Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 12, 2014

Evil as complexity denied

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 12, 2014

Over the last few weeks I have tried to listen as others have claimed evil as a justification for a variety of homeland security related missions.  I have appreciated your indulgence — and in some cases, important contributions — to this process.  Following are concluding personal reflections on this exploration.


In the myths of many cultures and the precepts of several religions and across a range of philosophical systems the first step from good to bad begins with failing to listen.

The protagonist is so distracted or deluded or self-consumed that truth — while knowable or even well-known — is neglected or rejected in favor of a rendering that better suits the hero’s (or emerging villain’s) internal narrative, unrestrained by external evidence.

I was recently standing in line for a train.  So was a young mother (or aunt or such) with a three or four-year-old boy, who she had harnessed to a seven or eight foot tether.  He was entertaining himself while she was on her cell-phone.  I don’t know how long they had been there when I arrived.  For the first ten minutes all was fine.  Then he increasingly sought her attention.  She continued on the phone.  He increased his attention-seeking behavior. She interrupted her conversation to sharply admonish. This became an rapidly escalating cycle to the dismay of everyone nearby.

While observing this scene unfold, I happened to read about the President calling the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to ask for additional funds to be included in the Continuing Resolution to support anti-ISIL training of “moderate” Syrian opposition forces.  It was apparently the first time President Obama had made such a call.  Chairman Rogers seemed both pleased and more than a bit annoyed. The very first call since Rogers was elected Chairman in 2011?

This was in early September, at the time I was working with an on-again off-again client who was not acknowledging my emails or returning my phone calls.  When he did finally schedule a meeting, I was prepared to resign… and probably in a bit of a huff.  Similar to the four-year-old, I was feeling neglected.

The client began our meeting by describing a problem that was clearly commanding his attention.  The same issue had been the topic of my unread emails. But I listened and as I listened I better understood his angle on reality and adjusted accordingly. After listening to him I was much better prepared to speak in a way that would be heard.  And he was  ready to listen.  The problem has since been mostly solved.  We continue in relationship. (I even allowed him to preview this post.)

I was about to end the relationship because I felt he was not listening.  My ego was bruised. My time was wasted.  He was being an ignorant, arrogant jerk, and I was tempted to respond in kind. The relationship was renewed by an opportunity for me to listen and then reflect back what I heard.  As helpful to the client as anything else was the ability to hear his own situation reported back to him.

Our English word relationship is derived from a Latin construct meaning to carry back or bring back.  We bring back our story and relate it to others.  In this way a relationship can be strengthened. But telling depends on being heard.  If we offer our story and are not heard — neglected or rejected — we are inclined to deny being in relationship with those who are dismissively deaf.

As noted in my post last Thursday, I mostly neglected early reports of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I have given very little attention to the extraordinary story of corruption, criminality, and violence emerging from several Central American states.  Yesterday I counted twelve homeless in a brisk walk of three blocks. They were wanting to talk. I noticed but did not listen.

There is a tendency not to notice until a connection to our self-interest is made explicit: until Ebola is in Dallas, until an American is beheaded, until children appear on our doorstep.  And even then we can be quite adept at not seeing — much less hearing — what is immediately before us.

This is, I suggest, how evil emerges: in narrow self-interest, in neglect of others, in rejected relationships, and with these preconditions it is easy to slip toward anger, abuse, and violence.

This is hardly a new insight. But disciplined practice of an alternative ethic is challenging.  Even between individuals, but especially on the macro-scale.  It is one thing for parent and child or Executive and Legislator or counsel and client to learn to listen.  It is a different category of action to “hear” the voices of victims hundreds and even thousands of miles distant.

Yet more than ever before we are being told their stories.  They know we have been told.  They can also discern our response or non-response.  One of the most damning discoveries I made during this exploration was a Google-spawned link to a post from February 2012 that I had entirely forgotten.  I heard. But did very little. Nothing at all effective.

So… for reasons set out previously and above I perceive that evil is a meaningful concept, worth much more than the self-indulgent rhetorical references that are too often applied.  Evil is a consequence of failing to honor the reality of our neighbor.  It is stubborn unwillingness to listen. It is denial of reality. It is angry self-assertion when our delusions are threatened.

I expect this deeply dysfunctional behavior to continue.  Evil will not be prevented.  But it can be mitigated and we can better prepare ourselves to more effectively respond to the emergence of evil and recover from it.  It is the privilege of homeland security professionals to focus on these opportunities.

Emerging from this series of blogs, my contribution will include giving more time and attention to listening to family, friends, clients, students, colleagues, you, and others with whom I am in obvious relationship.  Yesterday I sent a sizable gift to an organization that listens and works with others with whom I have a less obvious relationship.  I have committed myself to regularly engaging with this organization. I’m still not sure what to do as I encounter the homeless (and many other voices I tend to exclude), but I will experiment with options.

Complex problems — such as evil — are seldom solved. But they are sometimes more or less resolved through spontaneously self-organizing individual behavior. The good and bad news is that we are in relationship and the actions and inaction of each of us have an influence… in ways we cannot always predict.

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Comment by Christopher Tingus

October 12, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

Mr. Palin, again another very enlightening and thought provoking post (thank you)!

Kindly read:


Comment by Christopher Tingus

October 12, 2014 @ 9:12 pm

Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon*

Article first published online: 20 JUN 2011

In the article, Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon asks, Did Plato have a philosophy of listening, and if so, what was it?

Listening is the counterpart of speaking in a dialogue, and it is no less important. Indeed, learning from the dialogue is less likely to occur as people participate unless listening as well as speaking takes place. Haroutunian-Gordon defines a philosophy of listening as a set of beliefs that fall into four categories:

(1) the aim of listening; (2) the nature of listening; (3) the role of the listener; and (4) the relation between the listener and the speaker. The beliefs, as they fall into these four categories, have implications for one another, and, because they are logically related, constitute a philosophy of listening.

In the article, Haroutunian-Gordon argues that Plato had a philosophy of listening and describes its components.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

October 13, 2014 @ 6:34 am

Breaking News:

?Many on “Main Street USA” ask where the support of this White House towards the Kurd, a most loyal friend to America:?

?”?The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend??“ Aristotle

?Submitted by:

Christopher Tingus
“Main Street USA”
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 13, 2014 @ 9:18 am

Mr. Tingus: Thank you for the Haroutunian-Gordon citation. This sounds very interesting. I have sent away for a copy. The abstract reminds me of a point made by one of my favorites, Hans-Georg Gadamer, in Truth and Method, that as portrayed by Plato, Socrates never asked a leading question. The original Socratic inquiry was always motivated by authentic questions and followed by carefully listening to any answers offered. Good questions are a leading indicator of good listening.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 14, 2014 @ 7:41 am

Phil! Where does “evil” fit in the risks HS must battle?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 14, 2014 @ 8:12 am

Bill: Very quickly before I disappear into a day of meetings… self-interested warping of reality is especially observed in:

Understanding the sources/solutions of terrorism
Understanding the sources/solutions of mass migration
Understanding the sources/solutions of infectious disease
Understanding the sources/solutions of urban wildfires
Understanding the sources/solutions of flood risk
Understanding the sources/solutions of risk related to hurricanes/storm surge

In each of these — and more problem-sets — we ignore the reality of risk. We especially tend to ignore the reality of our neighbors situation that contributes to shared risk. We seek to deny the reality of networked complexity that characterizes our social and technical context.

Probably too quick… but for what its worth.

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