25 October 2009

Is man good or evil?

Danny Archer: So you think because your intentions are good, they'll spare you, huh?
Benjamin Kapanay: My heart always told me that people are inherently good. My experience suggests otherwise. But what about you, Mr. Archer? In your long career as a journalist, would you say that people are mostly good?
Danny Archer: No. I'd say they're just people.
Benjamin Kapanay: Exactly. It is what they do that makes them good or bad. A moment of love, even in a bad man, can give meaning to a life. None of us knows whose path will lead us to God.

This oft-quoted dialogue from Edward Zwick’s 2006 film Blood Diamond (starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny Archer and Basil Wallace as Benjamin Kapanay) is rather poignant. Poignant because, though the dialogue reveals to us the dichotomy of human nature, good and evil, it doesn’t leave us with any answers as to what is man’s inherent nature. Perhaps because there is no simple single answer to the question: Is man good or evil?

This question, I’m sure, has given many of us sleepless nights – especially if we’ve recently experienced unexpected behaviour of goodness or evil from people close to us whom we’ve judged to be of contrary disposition. That was exactly my experience in watching Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 a couple of months ago. However, in Blood Diamond and District 9, our predisposition to good and evil – or, rather, who is good and who is evil – is made clear by the films’ stories and the films’ directors.

But, what if life was not so clear to us? How would we respond to good and evil then?

These questions made me think about a book I had read in my childhood (I, later, saw the older version of the film made on the book as well). The book was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, first published in 1954. Lord of the Flies narrates the story of a group of marooned British schoolboys when their plane crashes on a deserted island – and the consequences thereafter when the boys fight for their survival in the jungle, making up their own rules as they go along, guided by their instincts.

What unfolds in Lord of the Flies is a sort of morality play, with different characters in the story assuming different roles of good or evil, or somewhere in between, defining a conflict between civilisation and savagery, reason and impulse, good and evil. However, unlike Blood Diamond or District 9, Lord of the Flies and its author Golding do not offer a simple answer or explanation or outcome of good winning over evil. On the contrary, Lord of the Flies suggests that evil comes easily to man. And that, the instinct for evil is far more basic and far stronger than the instinct to do or be good.

16 October 2009

Evil against the ‘other’

One aspect of Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 (see my previous blog) that intrigued me was the question of man’s willingness and capacity to do evil. Not just evil against the ‘other’ (depicted, in the film, as the aliens or the ‘prawns’), but also evil against a member of one’s own tribe – that is, another human being (the film’s protagonist, Wikus van de Merwe).

Of course, in District 9, at the moment of evil, the human in question was, perhaps, not entirely human. For, Wikus van de Merwe, after exposure to an alien fluid, was biologically (that is, genetically) transforming into a ‘prawn’. So, perhaps, at the moment of evil, Wikus van de Merwe had become the ‘other’... and the treatment meted out to him by the humans was justified.

But, was it? Was that how it worked?

When I look at the recent spate of bombings and killings (and even beheadings) that are taking place in my own country, India, as well as in neighbouring Pakistan, I am, once again, troubled by the question of man’s willingness and capacity to do evil... to his fellow men. Because, it’s here, in our daily lives, that I see no ‘real’ difference between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’.

But, that’s not how it seems. In defence of their actions, I suppose, the men of evil in question here can justify themselves: in India, the Maoists defending the rights of the farmers and the peasants against a (still active) feudal system and oppression; and, in Pakistan, the Taliban and its allies protesting against the government’s inability to run its own country peacefully, without foreign intervention.

Is this justification enough to destroy innocent human lives? In the minds and the hearts of the Maoists in India and the Taliban and its allies in Pakistan, apparently, it is. For, to the Maoists, the Taliban and their like, those who are not with them in their struggle are considered the ‘other’. And, any evil against the ‘other’ is a logical end in itself.