Nowadays the professoriate in many parts of the world is very free with its moral judgments, condemning or applauding various nations, groups, and individuals. This phenomenon prompts a query about whether academics really have any special insight into the nature of good and evil, a question I ponder especially after attending a conference on “Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness,” which has been held in Prague in mid-March in recent years. I participated in it for the first time this March, but not for the first time, I was impressed by how academics nowadays manage to miss the salient points about evil. In many cases they fail to link it to ideology or to deficiencies of character but instead view it with their usual tunnel vision.
To begin with, I was struck by the conference call for papers on the Internet. It listed people commonly regarded as evil, including Torquemada, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, and...Ronald Reagan. Of course, who can forget Ronald Reagan and his Republican hordes sweeping down from the steppes, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake? Few figures from recent history evoke such terror and loathing—at least, among leftist academics. What do you think these people think of the Tea Party? You guessed it. One French participant informed me that Hamas winning an election among the Palestinians is like “the Tea Party winning the American presidency.” It is hard to fathom how anyone could compare the Tea Party with the genocidal terrorists of Hamas—except, of course, that this is academia, an alternate reality if there ever was one.
The conference is the brain-child of a British scholar named Dr. Rob Fisher and an international publishing-focused network called Inter-Disciplinary.Net. They plan many such interdisciplinary conferences on various themes ranging from food to end-of-the-world scenarios in media and literature. In my view, they deserve credit for addressing some serious problems in the contemporary academic world. Their website explains that the work of the Net grew out of Fisher’s “growing sense of disillusionment with the state of higher education”—in particular, “the inability of subject specialists to raise their eyes above or beyond the horizons of their own territory.” So he wanted to create a forum in which people from various disciplines could interact and learn from one another, furthering the development of scholarly inquiry into significant issues. The Inter-Disciplinary conferences have a commendable openness to independent scholars unaffiliated with any institution or association. Unfortunately, Fisher and company did not reckon on the universal phenomenon of the insularity and arrogance of leftist academics and intellectuals in almost every field of study. With some exceptions, the conference on evil confirmed that political correctness is a widespread common denominator among modern academics of all stripes—except maybe those in the physical sciences, engineering, and math—and that this is as true in Europe as it is in the U.S. So the conference provided another instance of the echo-chamber phenomenon of scholars hearing only what they have always heard from one other. I have participated in conferences about linguistics, education, history, philosophy, and religion. Basically the same mentality pervades them all. That is why one can witness the odd spectacle of a conference for English language teachers (TESOL) campaigning for bilingual education, even though it would work against their professional interest.
Prague is a site well suited to a conference on human evil. Prague’s beautiful but tragic Jewish Quarter was largely emptied of Jews because of the Nazi genocide there, following hard on the appeasement of Hitler by the peace-loving British and French politicians of the time, who handed over Czechoslovakia to Hitler without a shot. The Nazis planned to preserve the Quarter as a museum of an extinct race. In addition, there are numerous reminders of Prague’s terrible suffering under communism. Across from my hotel I found an impressive memorial to the victims of communism—a group of eerie black life-sized statues of bleak, naked human beings, missing chunks of their bodies like zombies. Through its displays the Museum of Communism shows the oppression and irrationality of life in Prague under that ideology. So it is sad to report that none of the papers at the conference made any mention of communism or Islamism, two of the greatest ideological sources of suffering and evil in our time. However, Christianity came in for some criticism in one paper about Luther’s anti-Semitism, which is certainly reprehensible, but what is that compared to militant Muslim anti-Semitism aiming at annihilating all Jews and the state of Israel? By the way, that paper prescribed self-esteem therapy to cure Luther and others like him of the bigoted insecurities arising from their religious beliefs. The presenter seemed unaware of recent research showing a strong correlation between violence and high self-esteem. At any rate, therapy seems like a lame prescription for a religiously motivated suicide bomber, a greater problem for us than Luther’s sentiments about Jews.
Despite such a rich historical setting for the conference, many participants exhibited oddly contracted perspectives on moral evil. In fact, most showed no more insight about evil than many politicians and the mainstream media. Maybe this is not so surprising considering the fact that the media was the focus of a number of papers. Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel, one Finnish academic ridiculed Fox News commentators trying to defend the U.S. from the charge that it was torturing terrorist prisoners. The problem, you see, is that Americans are “othering” the terrorists by treating them as different. If anything, the perpetrators of jihadist terror seem to be the ones guilty of “othering” Americans, demonizing their civilization as worthy of nothing but destruction. The participants seemed taken aback when I pointed this out.
Hindered by their postmodern moral relativism, many participants tended to be tentative and vague in their ruminations on moral evil (except when it concerned political conservatives). Some of the better papers concerned the theme of evil in great writers such as Kafka and Dostoevsky but left the concept of evil undefined. Only a few papers addressed the problems of the origin of evil and the essential nature of evil. One of these was a Hungarian scholar’s treatment of Plato’s thoughts on how a good deity (the Demiurge) could allow for the existence of evil. I had no idea that thinkers other than Judeo-Christian monotheists had dealt with this issue. The paper demonstrated that the existence of evil is a real intellectual puzzle that merits deeper attention than the sort of superficial, conventional moralizing on display in other presentations. One paper named “Bullshit as Evil” took its examples of supposed bullshit almost completely from conservatives such as Herman Cain. The only liberal who came in for criticism for his BS was Bill Clinton. Somehow Joe Biden and other Democrats escaped any censure. Some papers focused on gender-related themes such as the persecution of women as witches. One presenter took to task Rush Limbaugh for his disparaging treatment of a woman. Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, and others have been guilty of far worse misogyny than Limbaugh, but no one mentioned them. Furthermore, many papers were shallow and inconsistent in their treatments of the theme of evil. A paper by a couple of education specialists on trends in children’s literature condemned “binary” treatments of good and evil as polar opposites but then celebrated recent children’s literature that deals with both moral “darkness and light” (i.e., good and evil, in a binary sense). Thankfully, one participant pointed out this obvious contradiction as well as their moral relativism.
In short, faddish ideological conformity blinds many modern scholars to the obvious and trivializes their treatment of weighty moral issues. Though few at the conference dealt with them, traditional religious teachings often have had more insight into the incorrigible, profound depths of human evil. In contrast, most of the modern professoriate has little other than the feeble tools of psychotherapy and politically correct moralism to work with. As a result, the current academic world has in many ways become an enabler of human evil.
You can see photographs of my trip to Prague, including the Museum of Communism and the memorial to victims of communism, on Facebook here.
Bruce Davidson is a professor in the school of humanities at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan. He has been teaching and researching theology, critical thinking, and English in Japan for over 25 years.
 R. Baumeister, L. Smart, and J. Boden, "Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of Self-Esteem," Psychological Review 103:1 (1996) 5-33.