Evil is a word we tend not to like to use very much. It feels judgmental and we seem to like to reserve its use for the monstrous and hugely awful. And that, perhaps, is how evil flourishes in the world—our reluctance to name it and apply it to small acts of perfidy, thereby condoning them by our very reluctance to name them for the evil that they are.
We know that there are two basic types of narcissists, the “ordinary” narcissist and the malignant. Those are divided again into two more types: the covert and the overt. And while we are more than willing to identify our particular nemesis as a covert malignant narcissist, we are reluctant to assign a value, a judgment, to the fact of the person’s narcissism.
Perhaps we are hampered by the knowledge that one does not choose to become a narcissist, it is something thrust upon a person. One cannot help being a narcissist, after all. What we sometimes overlook, however, is that even though the fact of being a narcissist is out of the narcissist’s control, how that narcissism manifests is well within her control. If she can have a golden child and shower that child with affection, she can do the same to all of the rest. The fact that she doesn’t is purely volitional, for all that she will cobble together all manner of rationalization and justification to excuse her singling out one or more of her children for harsh treatment.
This, then, is where the evil takes root: in the deliberate and intentional mistreatment of a child for no reason other than she can do so. That, in and of itself, is an evil act.
To define “evil,” first we must understand what makes up its antithesis, “good.” Steve Taylor, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today “‘Good’ means a lack of self-centredness. It means the ability to empathise with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own. It means, if necessary, sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others’. It means benevolence, altruism and selflessness, and self-sacrifice towards a greater cause - all qualities which stem from a sense of empathy.”1
By contrast, Taylor writes “‘Evil’ people are those who are unable to empathise with others. As a result, their own needs and desires are of paramount importance. They are selfish, self-absorbed and narcissistic. In fact, other people only have value for them to the extent that they can help them satisfy their own desires, or to which they can exploit them. This applies to dictators like Stalin and Hitler, and to serial killers and rapists. I would argue that their primary characteristics is an inability to empathise with others. They can’t sense other people’s emotions or their suffering, can’t see the world from other people’s perspective, and so have no sense of their rights. Other human beings are just objects to them, which is what makes their brutality and cruelty possible.”2
While Taylor makes mention of high profile masters of evil like Hitler and Stalin and includes rapists and serial killers amongst the ranks of the evil, he in no way limits the definition to acts of grand scale or extreme malevolence. He defines evil people as those who are unable to empathize with others—and we all know who that describes.
By definition, narcissists lack empathy. People who lack empathy, however, are not necessarily ignorant of what their society expects of them with respect to how they treat others. The degree to which a narcissist give his sense of power free reign is directly related to the amount of power s/he wields in the society. Politically powerful narcissists like Hitler or Stalin will attempt to change the rules of the society to accommodate the exercise of their wills. Less powerful narcissists will conceal the truth of their natures and deeds by donning a mask of compliance with societal norms where necessary, keeping their true natures—and their deeds—visible only to those who support them or are afraid to cross them in any way.
When it comes to evil, people seem to be afraid of the word, afraid to apply it to anything less than huge, monstrous acts that horrify and repulse. But evil is present in less gargantuan acts and much more common that we like to admit. In fact, it the insidious nature of evil to begin as small, seemingly unrelated acts that, left unchecked, grow with time and eventually merge. If Hitler had announced, early in his campaign for Chancellor, that his plan was to round up all of the Jews in Europe and murder them…and estimated the deaths to be six million or more…it is highly unlikely that the German electorate would have given him public office. Had he begun his Chancellorship with the wholesale round-up and murder of Jews, he probably would have faced a backlash. It was only through a gradual imposition of restrictions coupled with anti-Jew propaganda that he was ultimately able to commit the big evils for which we remember him. But that big evil was built upon a foundation of small evils, each one ignored or overlooked or accepted by people who were unwilling to look ahead, unwilling to call the acts evil, unwilling to name it for what it was. And it was through that reluctance to call evil by its right name that it was allowed to grow.
Hitler, as Chancellor of Germany, had an infinite array of choices in running the country. Those choices included no wars, no propaganda against an entire people, no mass murder. But those choices did not satisfy his desire for limitless power and so he set about swaying the masses to a new way of thinking, a way that included falsely blaming a single ethnic group for the country’s economic woes—thereby setting the stage for the acceptance of reprisals against them. People deprived of even a subsistence level of living are vulnerable to demagogues, those who promise them a better life if only they will set aside their moral repugnance and follow—and who, after all, can eat morality? How do lofty ethics keep you warm at night?
Hitler did not have to stoop to deprivation of the people to make them vulnerable to his manipulations. No, that was done by the Allies of WWI when they penned the infamous Treaty of Versailles and left Germany saddled with ruinous war reparations. The Weimar Republic, that sad, ineffectual excuse for a government, made poor economic decisions that resulted in a state of hyperinflation that crippled the populace. They were starving, they were barely surviving and Hitler came along with both a scapegoat for them to blame their troubles on and a plan to strike back at those who were bleeding Germany dry and end the crushing war debt.
The German people willingly endured more years of privation to pay for Hitler’s plan, always believing they would be victorious in the end, that they would prevail and return to their previous prosperity. They did not see—or chose to ignore—the cruel and inhumane means by which Hitler was attempting to achieve his ends. The did not see—or chose to ignore—the life of luxury their leader and his sycophants lived while they made do with progressively less and less in order to support the war effort that promised them prosperity in the end. Those who were foolish enough to openly oppose the regime ended up scapegoats themselves, reaping the same reward as those unfortunate enough to have been born disabled or Gypsy or Jewish or homosexual or whatever flavour on the month was on the agenda for genocide at the time. It was a time of evil, and evil that slowly crept over the unwitting, and embraced by those who would share its power.
So why the history lesson? Because it is a narcissistic household in macrocosm. And the narcissistic household is even worse because narcissists create the situation that was handed to Hitler on a silver platter: an environment of privation, resentment and fear that fosters a divide-and-conquer, us-vs-them ethos.
It is from small evils that big evils grow. It is putting your wants before the needs of those who have a legitimate stake in you and your behaviour: as a parent, a boss, or a political office holder, as a physician, an educator, a member of law enforcement, you have a role to execute that, at its core, lies the well-being of others. To live a life in such a way that the needs of these others are subordinate to your wants is to choose evil over good. To stand in the pulpit and declare that your deity wishes those of modest means to send you money so that you can buy an airplane or a Rolls Royce or another mansion is to choose evil over good. To deprive one child of nurturing and love while dispensing what appears to be nurturing and love to another of your children is to choose evil over good. To repudiate your own child for reasons over which s/he has no control is to choose evil over good.
When you analyse the behaviour of a narcissistic parent, you see a series of choices made by that parent, each one small enough on its own, perhaps too small to label as evil because of the pettiness of the choice or act. But that is precisely where that evil is seeded, in the small acts of indifference and cruelty that they visit upon the innocent. These small acts, cumulatively, inflict deep and hurtful wounds and negatively affect the quality of the victim’s life, sometimes for the rest of her life. Healing and recovery can take years, years that could have been joyful and productive had the narcissist simply turned away from the evil choices and made the good. Some of these victims never even make it to adulthood and the nominal freedom that it brings—the freedom to step outside of the narcissist’s maelstrom and onto a healing path. Some of us fail because our minds and psyches are so bound by the narcissist that we cannot see the path even exists; others of us fail because our ability to survive the evil is less that the evil itself: we die, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, by our own hands, either withdrawing so deep into depression and self-blame that we never find our way out, other times literally taking our own lives, the oblivion of death the only exit we see.
This is evil. Putting someone into the position that they see death or depressive withdrawal their only choices is evil. By insisting on their own innocence, narcissists blame the victims; by minimizing their actions—“I did the best I could” when, in fact, they did what advantaged themselves—they blame the victims. And the victims, saddled with a labyrinth of blame and not knowing the way out—as they did not construct the labyrinth in the first place and therefore have no idea of its structure—simply collapse with despair.
M. Scott Peck, author of People of the Lie, said “When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life -- particularly human life -- such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may ‘break’ a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head. [Emphasis my own.]
“Erich Fromm was acutely sensitive to this fact when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others—to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line…he demonstrated a ‘necrophilic character type,’ whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.
“Evil…is the force…that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.”3
It is important to be able to recognize the small evils, the seeds that will grow into larger ones, merge with others and become larger still. The lies, the blame, the selfish choices, the gaslighting and triangulation and projection. Hoovering—especially hoovering—is an evil act because it is built entirely of ill-intentions, untruths, and bad faith, its intent not pure or clean, its intent dark and evil: to wrest control of your life, your emotions, your choices away from you and put it back into the hands of the narcissist—not for your own well-being but to satisfy the narcissist’s lust for control and power and gain.
Sometimes it can be difficult for us to see those small evils—we don’t want to see them as such and wish to use a more benign descriptor. Or perhaps they are disguised as benevolent acts for others, acts that make us feel guilty for objecting or feeling hurt or envious. But just as the giant oak had to start from a little seed, so do big evils have to start with small ones—the ones we overlook, misname, look away from.
Not all evil is gargantuan and horrifying, like the Holocaust or the pogroms or the Clearances or the refusal to grant asylum to people fleeing for their lives. Huge evils like these are excused or explained away, rationalized and justified by a populace that is well-versed in the language of explaining away the small evils from which these giant ones grew. This practice hurts us first, for it prevents us from seeing and being properly horrified by the truth, and then it trickles down to others as we minimize, explain, ignore, excuse, rationalize or disbelieve those same evils being visited upon others, like our children.
“Evil is that which kills the spirit,”4 said Peck. To remain out of the reach of evil, you must be able to recognize it when it is small so that you do not allow it to reach into your life and grow to unmanageable proportions. We cannot always control the evil that others do, but we can, by being aware, prevent it from engulfing our lives and the lives of our children and other vulnerable family members. Sometimes the only options open to us are to succumb or to run like hell as far away as possible.
So if the narcissist deals in evil, is the narcissist evil? Not necessarily. In drawing the distinction between the malignant narcissist and the “normal” narcissist, I think we draw the line between the evil person and the not evil person. Many people who are not even narcissists unwittingly commit evil against others—they have fleas and are doing what they know without being enlightened as to the damage it inflicts—the fact that they don’t know doesn’t lessen the damage they inflict, the seeds of evil they plant. Many narcissists inflict evil unintentionally because, lacking empathy and compassion, they do not see the lasting and crippling pain they inflict—and if they did, they would not be moved by it. Those acts are evil, but the person committing them may not be.
But the malignant narcissist—there is the evil personified. This is a person who glories in the ability to hurt others, to inflict pain on those they have trained into vulnerability and others they identify as being susceptible to them. From covert acts like withholding love and approval to overt acts like costing an adult child her job or breaking up her marriage or allowing the child to live in abject poverty and then withhold assistance even in the Will, malignant narcissists are evil people. They intentionally inflict hurt on others, not just in a petty tit-for-tat way, but in carefully crafted campaigns that are intended to bestow lasting pain on their victims. These people are evil and have inflicted evil on the most vulnerable in their circle for no other reason than it pleases them to do so.
Be careful about minimizing the behaviours of the narcissists you know. Vulnerable people like your children will normalize intrusive, invasive, controlling, and hurtful behaviour if they see you do it. Instead of being outraged that Grandma gives more and better gifts to his sister, your son will grow up thinking this is ok—that his sister is somehow better than he is—and wonder what is wrong with him. Worse, sister will grow up thinking that getting more and better is her due, that her brother doesn’t deserve to have it as good as she does—and there a seed of evil is planted.
It is natural to be taken aback by the big evils we see in the world and just as natural to overlook or minimize or diminish the small ones. But by seeing and being aware of those small evils can we prevent them from growing into the big, overwhelming ones that devastate lives. And while few of us have the power to stop the Hitlers of the world, we each have the power to see and call out and block the small evils that are dealt us by the narcissists in our lives, thereby protecting ourselves and our loved ones from bigger evils later on.
As one who minimized those little evils and allowed myself and my children to become the focus of a malignant narcissist with life-long ill effects, I wish somebody had told be this while I still had time to do something about it. You have now been warned…
1 Taylor, Steve. The Real Meaning of Good and Evil. Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201308/the-real-meaning-good-and-evil
3 Peck, M. Scott, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/448489-when-i-say-that-evil-has-to-do-with-killing.