How speaking no evil could do a world of good

My heart drops every time I see that hysterical mainstay of newspaper headlines: ''Face of Evil.''

Usually it's reserved for child killers such as six-year-old Kiesha Weippeart's mother Kristi Abrahams, terrorists such as the Boston Marathon bombers, or predatory sociopaths of the calibre of Jill Meagher's murderer, Adrian Bayley.

Sadness and anger are appropriate responses to the acts of these people, but I can't help thinking the demonising of individuals as ''evil'' is an emotional and intellectual shortcut we take to console ourselves they are ''other''.

It's confronting to consider people so twisted are made of similar stuff to us and, no matter how alien or horrific their actions, ''evil'' is but profound immorality, and morality an invention of culture and ''civilised'' man.

A great moralist once wrote that nature doesn't have morals - ''each species does to the other what it wishes and can''.

An ultimately more comforting perspective to take of people like Abrahams and Bayley is not that they are evil, but that they lack all goodness, what it takes to be a functioning human.

A man thoroughly versed in dealing with people whose lives have been lived in the absence of good is Pastor Graham Long, of Sydney's famed Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross.

For decades, Long has dealt with drug and alcohol abusers and the homeless; broken people often dismissed as ''mad'', ''bad'' and even ''evil''.

Many consider Long one of our nation's true role models and most practical of philosophers, which last week resulted in him being nominated for Australian of the Year.

Long understands compassion not just as an abstract concept but a salve he applies daily to some of our most desperate and despised citizens. We would do well to take his meditations seriously.

Recently, Long gave a series of talks titled ''Gutter Philosophy'' and touched upon the ideas of

6th-century Roman philosopher Boethius.

''His greatest contribution was he defined evil as the absence of good,'' Long said.

''In our age, evil suffers from what I would call the Star Wars theory, where you have the Lord of Darkness and God - good versus evil.

''We tend to see those as equal and opposite forces. Boethius' fabulous contribution is he said there is only good and there is the absence of good, so in a way evil doesn't exist, but it's still real.

''An evil person is a person who lacks humanity and that's all it is, a lack. It's like a shadow is a real thing, we name it, but it's just the absence of light. We think everything we give a name to must have an active presence but Boethius says that it's just an absence.''

By thinking in this way, Long argues, ''it takes the fear out of evil''. It's not some supernatural element we are powerless against.

This is not to say we shouldn't guard against and punish the outrages of people who kill, maim and destroy, but it's vital for a society that believes in compassion and reason to move beyond simple, superstitious denunciations of inherently complex problems.

Long's recent, inspiring memoir Love over Hate is at its core a plea for Australians everywhere to start engaging our brains, as well as our hearts, and to not let our ''feelings'' ride roughshod over thought.

If we insist evil is some kind of malevolent or demonic presence - because that ''feels'' right - we all but abdicate our influence over it. If we accept it is an absence of goodness, we're challenged to fill that void, wherever we see it, with our own light.

This article How speaking no evil could do a world of good was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.