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Today is November 7th. It has been an illuminating month.

* * *

I have, for most of my life, been a firm believer that humans are generally good.

A fish-eye lens of human history supports this; we are mostly altruistic creatures. We help one another when there is no reason to; we help one another in spite of good reason not to. We are stricken with ideas we cannot put into words, and so we build great grand works of art and architecture and music. Our passion takes us to new and bold places, and when faced with the reality of human suffering, most people are crushed by the utter weight of inhumanity. We are capable of incredible beauty.

I don’t know if I would still call myself religious, but I was raised with the idea that a caring god molded us out of clay, impressed fire into our chests, giving us life and passion. But in doing so, implanting a spark of the divine into each of us: we are all a tad godly, and there is nothing more divine than forgiveness. We all have this incredible, bottomless capacity for mercy and forgiveness, and that is, I think, what makes humans generally good, even if individual humans are not.

But what about when people are rabid to throw off this responsibility of mercy and better-nature? What do you call it when people are lining up in the millions to abandon this capacity for goodness, treating their once-dear principles like a yoke they have shrugged off, to bay for the blood of innocents? What is left when people eagerly absolve themselves of goodness?

This past month has tested my beliefs.

* * *

I have felt like I am going insane for several weeks now.

Partly, this is due to social media: a nightmare of our own creation. We built the greatest engines of mass communication in humanity’s history, and now they are fulfilling their purpose. The algorithms are returning the content that makes us engage, and so the feed is an pipeline of the absolute worst humanity has to offer, on full display.

But the commentary bothers me more than the content does. The absolute depths of self-interested depravity that justifies someone to ignore any principles they might have once held regarding the sanctity of human life, of innocents, against war. The notion that a genocide falls within self-defensive action; that starvation, mass punishment, and indiscriminate bombings are military tactics, not terror tactics. That this is all justified. These are the thoughts that one must subject themselves to constantly if they wish to remain updated on this conflict.

Increasingly, I feel like there's no appropriate response. What kind of good faith conversation can you have with someone living on settled land, living off the riches of a colonial regime, thriving off the suffering of a people packed into a concentration camp not 50 miles from them? I don’t enjoy talking about it, really, because what can you say that hasn't already been said a thousand times over by a thousand smarter people?

But you go back to the social media sludge trough and you see another video of a parent sobbing and hugging the limp body of a child who's been dead for hours. The child’s skin is utterly ashen; it is difficult to tell whether this is the dust from the bombs, or the pallor of death. Likely both.

And what is there to say, really.

* * *

There has always been evil in this world. This much is indisputable. I think you could even say there’s less evil now than there was a few short centuries or decades ago and you’d have a fairly convincing argument for it.

But the evil that exists now feels so much different, so personal.

The evil that exists now is banalized, produced, packaged, commodified, bought and sold, shipped around the world. It's videos of half of a child’s body being carried into a bombed-out hospital by a doctor fully cognizant the child is long-dead, it's worthless Atlantic pundits playing spin on graphs showing more kids have died in this month than in a year of conflict in Ukraine, it's ethnonationalists playing disingenous apologia for a genocide because the perpetrators are still one step short of calling it a genocide, it’s full-throated Nazis taking full advantage of all this to launder their beliefs to the masses and stoke violence against innocent Jews and Arabs, it’s faceless names on Twitter suggesting that a nation has a right to exist and innocents are acceptable collateral damage to defend that right, it's the IDF accounts manufacturing consent with graphics of Kermit sobbing while they ardently refuse to allow a humanitarian corridor into Gaza, it's settlers in the West Bank being handed AR-15s by Ben Gvir that we sold them, it’s American celebrities worth millions saying Palestine marches in New York make them feel unsafe while antizionist Jews in Jerusalem are brutalized by IDF officers, it's every liberal tone-policing slogans of resistance while Israel papers Gaza with more bombs in a week that we dropped in a year on Iraq, and it's every American politician playing political cover for them with hollow statements of self-defense.

There is so, so much evil in the world with us today and the society we live in makes it so that you're aware of it every waking second. It is inescapable — both for us and those drenched in it.

* * *

I don’t think people were ever meant to understand how much evil there is in the world.

* * *

Evil is a vast idea, incomprehensible in its vastness. We have a tendency to box it up, categorize it so that we can better grasp it. Murder is evil, rape is evil, genocide is evil. But these are things that are evil; they are not the concept itself.

At some point in your life, you come face-to-face with evil itself — the sudden and violent awareness of the vastness of Evil. An all-encompassing wave of knowledge about the moral depths to which we can sink, that our capacity is for good is only matched by our capacity to inflict horrors onto others, and what that might mean for ourselves.

It is not some archaic concept; acts of unspeakable evil have been done in the last few decades by those who looked like us, spoke like us, that we have photographs of. Knowing what the worst of humanity is capable of is knowing what any and all of us are capable of.

* * *

A friend posed the idea to me that people “can’t behave in a way they can’t behave” — that our capacity for change and morality is defined by the minds we have, how they were shaped by our upbringing, by our genetics, by our circumstances. And then the beliefs that compound onto those arise from them; our morality is a snowball rolling down a hill that we have increasingly little control over as it picks up speed and mass. Can we hate people if their snowball went the wrong way?

It’s terrifying, the idea that we’re all locked into our actions, that our morality is a function of factors outside our control. That someone’s capacity for goodness, for not succumbing to our worse nature, is fully contingent on there being the right set of conditions for them to grow up in — because if there’s a right set of conditions, there’s a wrong set of conditions.

Can I hate someone for having the wrong set of conditions? Do I have the right set of conditions?

* * *

I get why people go for religion. It’s comforting to think that this is planned out, that ultimately our better natures will overcome. There’s a lot of solace in knowing that even if evil wins today it won’t win the war. But I don’t have that much faith.

You have to fight that worse nature every day. And it feels like I’m becoming cognizant of the fact that most people would rather not; when presented with the right circumstances, they would rather fully embrace it and sink to the depths of what we’re capable of.

Do all of us have a point at which our worse natures come roaring out, completely snuffing out our capacity for good? Are any of us really good?

* * *

We’re communal animals with communal brains; we’re designed to think about our family, our community, ourselves, what we need to do for today, our immediate problems. Not as good with constant awareness of the worst our species is capable of and what that means for you.

* * *

I’m not a pleasant person at the best of times — I can be acerbic, dour, downright cruel sometimes. But over the past month, I have been pushed into completely new depths of hatred for other people.

I don't understand how you're just supposed to keep trucking.

I don't consider myself a perfect person, far from it, but I don't understand how you're just supposed to go on knowing you share the same world with these people that have willingly absolved themselves of the human capacity and responsibility for mercy and peace.

I don’t understand why people are so eager to snuff out that spark of goodness. It eludes me.

It makes you rethink those long-held beliefs. If so many of us are like this, if so many of us are willing to throw down any principles we have to slake this bloodlust, if our goodness is so contingent on one or two things, can you really say that people are ultimately good?

I guess that's at the core of this. I'm having to confront the idea that maybe we aren't good, maybe our natural state is a bottomless well of evil, and all the good that's in this world is in spite of our nature, not because of it. That we’re all one or two events away from becoming monsters; the only variable is what events.

I don’t like it.

* * *

Ultimately, I still think that people are generally good. I choose to believe that because I think most people think they’re doing the right thing, have good intentions even if their worst natures are dominating their will. It’s just been illuminating to see firsthand how fragile that goodness can be.

I think that in a few years, people will look on this the way we look back on hysteria about Iraq and Afghanistan. After the frenzy, people will remember how they behaved, what they supported, what that wrought for them and for people they’ve never met, and if they truly still have good in them, the guilt and regret will eat them up from the inside.

The tragedy of all this is that the innocent are rarely left alive to feel regret.

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