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Several scholars have addressed the topic of evil and its origin. In their book, The Root of All Evil, Sharon G. Mijares, Aliaa Rafea, Rachel Falik, and Jenny Eda Schipper also engage this topic. For them, it involves prejudice, fundamentalism, and gender imbalance, or at least that is what the subtitle says. After an introduction revealing their own origins, the authors begin their search for evil's origin by describing and expounding upon the creation myths of several religions as well as upon misinterpretations of these myths. The second chapter primarily discusses religious followers' manipulation and misunderstanding of the original intent of the major religions. Chapter three considers other possible explanations for prejudice by investigating more sociological and anthropological suggestions. The fourth and fifth chapters concern the problems of religion and politics, while the sixth chapter is to offer a solution, or at least a direction, for the world's current ills. The book is then concluded by an Epilogue in which each author explains her personal view of the matters that were addressed.
The idea behind the book is good, but its presentation does not do the idea justice. Drawing on examples such as the tribal genocide in Darfur and the American-led war in Iraq, the authors attempt to address the current state of affairs in the world. In particular, these four women have come together in an attempt to locate the root of the ongoing warfare and division, the root of all evil.
One strength of this text is the detailed exposition of current world events that exemplify such divisions. For example, chapter four's focus on the Bush administration and the neo-conservative group NPAC, their plans, and the role that they have played in the invasion and occupation of Iraq is thought-provoking. Drawing on a range of sources, they identify the fundamentalist vision and the solipsistic goals that have contributed to this war.
While the authors are to be lauded for speaking out against a truly untoward set of global circumstances, their argument falls short of providing a solution. In fact, the first difficulty with their argument is their implicit certitude that a single "root" of all evil can be found that might provide one solution. The result is a simplistic perspective that unfortunately cannot offer a practical approach to the problems that they expose.
Their explicit, though simplistic, thesis is that the evil evident in the world today began with the onset of patriarchy and can only be rectified through gender balance. More specifically, they claim that the patriarchal mindset or perspective has limited humankind to acting in accordance with only those qualities and attributes that are inherently male; thus, a reincorporation of the feminine offers us the only opportunity to avoid Armageddon, according to the title of chapter six. This reductionism is quite obvious throughout: "All revelations have been guiding humankind to the way of love rather than hatred, but it [sic] has been prevented due to the suppression of the female" (62-3).
Apart from the either-or logical fallacy that is evident here, the notion of a panacea that can offer us an existence without evil is identified within the text itself as idealistic, for the authors point out that "The power of evil and goodness are embedded within our unconscious, and their conflicts are taking place deeply from within" (53). More important, the very use of the word "evil" within the context of this argument is problematic for two significant reasons. First, because they explicitly link evil with men, it simply represents a reversal of the vilification of Eve and women in general that the authors speak out against: they assert that "the feminine aspect is a source of compassion that softens and balances masculine power and evil tendencies" (58). How is this different than the existing, patriarchal claim that masculine reason and logic is required to balance female emotion and evil tendencies? Second, in spite of the fact that they are arguing for the unity of these two opposed "natures," what the authors ultimately do by attaching "evil" to masculine tendencies and "compassionate" and "relational" to the feminine is reinforce the very hierarchical, oppositional duality that they argue against when they complain about "irrational splits between heaven and earth, mind and body, male and female" (64).
The underlying problem with these arguments is that they are rooted in a biological essentialism that many contemporary feminists have long-since rejected. The authors make unsupported assertions such as, "A woman, by virtue of her mothering characteristics, has inherent relational qualities. She is more concerned with the impact of ideas and beliefs upon people and the environment" (4). In a similar claim later, the authors again emphasize that men are concerned with ideas and beliefs rather than people, but "For the authentic woman, the person is the cause" (167). In politics, according to these authors, "Women leaders are, by nature, more concerned with gender equality, promoting rights for women, ending domestic violence and creating egalitarian societies. They are less concerned with war, and [...] weaponry, and therefore focused on improving life for all" (249).
That these authors attempt to universalize the female experience is apparent; even more egregious is that this text implicitly and explicitly disproves a universal female experience, contradicting itself throughout. Immediately following the quotation about female leaders in politics, the authors cite the example of Aisha, the second wife of Muhammad, who exercised her political leadership by leading a successful attack against an opposing army. They also utilize quotations from Ann Coulter and the story of Sarah, Abraham's wife, to support their own statement that "[W]omen, as well as men, embody these patriarchal influences and related behaviors" (69).
Feminists have long battled against the existing patriarchal structure, and while we agree with the authors that such a structure exists, they do not prove their thesis that patriarchy instigated contemporary problems. Carolyn Merchant, among others, has provided an excellent analysis of patriarchy and its influences and consequences. However, there is no evidence in this text, aside from the claims rooted in biological essentialism, to link patriarchy with power politics, which is what these authors so adequately investigate.
The authors confuse the politics of power and hierarchy with gender-based politics and patriarchy. They define the "patriarchal model" as "conquering other peoples and claiming land" (79), which they later refer to as the tribal model. They argue that patriarchy, naturally violent, has corrupted religion and given people a destructive belief system in which women are oppressed. This, however, is never proven. The problem is that the authors equate patriarchy with hierarchy. Given what they present, however, it is not a question of gender, but of power. The oppression of women is merely a symptom of this problem and not the defining characteristic. They argue that we must "return to the egalitarian message taught by our prophets, and move beyond patriarchal interpretations of religious life" (110). While the prophets might have taught egalitarianism, it is not the control of men that is the problem, but the superiority of anyone. The authors agree: "Our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague--a plague of power rather than germs" (24). Furthermore, according to the authors' readings of creation stories, "superiority, prejudice and aggression against others is the root of all evil" (58). Gender is not the issue.
Once one is aware that gender is not the issue, one may then see that fear is the culprit driving power politics: "Tribal ethics were based on loyalty to the tribe and fear of other tribes. [...] Modern tribalism is not based on that old loyalty to one's kinship relation; rather [...] the nation state or religious group represents the modern form of tribalism" (174). The authors simply point out that "nationalities have replaced tribes in the way people identify themselves" (123). Thus, the tribal fear of other tribes has passed through the generations and continued the desire for superiority. While the notion of superiority initiates a hierarchical relationship by establishing an "us" versus "them" mentality, it does not necessarily have to be a patriarchal relationship.
The desire to take this argument seriously is further undermined by the nature of the formal problems. These problems begin with the organization. While the authors have the chapters divided up well, they do not focus on the topic they propose for each chapter. Instead, they erratically examine six themes: politics, gender, prejudice, socio-economic concerns, religion, and the environment. A better alternative might have been to use the themes as the focus for each chapter.
The lack of focus in each chapter is accompanied by several blanket assertions. For example, the authors argue that Grecian mythology was incongruent because the gods and goddesses could do whatever they wished and escape punishment while humans had to endure punishment for wrongful acts. The main concern is the sentence that follows: "This incongruence [between humans and gods] no doubt influenced Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Socrates and other Greek philosophers' contemplation towards nobler ways" (55). The authors offer no suggestions of what these nobler ways might be nor do they offer any source to support this claim. Another example concerns the political organization of Native Americans: "Even though the Chiefs are traditionally male, women often give a final word on major tribal decisions" (249). This concludes a section; no examples of women making decisions are offered.
There are also blatant mistakes throughout the text. First, this book badly needs an editor. The numerous grammatical errors are incredibly distracting. Second, the authors suggest that the word "history," broken apart as "HIS story," has patriarchal implications, which completely ignores the ancient origins of the word, not to mention the fact that the word only has one "s." Lastly, though this is certainly not the last mistake in the book, the authors make one question their historical knowledge: "Ironically, the main idealistic principles of modernization (equality, justice, and human rights) are also embedded in the authentic culture of Islam" (251). The modernization of the early twentieth century, the time frame the authors reference, was hardly that optimistic. The ideas of equality, justice, and human rights are much more closely associated with the Enlightenment than with the morose nostalgia of Modernity.
Even if one accepts the argument that the authors propose, any sense of urgency for action is lost through their repeated claim that this change is imminent and gender balance is, in fact, already underway. They point out women's increased participation in politics and religion as an indication that "The patriarchal era will eventually end. Its final grasp for power is but the last throes of its dying era. A more egalitarian world is inevitable, prompted by globalization, the rise of the internet, and easy travel" (225). If this is so, then the central problem of the book will not be a problem for much longer.
The authors have written a well-intentioned book. They address several contemporary concerns that will interest readers from varied ethnic and educational backgrounds. Their arguments are problematic on some points, but they do manage to provoke thoughtful consideration of possible solutions to the harmful divisions in the world.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.
© 2007 Shari M. Childers and James M. King
Shari M. Childers is a Ph.D candidate in Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. Ms. Childers focuses on modern literature, particularly from a feminist, ecocritical perspective. Her dissertation investigates conceptions of sustainability in women's eco-literatures since 1850. [email protected]
James M. King is a Ph.D. candidate in Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. An intellectual historian, Mr. King is interested in the history of the Scientific Revolution, modern German history, and political theory, especially that of Hannah Arendt. [email protected]