For about 10-12 years, since superhero movies bring the world quarterly to the cinema, I have noticed a Hollywood character typology that is becoming increasingly unpleasant to me.
The monster with human face and god charisma. The charming villain, but unstable and burdened by a traumatic past. The guy who for two hours and some film cuts and hangs, to find out that when he was little he had been beaten by Bernard from the second floor, who was in turn beaten by his mom. And it seems like we are shedding a tear for him too, aren’t we?
The bad guy is always locked up or even killed by the hero (who justifies his violence through a notion of the good) and it’s hard not to look a little bad. That maybe, no, if things had been different, Voldemort would have become a nice old man, permanently invited to Antena 3 to talk about energy attacks and chakra cleansing. But what to do, it was the environment’s fault!
The problem is that neither psychologically nor sociologically, things are actually the same. That family, educational or personal context, however important it may be, cannot be held responsible for ALL your actions. In other words, that depth with which modern cinema and literature boast may be far from the minds of the great villains. But let’s take it from the beginning.
In recent years, most all social sciences have made efforts to understand the direction that the social context is giving to the individual. This is because by the 1960s, every serial killer was initially labeled as “crazy” and executed (in the US) or locked up in an asylum (in Europe). In fact, the Mindhunter series shows how little Americans knew about judicial psychology, even in the late 1970s.
The first to step in this direction was Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist who advised the great executives in Nuremberg (including Goering) and tried to show that, beyond narcissism and the environment, all these people had a level. less or greater free will. After his books and courses came to public attention, the famous excuse with “I just followed orders” began to seem more and more inexcusable.
But the one who turned the mentality of the time upside down was the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the author of Eichmann’s book on Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), known simply as the “girl with the banality of evil.” It made the first serious parallel between the social context of Nazi Germany and the individual actions of its leaders.
From Arendt we have made a lot of progress. I understood that poverty is indeed a social disease, one with real scars, which prevents many from lifting their heads out of the mud. I also understood that depression is a disease as real as possible and that psychopathy does not necessarily give birth to monsters, only individuals whom it is uncomfortable to empathize with.
Similarly, we have begun to understand autism better and to strive to integrate those whose empathy is not broken, but just different. Moreover, under the empire of a hulite, but sometimes necessary political correctness, I also understood that the aggressiveness of social cataloging can fundamentally impact the quality of your life.
But you know what I haven’t understood so far? Why out of a few thousand German corporals decorated and then disowned by the German state, only one was Hitler. Why of all those rejected at the art school only one has avenged millions of people, though he was already rich. Why of all the wealthy Asian kids, sent by parents to study in Paris, only “Pol Pot” returned with the flame of madness in their eyes?
And that’s actually the big problem with turning all the villains into victims. We assign a burden far too much to the context and remove from the scheme our own will (an essential condition of any dictatorship, otherwise). The fun part with people is that they have individual free will (you do what you want), but they don’t have universal free will (what you do at the individual level doesn’t matter at the global level). To put the sign of equality between the two you need a huge effort, and those willing to do it are rarely on the side of good.
I told you in one of my more heartwarming articles that evil happens, but good requires effort. This is precisely the problem: we all have the possibility of evil, as we have a biological inclination towards altruism. Education, social pressure and moral, religious or legal norms prevent us from practicing the former too often. Likewise, our own goals and values, but also a generalized spirit of conservation, make us use the second one quite often.
Besides removing the will from the stage, the second big problem of the contextual approach is that the pure evil, the evil done by deeply ill people, no matter how they got there, is denied. A two-year-old article from The Atlantic called “When Your Child is a Psychopath” pretty much addresses issues like this, raising serious questions about the costs of treating people who will never be able to integrate into society.
The social context is important, but not for them, but for us. It shows us what we can change as a society so that people like Anders Breivik don’t happen again (and here were some who blamed his mother’s negligence, forgetting that poverty in Norway is a bit different from the poverty that many of us endure. the children of Romania). It makes no sense to remember all the serial killers in the US, because those in South America, like Luis Garavito, far outnumber them. And yes, most of them have tumultuous pasts, but from “he was beaten and assaulted in childhood” to “he has done more than 300 victims, most children” is a huge distance.
Maybe that’s why the Joker movie was born so controversial, or maybe the world just didn’t understand it (see CTP). Todd Phillips’s film shows what a dysfunctional society has on an already ill man. And yes, Phillips often makes you pity Arthur. But what the film does not do is create empathy – however, Gotham was full of “jokers”, but only one set the tone for the massacre.
Very many people have or may have a “disturbing background”. From personal struggles, to unexpected illnesses, to more or less subtle abuse and abandonment, life often has a bizarre way of expressing one’s affection. The thing is that, beyond the few situations without escape, there is a choice. It’s a choice that can help you heal, turn you into a compulsive savior or throw the other side of the barricade. It’s a simple but exhausting game of will.
It’s hard for me to empathize with a mob boss just because he grew up in poverty … like 385 million other children (some of whom became real heroes). I find it hard to forgive the “Nazi who apologized” for falling into the wrong environment. So, dear authors and directors, if possible, give us authentic psychopaths who laugh hysterically, have evil plans and a scandal. Not the other way around, but we got tired of empathizing with all the bastards.
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