Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

A Phenomenographic Study of Youth Conceptualizations of Evil: Order-Words and the Politics of Evil

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Education

A Phenomenographic Study of Youth Conceptualizations of Evil: Order-Words and the Politics of Evil

Article excerpt

Introduction

In high school social studies, students examine historical events rife with large-scale violence often labelled as evil (e.g., genocide) as well as political rhetoric that evokes evil, such as Reagan's "evil empire" in the context of the Cold War or G. W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" during discussions of the War on Terror. Evil is not a word that is easily conceptualized, and yet the impact of this word permeates our lives here in Canada and elsewhere. There are, of course, stereotypes of evil that rely on a simplistic binary of good versus evil, but the real power of evil lies not with identifying a specific representation or definition of evil, but with how the word and concept of evil can operate (see Youngblood Jackson, 2013). I purposefully interviewed students without providing them with a definition of evil because it is clear from the philosophical and psychological literature that the definition is up for debate. Regardless of how evil might be defined (e.g., sadism, putrid defilement, bureaucratic thoughtlessness), my research points to affects (bodily) and effects (cognitive) of contempt when someone or something is labelled as evil, and I examine some of the implications these affects and effects have for political literacy. For this article, I am limiting my discussion to participant responses, and, specifically, to how Deleuze and Guattari's order-words (1980/2008) are helpful for my more specific purpose of demystifying political rhetoric of evil. Other philosophical engagements resulting from this research project are explored elsewhere (den Heyer & van Kessel, 2015; van Kessel, 2016; van Kessel & Crowley, 2017).

Order-Words

According to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1980/2008), language can transform us, not physically, but in terms of our social position, or how we interact with others (Bryant, 2011, para. 7). For example, when a judge deems someone "guilty," the verdict changes a person into a convict. There is an "incorporeal transformation" that involves a change in status of a body or the change in its relations to other bodies; for example, when this person is on trial, the proceedings and the sentencing directly affect the body and its relationship to other bodies, most notably being "the transformation of the accused into a convict [as] a pure instantaneous act or incorporeal attribute that is expressed in the judge's sentence" (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980/2008, pp. 80-81). Also, a convict's physical body is confined and submitted to not only a prison routine but also the accompanying threats to that body within that structure. Order-words are "not a particular category of explicit statements (for example, in the imperative), but the relations of every word or every statement to implicit presuppositions" (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980/2008, p. 79). In other words, order-words are not grammatically a specific type of command; rather, they have the thrust of a command because of the assumptions they both tap into and create. They are like computer passwords--they give power, and take it away. Order-words can shut down freedom and even the act of thinking itself, and thus are distinctly political and relevant to social studies.

Evil is an order-word. This word morphs an ordinary human into a villain. The application of the word "evil," like the word "guilty," can change social positions in a profoundly negative way. In the context of social studies education, evil as an order-word is particularly relevant to issues of political rhetoric. The political invocation of evil can have catastrophic consequences. An extreme example would be Hitler's description in Mein Kampf (1925/2001) that "the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew" (p. 293, emphasis added). Labelling a group as evil taps into powerful images from religion, popular media, and other sources. However, most importantly, this label of evil is its own force that influences what we think and what we do. …

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