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For Evil to Prevail

Whatever the intrinsic drama, though, and however often it need not apply -- there is, of course, evil in the world. There is avarice. There is corruption. There is exploitation. Anyone not holding such things to be self-evident, is evidently not paying attention.
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I can't tell if Edmund Burke and I would agree or disagree about most things; the politics and issues of his day were so different from our own, I'm not sure what kind of political animal he would be branded today. In his day, he was labeled a staunch conservative. I imbibed what may be his signature contention early, and fully, even so, and have nurtured my commitment to it ever since: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

As with many vintage exhortations, this one is intrinsically sexist. Women are as relevant as men on either side of this bargain. Let us, then, take the liberty of an update: for evil to prevail in the world, it is enough for good people to do nothing.

That, I believe. In fact, it may be almost trivial upon reflection. If action is taken on behalf of any position, good, bad, or otherwise, it is apt to prevail in the absence of opposition. I suppose we might look on the bright side: for good to prevail, it would be enough for evil people to do nothing.

Of course, if they were doing nothing, it's hard to see what would make them "evil" in the first place. We are therefore stuck with the half-empty glass Burke handed us. Evil is, by its very nature, active; good must be as well, or it loses the argument.

Personally, I think most of our discord need not be encumbered by the drama of "good" and "evil," a by-product of religious dualism. There can be conflict in the absence of evil. There can be valid arguments on both sides of a philosophical divide. That our culture seems to have burned any bridges across any such divides redounds to our collective discredit, and dysfunction.

Whatever the intrinsic drama, though, and however often it need not apply -- there is, of course, evil in the world. There is avarice. There is corruption. There is exploitation. Anyone not holding such things to be self-evident, is evidently not paying attention.

In my world -- lifestyle medicine, public health nutrition -- there are legitimate differences of opinion among experts. These are generally, massively exaggerated, often in the service of provocation and profit by diverse elements of the cultural status quo. There is vastly more consensus than conflict; it just fails to propagate headlines. But still, legitimate differences, even if only about details, abound.

Such legitimate differences are not reflected in the subordination of content to dubious intent. They are not reflected in the subjugation of public health to profiteering. Legitimate dissent among actual experts is quite different from the pretense that every opinion, now with access to a cyberspatial megaphone, is tantamount to expertise. There is a stark difference between the confluent interests of an expert and the wares that carry such expertise into the world, and conflicts born of opinion, conjoined to expertise or not, and contrived solely or principally to peddle wares. Legitimate debate is quite distinct from indictment by innuendo.

These practices subvert information for the sake of undue influence. These practices derive from careful subterfuge, in the service of ulterior motives. These practices prevail and they are, in a word, evil.

One might not think that food would be fodder for religious fervor, but one would be wrong. One might not think that dietary guidance would nourish nefarious campaigns of liberally financed influence, but one would be wrong. One might not see connections between corporate profiteering, and assaults on the credibility of individuals resisting it -- but that's just time-honored myopia, and naiveté.

Alas, such evil exists in the world, and all too often triumphs. I have heard of many instances over the years of so-called "trolls" driving important, credible voices out of cyberspace altogether. I know of many more instances of colleagues who soldier on, but beleaguered by such trolls, encumbered by ad hominem assaults. Harms of substantially uncontrolled Internet information flow are known to be far graver in many instances.

I note that in some cases, those beleaguered colleagues and I agree about most things, and in some cases, we disagree about most things. That is beside the point. Agreement is beside the point. I readily avow the evil of illegitimate assault on legitimate opinion even when I disavow the opinion. I need not own an opinion to champion its unfettered expression.

The evil of which Burke spoke is indeed alive today, and thriving in cyberspace. Many of merit abandon that domain for that very reason.

Burke warned us why doing so is apt to be a bad idea. What he never told us was that defense of good -- would be easy.

-fin

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Senior Medical Advisor, Verywell.com