A lot of Halloween is make believe, right? All the stuff about ghosts and goblins and witches and zombies and vampires — that’s all just made up, right?
I mean, many of us get a pleasurable adrenalin rush from walking through a spook house or watching Freddie Krueger on reruns, but it isn’t real, is it? We’re children of the Enlightenment, and we don’t believe anything that isn’t verified by empirical observation, i.e. by science. Halloween is all pretend.
We’ve heard a lot of news stories about death recently, caused by people who enter schools or theaters or churches and just open fire with automatic weapons. That’s scary in a way that doesn’t give us an adrenalin rush because it’s not make believe. It’s real. So we, children of the Enlightenment, deal with this particular phenomenon that frightens us by analyzing it scientifically, and the conclusion we almost always come up with is that these mass shooters are mentally ill. That’s a “reasonable” explanation.
The Enlightenment’s focus on reason and science has allowed us to make advances in medicine, electronic devices and transportation which have raised our standard of living to heights undreamed of, even by my dad who was born in 1919. The danger with disciples of the Enlightenment, however, is that they can slip into the hubris of believing that they see reality clearly, without blinders and without lenses, not realizing that the scientific method is itself a lens, one lens among several others.
We mortals see everything through one lens or another, and each lens enables us to see a part of reality that the other lenses can’t reveal, but it also limits what can be seen. Looking through a microscope, for example, allows us to watch cells dividing, something a telescope lens is incapable of. The limitation, of course is that you’ll never see the stars if the only lens you look through is a microscope.
With Halloween coming up in a couple of days, I want to offer an alternative view of why people go on shooting rampages, which is counterintuitive to rational children of the Enlightenment because it looks at the problem through the lens of fantasy — through make believe if you will. Not the kind of Halloween graveyard silliness we indulge in at this time of year but the view of “reality” contained in the many fantasy books that have been so popular in the last 50 years or so — authors like Tolkien, L’Engle, Lewis and Rowling.
These four authors include aspects of reality in their stories which the social sciences can’t see. One of them is called evil. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it’s the witch. In A Wrinkle in Time, it’s the Black Thing. The Dark Lord Sauron is the embodiment of evil in The Lord of the Rings and Lord Voldemart is the evil one opposing Harry Potter.
Why have millions of copies of these fantasies been sold? Because they are just plain good stories, but also because, in my view, they see aspects of reality that the scientific method with its requirement of empirical verification just can’t see. In other words, they ring true.
Studies correlating violence with poverty, unemployment, racism, lack of education and single parent families also ring true, but only partially. Sociology and psychology can’t get their heads around the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda or Isis. I suppose you could argue that Hitler’s potty training was too harsh or that Saddam Hussein lacked a good father figure or that members of Isis need psychotropic medication. And all of that may be a necessary part of our response to violence, but it’s not sufficient.
I’m not sure if Martin Luther King Jr. read The Lord of the Rings but one of the things that both informed his view of reality and motivated him to action was not the social sciences but stories from the Bible about evil and the teachings of a skinny activist/philosopher from India. In The Current Crisis in Race Relations, King wrote, “A third fact that characterizes the method of nonviolence is that the attack is directed to forces of evil, rather than persons caught in the forces. It is evil that we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized with evil.”
Dr. King and most everyone in the movement knew the reality of evil, even if isn’t a concept that’s empirically verifiable. It’s the same with the police officers I know. Most of them are pretty good at being social workers — you know, using psychological techniques to defuse a domestic conflict and things like that. But at the same time I hear them using language like “the bad guys.” Some people, in their experience need to be locked up for good. They find the words “bad guys” to be the only descriptors adequate to talk about some aspects of reality.
I’m all for the Dept. of Corrections trying to rehabilitate criminals. I’m all for improving society and getting rid of racism, poverty, bad schools, unemployment, unfair distribution of wealth and on and on. But alongside of the social science approach we have to open our eyes to the reality of evil.
And you fight evil differently than you fight poverty and unemployment. One weapon is incarceration. Bad guys belong in jail. Another weapon is suffering. Dr. King understood that. He put his body on the line and eventually paid the ultimate price. Another weapon is forgiveness. Desmond Tutu used that weapon in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
Fighting evil with evil perpetuates the downward cycle of violence. George H.W. Bush got it right. He knew Saddam Hussein had to be checked and so he pushed the tyrant out of Kuwait, but he stopped there. He limited evil but didn’t try to eliminate it by force. The leadership in our Forest Park Police Department also understand the limits of force.
Harry Potter and Frodo and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver know something about reality.