The Value of Humanizing Evil in a Fictional Context

An alternative to neo-Nazi human interest pieces.
By  · Published on December 1st, 2017

An alternative to neo-Nazi human interest pieces.

Perhaps you know the scene: someone, usually a young person, is facing a grand dilemma. It’s something serious—dire. She’s scared to even talk about it. The stakes are just too high. Perhaps it would involve admitting something about herself she hasn’t come to terms with yet, or that even discussing the issue could have severe repercussions for someone she cares about or any other number of more or less infinite possibilities. But the dilemma isn’t going to go away on its own. She needs advice, or at the very least to talk to someone. So she ends up presenting it as a hypothetical (“say there was this person…”) or that she “has a friend” facing a tough choice. Ironically, she has to provide herself with at least the illusion of distance to take that all-important first step towards actually meeting this problem. This scenario is so typical it’s cliché, but that does not mean it lacks value. In fact, it just might hint at a strategy that could prove incredibly useful right about now.

But this is all very broad, so let’s make it a little bit more specific and talk about evil. Specifically, humanizing evil. As you are probably aware, the New York Times took a crack at doing so less than a week ago, and it did not go well. At all. But even though the results were a hot mess, their intentions were not off-base.

“What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them,” Marc Lacey wrote in the New York Times’ response to the neo-Nazi fluff piece backlash, and he’s not wrong.

There is no comfortable way to discuss the everyday humanity of people who do awful things—the “banality of evil,” as it is often called—but for a whole host of reasons that people more knowledgeable than me on the subject have elaborated, it is extremely important that we do anyway. Not so that we can excuse their behavior, but precisely the opposite.

When evil is only something other people do when evildoers are supposed to look evil—remember the backlash Rolling Stone got over their “glam” “rock star” cover photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?—it makes for dangerous oversimplification. I agree with the arguments regarding an over-emphasis on the perpetrators as opposed to those whose lives were taken or irrevocably damaged by these horrific crimes. In the Rolling Stone controversy, there were plenty of commentators who primarily took issue with the magazine marketing Tsarnaev as a “hero” as opposed to primarily arguing that they should have highlighted the victims over the perpetrator. The issue is, of course, that evil can look like a hero, or a cool guy, be present in someone who also helps old ladies with their shopping and recycles and donates money to charity.

Well duh, you might be thinking. But this still presents a huge problem in how we understand evil that directly affects our ability to deal with it. Consider the past few weeks. How many times have friends and colleagues of men accused of sexual harassment and assault presented defenses based on the fallacy that “because X has been a good friend to me and such a nice person and done A, B, and C, there is no way X could have done this terrible thing”? From Lena Dunham defending Murray Miller to David Yates defending Johnny Depp, it’s the same argument. Based on the idea that a person who does something terrible must be so fundamentally different from “good” people that they — knowing an accused person and having not sensed this core wrong-ness from him — are sure that the accused could not have done the terrible thing.

In other words, it’s based on nonsense.

So yes, we should “shed more light, not less,” on why people do the terrible things they do, the many forms evil can take, and how and why poisonous ideologies take root in certain people’s minds. To provide an analogy in a subject I have studied more in-depth; it’s like dealing with a disease. If you don’t understand how the pathogen in question works, attempting to come up with a treatment is like trying to hit a bulls-eye in the dark when you have no idea where the target even is. It’s theoretically possible but highly unlikely. But exploring and coming to understand what makes that pathogen tick is something that must be done carefully. And, partly due to the risks involved, such exploration is often done whenever possible through the use of non-pathogenic model organisms—a solution that serves the same basic function as a conflicted youth presenting her dilemma as that of a friend: the individual in question can take a precautionary step back while still being able to investigate underlying mechanisms.

The news has no precautionary step back. It deals directly with real people in the real world and interacts directly with real events as they unfold. And when you start profiling real live neo-Nazis, and name-dropping all these actual neo-Nazi leaders and organizations, you are giving them all free press. Not even the cleverest journalist can avoid that. “But it’s bad press,” you might argue. Well, late night TV didn’t emphasize the Trump campaign from its earliest days and CNN didn’t air Trump’s 2015 rallies in unprecedented excess because they thought he was the best man for the job. Their coverage contained no endorsements but it was still coverage. Of course, there’s no way of demonstrating exactly how much all this free press and airtime contributed to Trump’s success but it’s pretty safe to say it didn’t hurt his campaign.

Perhaps news media isn’t always the best place to do these explorations. After all, there is an alternative, a place that allows for a step back from the real world while still enabling the exploration and investigation of incredibly important political, ethical, and philosophical concerns: fiction. Perhaps we need that step back, the distance and arguably even the limitations provided by a fictional context in order to be able to discuss these matters that are so fundamentally important but incredibly volatile.

Cinema, at its best, is in a sense a safe space to feel unsafe and be made uncomfortable. A means through which we can be challenged and challenge ourselves and how we understand and interact with incredibly complex ethical, philosophical, and political situations. While I love movies that leave me feeling warm and fuzzy inside, I have chosen to dedicate so much of my time—and my life, really—to cinema because of films that have left me uncomfortable or unsettled, that have challenged my beliefs and ultimately broadened my understanding of both myself and the world. Films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Get Out, American History X, and Fritz Lang’s M.

Cinema, at its best, is in a sense a safe space to feel unsafe and be made uncomfortable.

Movies have the ability to be one of the best, safest, and most accessible ways to foster discussion of hugely important but volatile matters. Fiction filmmakers trying to tackle huge ethical dilemmas aren’t working with real-life neo-Nazis with their own agendas. They aren’t leaving real-life victims in the dark by focusing on the story of the perpetrator. Yes, of course, these stories can still be told exceptionally well or abysmally or anything in between, and there are still stakes, they’re just somewhat lowered.

But wait, you might be thinking, what about a film like Griffith’s Birth of a Nation? That one sure did a lot of harm. Well, the thing about Birth of a Nation and others of somewhat of a similar ilk like Triumph of the Will is that they are fiction masquerading as truth. Remember that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson commented that Birth of a Nation, the most successful propaganda film the KKK never paid for, was like “writing history with lightning.” This is utter bullshit, but it did hefty damage nonetheless. What I’m talking about is exclusively fiction that calls itself fiction.

There are issues that need discussing and debating, and we need to figure out a way to talk about these matters far more productively than we have of late because the growing polarization that has made it nearly impossible to hold productive discourse is quickly becoming the problem to end all problems. It makes just about every other problem out there even worse.

As much as I love movies, I’m not saying they have the potential to cure all the world’s ills. What I’m saying is that they can provide a context in which we can discuss the questions and concerns at the heart of various issues while also taking a step back from them, and that is something we ought to embrace wholeheartedly.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.