The Way Evil Speaks

I had a good reminder recently about the methods by which evil interrogates us and breaks down our certainties. Not all certainties are valid or useful, of course. The point is not that our certainties should never be challenged, but that there is a pattern to the approach of evil, one that we do well to recognize and fortify our minds against. When the challenge comes in this form, we are wise to be wary of it, and even to reject it outright on principle.

The reminder came as I analyzed the plot twists and dialogue in a recent episode of Law & Order: LA. I confess to watching very little series television; I happened on this episode on a Monday night, and stayed with it mainly because I think Alfred Molina is a superb actor and I didn't know he was in the series. Suffice it to say, I came to this episode with no preconceptions.

The episode, "Runyon Canyon," is about a college girl found murdered in a public park after a night of what people in a less clinical age used to call debauchery. In the opening sequence, the viewer is led to believe that the young woman, half-clad and disoriented, is under attack in an unoccupied house strewn with party trash. Sobbing, apparently trying to escape, she stumbles out of a room and cuts her foot on broken glass. An unidentified man is seen dragging her across the floor back into the room. When she is found dead the following morning, the obvious conclusion is that her murder is related to the events of the previous night.

Fellow students with very off-putting personalities turn out to have been involved in her night of seeming torture. We discover, however, that she wasn't being attacked that night; she voluntarily joined in forms of group sexual "experimentation" that the average person would consider degrading and unsafe. Her suffering parents, who had no idea of their daughter's extra-curricular activities, are treated during the trial to an explicit blow-by-blow description.

Eventually, a female student, whose character is written to seem lacking in human compunction and moral sense, is ready to accept a plea bargain for the victim's death. In retrospect, this decision on her part is inexplicable—and emblematic of the contrived nature of the plot: the real killer turns out to have been a man wholly unrelated to any of the students' experimental party activities, and the entire first half of the drama thus ends up seeming like an elaborate cheat.

But the evidence apparently mounting against Sylvie, the unsympathetic suspect, allows the screenwriters to set up the key sequences in the story. Sylvie's attorney accuses the prosecutor (played by Terence Howard) of assuming the worst about his client because of the prosecutor's belief that "exploring her sexuality" is "unladylike...immoral...depraved." Defending herself on the witness stand, Sylvie then tells the prosecutor why she originally withheld information from the police: "I was afraid of what people would think of me—just like what you think now, that I'm some weirdo."

The implication of the story is that a judgmental attitude about "sexual experimentation" almost gets the wrong person put in prison for a murder. Multiple premises go into this formulation: the Sylvie character invites us to suppose that judgment discourages truth because people fear unfriendly exposure, while the thought process imputed to the prosecutor warns us that judgment in one area predisposes us to unwarranted conclusions in others.

These are things that can be true, of course. Human life and human stories are full of examples of such causes and effects. But that doesn't actually mitigate the dangerous, unwise nature of the sexual experimentation outlined in the Law & Order: LA episode. And that is the genius of evil's approach to our consciences: it seeks to make us doubt ourselves, based on a plausible theory of false alternatives, without offering a constructive alternative to the belief it attacks.

The Law & Order story makes no positive assertion that group sexual experimentation—experimentation that includes violence—is a good thing. No effort is made to make it appear safe or wholesome; in the first seconds of the episode, we see it producing the kind of frightening situation that a sensible person seeks to avoid. The story line doesn't offer us any encouraging affirmations about its nature.

Confronted instead with what it actually is, we are supposed to conclude that the most ordinary reaction to it—that college kids ought not to be doing such things—is at the root of a near-miscarriage of justice. This line of argument offers us no positive, long-term reward for shedding our "judgmental" ideas. It doesn't suggest that college students will be better adjusted, that young women will be safer or happier, that anyone's character will have a better foundation, or that human relations will improve. It makes us no promises at all; it merely seeks to undermine our confidence with doubt and fear. Stories, what-ifs, and suppositions are the vehicles through which this argument is routinely presented to us.