"The finest structure can house the worst evil." This was the message inside my fortune cookie today at our neighborhood Chinese restaurant. (I searched the internet for the origin of this saying - all I could find was a lot of other people who had the same message inside their fortune cookies also wondering who said it!) I'm a big fan of fortune cookie wisdom; I have often received sayings that had a particular relevance to my life or my thoughts. This one, received on Christmas Day, is no exception.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the capacity of human beings to perpetrate evil. A headline today about world leaders calling for peace, on Christmas Day, urged me to write about this topic. In many ways, the human animal is "the finest structure," a result of millions of years of evolution (obviously I'm not a creationist). Humans have an intellectual and creative capability that is, as far as we know, superior to any other living organisms on Earth. Part of this superiority is the ability to recognize and distinguish between "good" and "evil" (these words are in quotes because I don't want to even try to define them - I'll leave that to you). But throughout history humans have committed what can only be termed "evil" acts against other humans. A quick trip around the world today finds terrorism, genocide, occupation, torture, bigotry, humiliation, and other actions in every corner. History repeats, and we humans never seem to learn from history. Why?
On a recent "Journey of Peace" to Israel and Palestine, we met with Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian, philosopher, and the President of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. I recently read one of Dr. Nusseibeh's presentations, “Identities in conflict: Masters and Slaves,” given at the International Conference of the Human Development Capability Association in Netherlands, September 2006. His discussion of human identity is very relevant to my questions about evil among humans. Dr. Nusseibeh talks about the "wide range of identity-layers, or layers which together make up or constitute an identity." In other words, each of us has multiple factors which together constitute our identity. Each individual, however, manifests an identity to those around him or her, and the choice of identity is "the degree to which one is a master or slave of one’s identity - a degree which can be taken to be at once a measure of one’s freedom, as well as a function of the propensity to prejudice-propelled conflict or violence."
It is the choice of identity that I believe is the key to understanding the manifestations of evil by humans. Dr. Nusseibeh states that "to the extent that one can make those choices one can be said to be master of one’s identity; and to the extent that one particular layer comes to dominate and in an exclusivist manner therefore to limit one’s choices one’s capability range, or freedom, is diminished, thereby reflecting the transformation of the agent from being master to being a slave of their identity." Do we as individuals consciously choose our identities, or do we allow external factors, including other people, to choose our identities for us? "Are we destined, as human beings, to be victims of our self-prejudiced identities?" Do we make excuses for our own behaviors by blaming the behaviors of others? "If we admit we have been turned into monsters only by the violent actions perpetrated by the other side, what else should we expect to find on the other side as we carry out similar actions but monsters, too."
As "the finest structure," we as humans can choose our identities; we can choose to reject evil and promote good. Humans also have the capacity to teach and learn - we are not just biologically programmed to act out the same behaviors over and over. "Being able to master sufficiently one’s identity, and to shape it, can be a powerful tool in helping shape the identities of others."
My identity as an American is seen by many in the world as the identity projected by the actions of my government, many of which I presently do not support. It is my goal, therefore, to actively choose and present an identity that is aligned with my core values and beliefs. And, while I often find it difficult to maintain a positive attitude about the world and the actions of my fellow humans (read some of my blog posts), I know that I must continue to focus my self-identity on the parts of my humanity that are "good," all the while rejecting "evil" and speaking out against it.
The finest structures can house the worst evil. But the finest structures can also house the greatest good. There are many good people on this planet, and we need to tell their stories more often as examples for hope. The choice between good and evil is ours - each of us - and I still, despite the evil rampant in the world, trust in the true goodness of humanity.