I have been thinking today just how obsessed we are with the notion of evil. We are almost as obsessed with evil as we are with sex and pop stars. Our definition of evil is solid. We are all confident that we can point out something that is evil and when we do we are fascinated by it. It is very telling that some of the best selling books are those by authors like Patricia Cornwall and her tales of the mortuary and those ever popular true life biographies of childhood abuse. Looking at the news today was like looking through a menu of atrocities. Child sacrifice in Uganda, sexual abuse of children by "rape gangs", the Joannes Yeates murder trial. Just for good measure, one reputeable news agency posted a virtual tour of Joanne Yeates' flat.
Where does this fascination come from? Well I would argue that it comes from the very reason we define something as evil. That the measurement of evil serves not as a moral bench mark but as a smokescreen for our own conscience.
The perfect example of this occurred subtly this week in a piece of journalism which may well have been ignored by many. The report of the Care Quality Commission highlighted the "failings" of the NHS in its care of the elderly. Now the word "failings" really doesn't come across as being particularly damning. It suggests a break down in the system, an oversight, a lack of leadership. No doubt improvements will be suggested and acted upon and then our consciences will be clear. I would like to take the opportunity to point out, however, that the end result of these failings have the same horrific end point as that of Joanne Yeates or the child murdered by a witch doctor or abused at the hands of a sex gang. People have still died needlessly. People have still starved when they should not have done so. People have still been made to drink water out of flower vases because no one would give them a drink of water. People have still experience pure terror and suffering.
We are quick to point out the monster. Why? I would argue that this is a strange human phenomenon. It's not because we are utterly shocked over a heinous crime. If you haven't noticed, humans have a very murderous history. Humans are blood thirsty whether through actual killing or through the representation in media. Why then, do we cry out when something like the murder of Joanne Yeates occurs? A sense of injustice? Loss? How many of us will even remember the name Joanne Yeates in five years when another murder victims name rolls off our tongues. How many names of people plastered into the structure of Fred and Rose Wests' house can we remember? I would argue that the monster means more to us than the victim. Why? Because monsters tell us that we are not responsible. We didn't commit the crime. We never would do such a thing. Were the paedophile protests in Portsmouth in 2000 about a genuine sense of injustice and danger or was it about people exclaiming that they were not , themselves, paedophiles monsters?
You might say I'm being unreasonable. You might say I'm intellectualising it too much. But too me it says it all when the needless deaths or suffering of those who have given most to this society are classed as "failings" due to lack of leadership. I find it interesting that there are no monsters in this story. Yes the NHS has been blamed and its shortcomings identified. Even the front line troopers of healthcare, our nurses, have been blamed. No one has been classed a monster because we all know that the sad sorry end of an elderly patient in secondary care is often the conclusion to a longer sad story of neglect and failure. In short, we are neglecting our elderly population. Me, you, the NHS, and even Mr Andrew Lansley. That is why we are not quick to point out the monster here.
As someone who has been in the healthcare profession in various capacities over the last 15 years I can safely say there are good and bad professionals. Good and bad by virtue of their practice. I have never met a villain or to be honest a true angel. I have met people who lack the resources and, therefore, insight into how they can give optimum care. I have met nurses who are so exhausted and stretched for time and staff they can only do the bare minimum for that shift. I have also met people who seem to have a supernatural gift for making time stop, getting the job done, keeping patients safe and secure and on the road to healing. The difference between all these people and the rest of society when it comes to the elderly however, is that nurses spend a significant amount of time evaluating their practice and questioning how they can make the next day better for their patients.
So I might also add that whilst hospitals are not ideal places for the care of the elderly, they are often the only place that will take on the care of someone whose social care package is not fit for purpose. I might also add that many of the elderly end up in hospital for very preventable reasons such as dehydration, hypothermia or a fall. The simple fact is that, as mentioned, entry into secondary care is often because, somewhere along the line, the patient has been neglected needlessly. Some where down the line a family has left responsibility of care on one exhausted son or daughter. Somewhere down the line an elderly man or woman has fallen over and been forgotten in their cold, neglected flat when the smaller local community could easily have chosen to help.
So I would like to propose that this fixation with evil that our culture has is not a moral benchmark. It is merely a tool to helps us sleep soundly at night in the knowledge that we are not monsters, murderers or witch doctors. The creation of monsters is the clever diversion from the fact that if we opened our eyes that bit more, we would realise just what we could do to improve the life of someone else. By not doing so we are the very monsters we elevate away from our precious sense of being good people.