Fetishizing Evil

The fetishization of evil is the localization of evil within a single, recognizable and concrete source that can then be targeted for destruction. 
Photo credit: Peter Forster

When the occurs, we take all that threatens our physical and symbolic selves and confine it to a person, group of people, or an ideology and label that entity or group as evil and then seek to it. We convince ourselves that if we could only eliminate that one thing, we would then be freed of all suffering and evil. The process of entails blaming a person/group, while fetishizing evil takes this idea further. Not only is a single person or group blamed for a perceived (and simplified) problem, but also there is a call for the elimination of that person or group. For example, blaming immigrants for a struggling economy is scapegoating, while calling for deporting (or worse) immigrants is fetishizing evil.

Fetishizing evil requires a reliance on stereotypes and related processes. A stereotype is an oversimplified generalization about an entire group of people without regard for individual differences. Prejudice is pre-judging, making a decision about a person or group of people without sufficient knowledge. Prejudicial thinking is based on stereotypes. Prejudice is an attitude. Discrimination is the behaviour that can follow prejudicial thinking. Discrimination is the denial of justice and fair treatment in many arenas, including employment, housing and political rights.

One’s own group is “pure and good” and others “are the real animals, are spoiling everything for you, contaminating your purity and bringing disease and weakness into your vitality” (Becker, 1975, p. 93). We have seen this in the Nazis conceptualizing Jews as infectious vermin, and the Hutus labelling the Tutsis as cockroaches. A disturbing TMT study found that a worldview threat is buffered if worldview violators have been killed (Hayes, Schimel, & Williams, 2008).

Why do people fetishize evil? It is ultimately a way of dealing with our own sense of vulnerability and death. Fetishizing evil is a way of confining our fear to a specific, manageable object. It is a way of making our fear concrete and controllable. Then, by coming against the evil, lashing out against it, and in some cases eradicating it, we assert our own purity, specialness, and our own status as heroes. Thus, from Becker’s perspective, many forms of aggression aimed at annihilating others with a “lust for killing” is a result of the fetishization of evil

Suggested Readings for further study:

Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, NY: Free Press.

Hayes, J., Schimel, J., & Williams, T. J. (2008). Fighting death with death: The buffering effects of learning that worldview violators have died. Psychological Science, 19, 501-507. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02115.x

Schimel, J., Hayes, J., Williams, T. & Jahrig, J. (2007). Is death really the worm at the core? Converging evidence that worldview threat increases death-thought accessibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 789-803. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02115.x

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The worm at the core: On the role of death in life. New York, NY: Random House.

van Kessel, C. (2018). Banal and fetishized evil: Implicating ordinary folk in genocide education. Journal of International Social Studies, 8(2), 160-171.

(Created by C. van Kessel, 2018)

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The Grim Educator by C. van Kessel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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