les fleurs du mal

I think childhood stories about Good and Evil can do society a great disservice. They are misleading and oversimplified. I realize that media aimed at children is most often simplified, but often ideas of Good and Evil aren’t portrayed as simplified, but as the simple truth, as in a truth often looked at as more complicated than it actually is. And even if children do somehow recognize the ideas presented as simplifications, they often still treat them as bedrock truths on which they build their developing world views as they get older.

The main idea that I think is neglected in children’s entertainment is that we are all human and that “villains” are just humans too, not some special breed of human. “Villains” are not as obvious and noticeable as they are portrayed in stories for children. And villains are often not universal—different groups consider different people villains. Heroes and villains are not two neat categories on which everyone agrees. I mean, on which every good person agrees, of course.

When I imagine a stereotypical cartoonish villain, I have an image that immediately materializes. He is tall, dressed in black, with a long cloak, and a curly moustache. He speaks in grand, carefully enunciated phrases. He has a vaguely foreign accent, perhaps from somewhere in England. Now, I’m probably combining several different villainous characters. They don’t all have cloaks, for example.

But notice that appearance: starkly different, with subliminal symbols like dark colors to connotate evil. Also, very importantly, a markedly different and foreign way of speaking. Why do so many villains have foreign accents? I don’t think it’s even as complicated as marking certain nationalities as “enemies;” there have been villainous characters in American media throughout the past century with Russian accents, for example, but not in every case, and it’s not as if every story featuring a Russian villain was overtly political, where it would be relevant.  There are many villains in American media, after all, who are merely British, and the UK is an ally and not really seen as villainous (unless the story is set during the American Revolution, of course). So, I think the main reason for giving villains accents is just to distinguish them as not like us. Showcasing the way someone talks is an easy and classic way to just say “they’re different from we are.”

I think it is a frightening truth to a lot of people to realize that every “evil” person in history has been human, and since we are human too, we have the same potential for cruelty. So we create ways to separate humans into different groups to protect notions of our inherent innocence and virtue—or, in other words, the idea that we could never do something as heinous as that. People don’t want to think that if they themselves were born at the same time, in the same place, and under the same circumstances as some historical villain, they themselves could have committed similar crimes.

The main example of this idea that stands out in my life is an occurrence at a lecture I went to on a specific women’s concentration camp in Nazi Germany that has since been turned into a museum. The lecture highlighted how apparently “normal” the female guards were: they had social gatherings, got their hair done, were interested in new fashions. But they were also Nazis enforcing genocide and torture. A main idea that the current museum on the camp’s site also emphasizes is how these women were merely human. This is not said to lessen the seriousness of their acts in any way—it is said to emphasize that cruelty and terror is a human problem, not a problem confined to certain groups or types of people.

I think that is such an important point, and a necessary one to acknowledge, especially when discussing why the Holocaust could even happen and how to prevent persecution, prejudice, and oppression now and in the future. However, one particular woman in the audience of the lecture was aghast when confronted with that assertion that the Nazis were human. She repeatedly spoke out, saying things like, “No, these women were monsters! We can’t call them anything less!” She insisted that it was just incorrect and even offensive to label them as similar to you and I.

I don’t know who that woman was, I don’t know her background or history, and I don’t know what experiences or preconceived notions she was bringing to that lecture; I’m not making a statement at all about her as a person. I see her ideas though as very widespread and prevalent. Fear of “evil” is really fear of humanity, but it is often masked and covered up. Even the word “evil” is evidence. It is seen as a separate, even tangible and external thing that we can name and point out.

I don’t say all this to be pessimistic or make the doom and gloom rain down. I just think it’s most helpful and healthy to just acknowledge the reality and act accordingly. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. I think we can address humanity’s potential for evil, but it requires really accepting it first.