Yesterday, I talked about how comic books often use madness as a shortcut to let the audience know a character is evil. After discussing the issue with a few close, extremely intelligent humans of my acquaintance, I’ve come to recognise the deeper issue.
Human beings, as a race, are absurdly optimistic and naive.
Why does every super villain in every work of art have a back story analogous to that of the superhero? Batman’s parents are murdered when he is a child, so he turns to vigilantism to right the wrongs of the world; Mr. Freeze’s wife is dying for want of a cure for her illness, and so he turns to villainy. We are given these tales to explain why the people became ‘good’ or ‘evil’ – those who became ‘good’ are of stronger moral character than those who became ‘evil’, or so the theory goes.
Unless, of course, they’re mad, in which case it’s just written into their genetic code that they will be evil and there is very little we can do to stop them save institutionalisation or execution.
But here is the sad truth of the world: Sometimes, evil just is. It doesn’t have a long, drawn-out back story. It doesn’t have a traumatic childhood or a significant loss to point to. Sometimes, people are just evil.
Shakespeare separated his evil characters into two categories: Petty Evil and Grand Evil. His Grand Evil characters, like Shylock, were so Other that it was believable to the audience that he would be monstrous.
His Petty Evil characters, though, like Malvolio, they are the ones with whom we, as human beings, most often interact.
That middle-manager who won’t let you visit your dying father because you don’t have enough vacation or sick days accrued yet. (Haha, just kidding, most Americans don’t get paid sick leave, and don’t even think about having a baby).
That university that protects its rapist football players rather than risk losing esteem and money by expelling them.
The people who cheer when a refugee centre in Germany burns to the ground.
The photo-journalist who trips refugee children and then kicks them while they are on the ground.
And so on.
The point is, people who are inclined towards evil don’t really need a reason to be evil. Or, rather, they have already explained to themselves why their actions are not evil. The middle manager says to himself that rules were written for a reason and if he gives you time off to visit your dad, then everyone’s going to want to visit their ‘dying fathers’. The University explains to its board members that the bottom line takes precedence over a stupid student’s stupid mistake, because Universities, after all, are businesses. The cheering mob believes that this should prevent migrants that they didn’t want to move there anyway. And so on.
(Gamer Gaters are, quite possibly, unable to rationalise their brand of evil in a manner that the rest of the world would understand. But this is not the post for Stupid Evil).
Do Grand Evil characters exist in the real world? Of course they do. But even they have managed to rationalise their behaviour. Their actions are for the common good, or the good of their people, or their families, or whatever. Very few people are subjectively evil; a great many people commit evil acts objectively.
Evil is in the eye of the beholder, and when it comes to human beings, the beholders are often those who are suffering, rarely those who are enacting the suffering.