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The Banality (and relative rarity) of evil

I suppose if you asked a member of the public whether evil was to be found in any of these groups :- politicians, estate agents, journalists, people who abuse children and lawyers; once you got past the obvious barbed remarks, there would be a consensus that there is one group where you might actually expect to find it, not just in the worst outliers of that group but diffused throughout.

I haven’t ever kept numbers, but I think I’ve probably done over three hundred care cases over my long and undistinguished career.  And I would say that I have come across more evil than the average person, but substantially less than you might expect, given that every single one of those cases has involved a parent subject to at least a suspicious of harming harmed (or doing something that would cause a risk of harm) to their child.  Of course, some of them are exonerated by the enquiry and either did nothing wrong (the suspicious-looking injury turned out to be an accident, the unpleasant allegation turns out to be fabricated, the evidence of neglect turning out to be something more akin to an evidence that different people have different standards), but that doesn’t account for all that many of the cases – probably 20 or so?

The vast majority of the cases I’ve been involved in – for Local Authorities and parents, have been with people who had changes they needed to make in their life, because they’d taken a wrong turn – whether that be drugs, alcohol, inability to cope, depression or in Wodehouse’s lovely expression “Mistaking it for a peach, having picked instead a lemon in the garden of love”.  Some of those people, when shown that the wrong turn was having an effect on their children they hadn’t realised are able to turn back, most want to and try their best but aren’t able to and some think that they don’t really have to make the choices between their children and something else that professionals are telling them they have to. Like the famous advertising maxim  “Fifty per cent of the money we spend on advertising is wasted, we just don’t know which half”,  you can never be sure of which family that resources and attention are being thrown at will respond, which of them will try but fall short, and which of them won’t really give their all thinking that they can have it all.

But actual evil?  Pretty rare. I would say that I have worked with probably 3 evil people in those 300, which, given that we are drawing from a group of people who had harmed, or were suspected of harming children is a tiny proportion. I have worked with more people who have brought about the deaths of children than I have evil parents.

I once visited a client, who I shan’t name, but had murdered some children; and whilst seeing her, was less than twenty feet away from Myra Hindley, who I think most people might come up with if trying to name a truly evil woman. She wasn’t platinum-blonde, defiant-eyed and black-lipsticked. In fact both of these two women would not have looked out of place in a mobile library. And that made me think of the banality of evil concept – that most people who do truly monstrous things are not necessarily what we in our head think of as being abominations, but are instead shockingly normal.

The Press never seem to get this – as we can see in the last year’s press coverage of the murder of Jo Yeates, it was felt acceptable to smear, vilify and identify a man as the likely killer for not much more than him having a distinctive physical appearance that the Press felt snapped closely into the model that they had in their head of what a killer would look like. They were utterly wrong, and nearly destroyed a man in the process, because he had unorthodox hair…

This whole disconnection between what people who do terrible things look and act like, and what we (persuaded by culture) think they look and act like, causes problems in care proceedings all the time. When we all know that paedophiles look like dirty old men in macs and that they would leap on a child and abuse them the second they got the chance, small wonder that vulnerable women faced with someone who looks like a regular person and who is kind to them, loving to them, and ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly’ and aren’t presenting like a slavering wolf drooling at the prospect of getting at the children find it hard to believe that the person they know could have done the things in the past that they’ve been accused of.  If we equate in the media all people who do awful things to children (and heaven knows I’m not defending the actions) as monsters, it’s no surprise that vulnerable mothers just think to themselves “If he had done those things he was accused of, he’d be a monster. I know him and he’s not a monster. So he’s been wrongly accused”

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

2 responses

  1. Have just read all your blog so far having been referred to it by Family Lore Focus. Excellent stuff and I look forward to reading more (also looking forward with hope of getting a snake handling case ….)

    On the banality of evil wasn’t Hannah Arendt not just referring to how ordinary Eichmann looked but also to how mundane the mechanics of the holocaust were? How the extermination of millions of people was – for Eichmann – mostly a paper pushing; logistical exercise?

    There is a quote from Simone Weil that says “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” I think people often don’t realise how dull many of the monsters really are.

    As an aside the sex abusers in our area always tell the mothers that they did not do it and only pleaded guilty to spare the victims the trauma of giving evidence. I have never understood how anyone could fall for this but wonder if they use the same line in your area?

    • Hello David – yes, I too would love a snake-handling case. I will be trying to think of more difficult ones (I have in my mind those lovely cartoons of “you’re the ref” if only I could draw. And quite right, the banality of evil is that twofold process, which doesn’t necessarily apply in our field – i.e that in order to make the Holocaust happen an awful lot of people had to do small, in themselves fairly innocuous actions, but if enough of them had stood up and said “You know, I quite fancy the Russian Front, get someone else to do this”… well, they probably would have got someone else to do it. I suppose our equivalent of that banality is that it doesn’t emerge out of the blue very often – when you look at the Public Inquiries into tragedies, they are invariably some small minor matters which escape without censure or action, and matters escalate. (This is the problem with the media looking back at any child abuse case and saying “aha! how could you not have seen that this child came to school in clothes that weren’t suitable for the weather – you should have nipped this in the bud then” because it’s fantastically easy to work back from a known outcome and see how predictable it all was, much harder to take those facts as they happen and be sure as to which families will muddle through it with peaks and troughs and which will implode/explode)

      The classic line I’ve always had with convicted paedophiles is “My brief told me to plead guilty, but I didn’t do it” – because that’s the advice barristers give people all the time, isn’t it? Amazing how many criminal barristers ought to have been struck off for giving that same awful advice…

      That’s a fantastic quote from Simone Weil, I agree with it totally. Thanks for popping in, and hope to see you again.

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