Do no evil

I’ve been thinking about the four monkeys lately.

The four monkeys, you ask.

Most people are familiar with the trio–see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. But there actually is a fourth monkey, and if you know where to look, you can get a set of the four rather than the bastardized three. The fourth is, of course, do no evil.

When I was at the bank yesterday, I noticed that my teller had a little brass casting of the three monkeys as an ornament at her window. I thought that was a very interesting decorative choice, considering her place of employment. Perhaps she wanted to encourage bank customers to think about the nature of evil before depositing their funds. I didn’t ask her about them because I have a secret insecure sense that all the tellers make fun of me, so I don’t want to give them grist for the mill, so to speak.

So the monkeys.

Do no evil, clearly, is the crux of the matter. I’m surprised that the monkeys have been whittled to three and placed on bank counters. I should probably research the cultural history of the monkeys–perhaps the three and four come from different traditions or there is some sort of story behind the separation of the monkeys.

Speak no evil seems quite obvious and straight ahead. Whether inciting people to evil or speaking ill about someone, it’s a good call to watch your tongue before speaking. Words can be as evil as actions, sometimes, and this monkey certainly belongs in the pantheon.

Hear and see are an interesting pair. They could be read, as it were, in two ways.

These two are covering their eyes and ears. Does this mean that they are hiding from the existence of evil and pretending it doesn’t exist, like small children who cover their eyes and say “you can’t see me”? Is the lesson there supposed to be that ignoring something will make it go away? Or is it a limitation of the medium?

My preferred reading of those two is that you shouldn’t tolerate evil. You should speak out against evil when you hear it, and you should take action against it when you see it. In the old “if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” ideal, I think that if you know of evil going on and do nothing to stop it, you in turn are being evil. Perhaps not as evil as the original culprit, but you are participating in their wrong action just the same.

I think about these monkeys a lot. There is a lot of evil going on in the world, and a fair number of people are starting to get annoyed about it and say something. But there are small acts of everyday evil as well, which trouble me.

I think about the monkeys when I see someone abusing a waiter. I think about the monkeys when I hear about heinous cases of animal abuse in group settings. I think about all of the daily wrongness we endure and I wonder why more people don’t speak and act against evil. Are we growing complacent? Are we so overwhelmed with evil that we don’t know where to begin? Are we just covering our ears and hoping it stops?

One of the foundations of the women’s movement, for example, is that we are all sisters. Even if a woman is a different sort of feminist, or chooses to work in the home when I work in the world, I still respect her because she is part of my movement, and working with her will facilitate more than working against her. It is by acting in unison that we are supposed to effect change. But what if someone within a movement is being evil? Isn’t it my moral imperative to call them out and put a stop to it? Why is it that voices of reason within movements are often quashed by individuals who say “you’re not supporting the movement, you’re undermining it!”

I think that especially within movements and organizations, the issue of evil is rather fraught. Yet, as one of the writers on Alas pointed out recently, what’s the point of having a movement if lines of sexism and racism that exist outside also exist within? It’s all well to be, for example, pro open source, but rather silly if you view female contributors in a lesser light, because it undermines the value of your point with about 50% of humanity.

We live in a society with so much embedded evil that it’s sometime hard to remember that we should take action against evil, even if only in small ways. Perhaps the most important anti-evil action that you can take is education, especially of youth. If children learn from a young age that abusing animals is not ok, that women and men are equal, that people with different lifestyle choices should still be respected, perhaps we have a chance to build a more reasonable society, one where people are not evil, and one where people always speak out when evil occurs.

Kitty Genovese died because people chose to take a different reading of the two monkeys–ignore it, and it will go away. Gwen Arujo died because no one would speak out against evil. Countless animals are abused and murdered every day because no one steps forward to say “no, this is wrong, and should stop.”

The next time you hear or see evil, think of the monkeys, and ask yourself if you should really be standing there doing nothing, or if perhaps now is the time to take action, to speak out, and make a small positive change in an often negative world.