Secular Moralism

Michel Wieviorka, Evil

Polity Press, 180pp, £15.99, ISBN 9780745653938

reviewed by Belinda Webb-Blofeld

Evil is not a subject often included in course modules; it belongs more to tabloid headlines, teen-speak (that's ee-vILL) and the religious - although it is to be found in philosophy. It is non-rational, and non-scientific, both in its activity, and in how we react to it.

In his new work, Evil, Michel Wieviorka, Professor of Sociology at Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, lays out the case for thinking about 'evil' as 'social', as opposed to theological. He develops a sociological analysis, attempting to show its social, political and cultural sources. Wieviorka categorises these evils as terrorism, violence, racism and active hatred. In our changes of collective life, our increasingly globalised world, it is imperative that we seek to understand the processes that lead to these forms of evil - or as Wieviorka states: 'opening up a larger space for the sociological study of evil and pain. The social sciences are better qualified to provide [analytical tools and studies] ... than moral judgements or religious a priori.’

This is no mere re-worked theology seeking greater academic kudos in today's new atheist climate by using the Christian maxim of hating the sin, loving the sinner; not a drop of that, but it does lack a certain heart - talking about 'evil' in academic terms is a bit ... bland. Objectivity (as far as that is possible) moves the study onto a more rational plane, but maybe a few case studies - that ill-used tabloid staple - would have served to illuminate the study (although both Baader and Meinhoff are mentioned). Besides, any literature graduate or critical theorist could easily proclaim that 'evil' has long been a subject within its domain. Wieviorka concedes this, referring to Dostoyevsky. It could then be said that 'evil' found a space of understanding in psychoanalysis through literature; Freud certainly relied on mining literature for his own study and writings. But where Freud fell down was in his treatment of patients sans context, which is sociology. It was as if his troubled, often troubling, patients had been born and raised in a vacuum, save for the parents, and even then only until the age of five.

Each of the three definitions (active hatred has no chapter and is therefore seen as a kind of catch-all term covering the rest) is expanded upon in its own chapter. I found very interesting Wieviorka's suggestion that violence indicates a process of loss or meaning. When discussing, for instance, the rough terrain of depression, many are keen to refer to it as a state of 'suppressed anger', or the 'anger/violence turned inward' and thus a loss of meaning - and energy, on all levels: spiritual, emotional, physical and mental. These states, Wieviorka says, result in excesses and immoderation.  This led me back in my mind to Marx. The Marxian therapist, Erich Fromm, argues in his book Marx the Man that Marxist concepts should, or could more helpfully be seen as psychological explanations.

Alienation is at the core of his and Engels' body of work, none more so than 'Alienated Labour', in which it is stated that, if one is not connected to their work, and hence is not able to build a sufficient sense of meaning from it they are alienated - from their actions and themselves; if they are not the 'actors' in their own lives then the self suffers; it shuts down, and from there are sought the big fixes to enable this self to emerge (or perhaps suffer the indignities of self-explosions) - through those things that bring it to the fore immediately, our animal sides: fucking, fighting and drinking /drugging ourselves into a more sated stupor. This is a problem to society - it leads to all sorts of 'evils'. But then, to fight back against this alienation, this self-suppression that has come from the oppression of social structures, could be seen as 'terrorism' - and is there not a sense of purpose and meaning in attempting to overthrow the system that entire classes feel suffocated by? Or is it just 'terrorism'? One woman's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, and so on.

Apart from the discussion Wieviorka's book led me to have with what I thought were some of the aims of my previous learning, I wondered whether we need to have books that feel so ... dry. He seems also to have overlooked those who may have added to the discussion, such as Noel T. Byrne, Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, who is working on a theory in the sociology of evil. For all that, Wieviorka has provided a work to facilitate discussion - if only with one’s various selves.
Belinda Webb-Blofeld is a writer and critic and has written for the Guardian, Tribune, the Times Literary Supplement and the New Humanist. She lives in London.