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Searching for Real-World Villains

By Stephanie G. Franklin

Disney has some fantastic villains. I feel fear when Maleficent curses Sleeping Beauty, I get angry when Jafar traps Jasmine inside the giant hourglass, and I cry every time Scar heartlessly throws Mufasa to his death. No matter the story, no matter the time and place, I always know whom I am supposed to root against, and I enthusiastically comply. This type of simplicity is something I’ve come to expect in a children’s film—and basically nowhere else.

Certainly there are some actual people who fit the mold of pure evil pretty well (just with more torture and mass murder and a little less singing about it)—Adolf Hitler immediately comes to mind as the most common example, with other genocidal leaders or serial killers not far behind. Those labels aren’t going away any time soon, and I’m fine with that.

But for the rest of the population, things are a lot less black and white. Just as girls need to stop looking for Prince Charming, we need to stop looking for the classic “bad guy.” It’s often more productive to call out actions as bad actions and policies as bad policies than it is to call out people as bad people.

First, good people can do bad things. The Stanford prison experiment, which showed that everyday people given certain power can turn abusive, is a classic example. Corporate misconduct, high-profile scandals such as the firing of Joe Paterno, young people who were “well-liked” and had “bright futures” but made an awful decision one night—all these scenarios prompt commentary on how seemingly good people could have gotten caught up in illegal behavior.

While it’s easy to deem crimes as bad actions, it’s harder to determine whether a great friend, parent, or leader is a bad person when he or she commits a crime. There’s no clear line for how many bad actions one must commit before being labeled a bad person. And as current and former classmates of mine face potential criminal sentences for bad decisions made in difficult circumstances, I’m realizing that it’s a lot easier to characterize people as bad when you don’t know them personally and only know about one action that they’ve done.

In many cases, in fact, it’s simply ridiculous to call someone evil based on one bad mistake. From purely anecdotal evidence, it appears as if an alarmingly high percentage of the population has an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend who is an “asshole” or “a terrible person.” By this logic, an alarmingly high percentage of the population are themselves assholes or terrible people, a conclusion equally unrealistic as it is depressing. No one is perfect, but at the same time most people aren’t awful.

On the other hand, in more serious cases, focusing on people rather than actions allows for past triumphs to overshadow current misdeeds, precluding proper condemnation of horrible behavior. Take the Stuebenville, Ohio rape case that gained much attention in late 2012.

Public outrage rightfully lambasted the media’s focus on the ruined futures of the “promising” students accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl instead of on the fact that the rape itself was so awful. Who knows, perhaps those were otherwise great guys (although it seems unlikely). It still doesn’t detract from the fact that they did something undeniably wrong. In addition to bringing to light many serious problems with how we react to rape, the incident is also evidence for the fact that attempting to evaluate a person’s worth as a whole can stop us from properly reproaching specific acts. Rape is awful, whether one is a serial rapist or a one-time offender, and it merits recourse and condemnation either way.

Further, people have different moral standards. It’s clearly unethical to knowingly violate a moral norm, but to some degree people can’t be held accountable for breaking rules they don’t hold to be valid. As Ricky Gervais once profoundly tweeted, “A Christian telling an atheist he is going to Hell is about as scary as a small child telling an adult they wont get any presents from Santa.”

And while I find Gervais’s atheism a little too rude and in-your-face, the message is still valid. It’s not fair to call atheists bad people, because any rules (or commandments) that they violate aren’t ones they believe to be true. This principle of course excludes those who don’t hold universally acknowledged evils like murder or rape to be wrong, but on issues such as religion where there is such profound disagreement, it’s important to avoid condemnation on a personal level.

The same goes for liberals who claim that conservatives are evil and uncaring. Opposing a welfare program or a raise in the minimum wage doesn’t equate to hating the poor. Rather, it means one holds different value priorities or believes the policy will have counter-productive effects. If someone truly prioritizes the ideals of limited government and overall social welfare over absolute economic equality, then it makes little sense to demonize that person for not prioritizing equality over those other values. There are surely bad people who subscribe to any given political ideology, but on the whole, political differences are a result of differences in values, and it’s unproductive to judge someone according to values he or she doesn’t hold.

As hard as it is to determine the right course of action, it is harder yet to determine which people are good and which people are bad. Foregoing criticism is not the right answer, but criticizing action is preferable to criticizing people. Save your demonizing for our enemies of the animated sort.

Stephanie G. Franklin ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.

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