Why We Shouldn't Call ISIS "Pure Evil"

11/21/2014 12:26 EST | Updated 01/21/2015 05:59 EST

I can understand why President Obama referred to the beheading of Peter Kassig by ISIS as "an act of pure evil by a terrorist group that the world rightly associates with inhumanity." In many ways, I share his sentiments.

I still have a problem, though, with the language that he chose to express his viewpoint. His words sound most powerful and critical -- referring to ISIS as "pure evil" -- but what does this expression really accomplish? In many ways, such terms actually only cloud over the real problem, the real defect, upon which we should really be focusing.

The word "evil" -- as with all words -- demands definition. It is the sharing of similar definitions for words that then allow for communication. It is, in fact, when we find different meanings for one word that we encounter one of the major reasons for a breakdown in communication and a potential lack of further understanding. That is exactly the problem here. If President Obama is trying to make a point with the use of the word evil, is that point clear? To answer that question, you have to postulate that all share his understanding of the meaning of the word "evil." Is that actually the case here? Would ISIS describe itself as evil?

I know that for the vast majority of the President's intended audience, the application of the word "evil" is clearly apparent. For these people, there is, seemingly, clarity in the thought which the president is trying to convey. But that is precisely the point -- what does the use of this word then add to the discussion?

The president is simply telling the people something they already know on their own; pursuant to the president's and their definition of evil. This act done by ISIS is evil. Such a statement, however, thus only touches the emotions. It serves to ignite the troops -- but not really to clarify the true source of the problem. And the real source of that problem may lie in the very fact that ISIS does not believe its behaviour to be evil.

Defining ISIS as evil is just too simple. It is obvious within our perspective -- but what does it really do to inform us about the members of this group especially in that they would not use this word to describe themselves?

If we could, though, find some type of general description upon which both they and we could agree to some extent, we would actually be much further along in identifying the basic nature of this group. We would be able to recognize that which leads ISIS members to act as they do -- in a manner which we clearly define as evil but which they do not. With, then, a clearer understanding of this basic nature of this group, we would have a better idea of how to proceed and fight this group.

ISIS believes that what it is doing is good because its members believe it is what their deity demands of them. The question is: how do they know this? The answer lies, as with all their beliefs, in dogmatism. They know that they are right because they know that they are right -- that is the basis of dogmatism. There are no questions. There is no possibility of being mistaken.

Once a person adopts an attitude of dogmatism, any behaviour can become justified for it becomes right simply because the person declares it to be right. While ISIS would not probably use the word dogmatic to describe themselves, as this word has negative connotations, they would still, no doubt, describe their approach to their views in essentially this manner. They declare that they are following their beliefs and, most importantly, that these beliefs are unquestionable. It is with such surety that they justify all that they do. They and us would both declare that they act with this surety. It is that type of surety, then, which should be the focus of attention in dealing with them.

There is no doubt that the focus of our concern in dealing with ISIS must be the horrendous acts perpetrated by the group. Simply calling it 'evil' though does not add any ammunition in our battle against ISIS. Recognizing and articulating its dogmatic nature, however, may; for we then have a better idea of the psychology behind these terrible acts.

We would know that we can't talk with them. We would know that they do not believe there is anything wrong with what they are doing -- in fact, that they believe they are doing good. We would be aware of the emotional nature of their recruitment and that we must combat this type of rhetoric. In our choice of words, we must be careful to enunciate what really needs to enunciated.

It may be that many do not want to hear this message for it touches on their own personal dogmatism in various issues (albeit it that it is still vastly different than the dogmatism of ISIS).

Nonetheless, if we do not see the members of ISIS for whom they really are, we cannot really know how to fight them. We know that, in the words of President Obama, from our perspective, their actions are "pure evil." Let's make sure, though, to add and emphasize that their actions are those of people who believe themselves to be right because they believe themselves to be right. That way we truly know with whom we are dealing.


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