Third Order Thinking:
8 May 2019

Evil and Depravity

I have never been comfortable with the concept of evil. The word itself is too big, means too much. For moralists, it generally requires human agency to achieve its nefarious purposes, but in everyday speech evil is responsible for disease and natural disaster. When a child dies an awful death, someone nearby is certain to wonder how a just God could allow evil into the world — although someone else is equally likely to talk of divine punishment for human iniquity. The presence of this superhuman force, glittering with the most perverse tempations as well as the most wrathful punishments, transforms everyday life into a terrifying emergency. Nothing can be done until it is stamped out. And the stamping out of evil has provoked much of humanity’s cruelty.

Depravity suits me better. The word suggests an acquired taste, which I think is just right. And we do not use the word to describe the self overwhelmed by wicked impulses; indeed, the depraved individual is never overwhelmed, but only more responsible. Where evil may blind its victims to what they’re doing, depravity is altogether conscious. It is not that the depraved person can’t turn away, but only that he or she doesn’t want to. We do not speak of being possessed by depravity. Rather, we surrender to it by degrees — by agreeable, undramatic degrees. Depravity responds to the prospect of bad behavior with rationalizations, legalizing excuses. These range the gamut from “just this once” to “everybody does it”; all that changes is the extent of depravity within the individual human heart.

You can regard the spread of Hitler’s influence in Germany as a tide of evil, sweeping out of the wreckage of the Great War, that overwhelmed ta fragile democracy. Or you could see it as the multiplication of reasonable calculations, not so very morally dubious at first, made by individual Germans, one by one. The latter view may be less exciting, but it fits much better my understanding of human society.

I believe that “watching television” is a pretty bad thing, but that calling it evil sounds, if nothing else, silly. As Hannah Arendt found out the hard way, people are uncomfortable with the idea that evil can be banal. And nothing is more banal than watching television.

Watching Television

What do I mean by “watching television”? To begin with what I don’t mean: watching a feature film by slipping a DVD into a disc player and giving its content one’s undivided attention. The ways in which this differs from “watching television” will provide the anatomy of a definition.

  • The DVD, which is at least momentarily in the viewer’s possession, can be played (watched) at any time. It cannot be claimed that viewing the DVD interrupted or interfered with any other intention or obligation. Insofar as the content of the DVD is entertainment, it is scheduled by the viewer. By the same token, having chosen to watch the video, the viewer sets aside other activities as long as it lasts.
  • The DVD has been chosen by the viewer, optimally from a large and stable collection, the cinematic equivalent of a library of books. The viewer has paid to own or to rent titles from this collection, and is familiar with its contents.
  • Aside from previews of other movies (and perhaps some other regrettable advertising), the feature film is not embedded in the matrix of television’s production values, which are intended to keep you watching when the show is over.
  • As a rule, the viewer watches only one video per day. Private equivalents of multi-title film festivals are, like all festivals, uncommon.

The last item invokes the practice of binge-watching, which usually involves the episodes of a TV show. (I leave the differences between a multi-episode TV show and a feature film to the thoughtful mind.) Does binge-watching constitute “watching television”? It is certainly situated in the frontier between “watching television” and doing something else, and close to the actual border of “watching television.” Like all frontier practices, it cannot be judged without taking the totality of the viewer’s viewing habits and practices into account. The last item is intended only to make it perfectly clear that watching one old movie — old enough to be available on DVD — a day is not “watching television.”

Once, it so happened that all I wanted to do in life was to watch Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Over two days, I watched it at least seven times, without watching anything else in between viewings. This did not mean, however, that I found The Ghost Writer to be “inherently addicting.” I was not addicted to it, but only puzzled or intrigued (by the totality of the film, not by the story). My own attention, and nothing else, eventually put an end to the compulsion to watch Polanski’s film. On the third day, I did not long to see it again.

Two fairly reliable tell-tale signs of “watching television”:

  • Turning on the television set to see “what’s on.”
  • Sticking around when a show is over, to see “what’s next.”

About “watching television”  during an illness, I will say only that, while it is probably not actually depraved, it is still not a good idea. If you must watch television, try to find a station that broadcasts in a language that you do not understand.


For the purposes of this essay, “entertainment” is the result of the interplay between the interests of television producers and those of television viewers. These interests are slightly but significantly asymmetrical. The viewers, of course, want to be entertained. The producers want to entertain them, yes, but they want to continue to entertain them. Therefore the present moment is always shaded, and sometimes overpowered, by the prospective one. What’s going on now is diluted by what’s next.

The interplay between viewers and producers is, in the current scheme of things, entirely mediated by advertisers and other sources of funds; it is of the essence of the relationship that viewers pay nothing for the producers’ work, and have no other direct contact with the source of their entertainment. As a result, the relationship is both vague and plastic.

“Entertainment” also describes events that are patterned on what is seen on television, such as Las Vegas floor shows and the rallies of Donald Trump. As many commentators have noted, entertainment has come to characterize more and more of American political activity. It is important to distinguish entertainment from the historical examples of showmanship and spectacle from which most of it is derived, not as a development of historical models but as an entirely different mode of public display.

This teleological definition of entertainment will be supplemented by an analytical one in due course.