thinking in which perpetrators of sexualized and gendered violence are merely evil. These instincts have been shaped by the society in which I live as much as by my own experiences of violence.

***

Terry Eagleton opens his book On Evil (2010) with a discussion of the two ten-year-old English boys who in February of 1993, abducted, tortured, and killed Jamie Bulger, who was only two years old. The case understandably received an enormous amount of national and international press precisely because the shocking nature of the crime. Its severity, and the fact that it was committed by children against another child, seemed to test the limits of all understandings of what might compel someone to harm another, and what we as a society ought to do with such a person.

As Eagleton notes, one of the police officers involved in the Bulger case “declared that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the culprits, he knew that he was evil” (2). This observation doesn’t sound terribly unfamiliar; it is the kind of rhetoric that pervades a lot of crime reporting. Even when those who have committed violence look to be deceptively “normal,” or good-hearted, or incapable of harm, there is a method of observation that many of us participate in in order to deduce not just what it is about this individual that makes them capable of such things, but to try and reassure ourselves that we will know evil when we see it: a look in the eyes, a smirk of the mouth.

What Eagleton argues, however, is that this rhetoric poses two dangers: the first danger of this rhetoric of evil is that it negates the possibility for understanding the social conditions of violence; the second (and related) danger, is that if evil is presupposed to be some sort of inherent quality that humans are born with, then, “might this not mean that they can’t help doing what they do?” (4).

I share Eagleton’s concerns that to default to “evil” is often “a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist in the solar plexus” (8). I worry about the ways in which people suggest that to try and understand perpetrators–particularly by listening to their stories–becomes interpreted as a way to try and let them off the hook, or to uncritically empathize with their rationales for their crimes. Yet, I also look at the vast body of work by artists and philosophers, psychologists and historians, theologians and scientists, and fear that we are perhaps no closer to truly explaining why it is that we are capable of committing such unimaginable harm to each other.

Eagleton suggests that there are two primary approaches to this question of evil, which is that “either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them” (8). Ultimately, the argument of his book “is that neither of these viewpoints is true” (8).

I do not claim to be a philosopher on the nature of violence, nor do I think that even philosophers who do work within that particular field have come to, or will ever come, any kind of consensus. What I agree with, based on my research as a literary scholar and cultural critic, is that polarized conversations and binary viewpoints are rarely helpful, and perhaps, more importantly, they are rarely comforting in the face of atrocities.

***

Like many people, I have come face-to-face with violence, although nothing that I would necessarily categorize as evil or monstrous. This is, I will acknowledge, a privilege, and, given this discussion, an important positionality to declare. Without wanting to place violence within a hierarchy that privileges some experiences as worse than others, and therefore denying people’s very real experiences of and reactions to various types of harm, I think it is possible and appropriate to suggest that there are certain acts of violence which are so horrendous that they often seem to defy the very fundamental characteristics or values we have assigned to ourselves as a species. I’m not sure what to do with those kinds of acts, or the people who do them, but as Eagleton points out, they merit much more careful thinking-through.


 

Next week, in Part 2 of this post, I’ll explore in more detail the specific terms we use to discuss those who use violence. While there are certainly more terms for those who use harm than we tend to have for those who experience it (i.e., the victim/survivor binary), I’m not sure that I am satisfied with any of the options that are currently available to us. I’ll write about my concerns with certain words, how that relates to my thoughts about carceral justice, and think through the violence of naming as well as the naming of violence.

 

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. On Evil. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010.

“perpetrator, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, January 2018. Web. 27 January 2018.

 

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