The Complexity of Evil

(I want to talk about culture for a minute. Fair warning: this is a nuanced conversation we’re about to have, and if I find you quoting me out of context, I will find you and I will write you an angry letter.)

Alan Rickman, one of the most talented actors alive today, often plays villains: Professor Snape, Hans Gruber, Tybalt, etc. What I admire about his portrayals is the gravitas with which he approaches these characters. He understands that no one is one-dimensional or “just evil.” Instead, people are complex creatures with histories and beliefs and motivations that sometimes make them do evil things. He once said:

As far as I’m concerned, I’m not playing ‘the villain.’ I’m just playing somebody who wants certain things in life, has made certain choices, and goes after them.

People are complex, deep creatures whose decisions and beliefs are shaped by a lifetime of experiences. Like a shoreline that’s been sculpted by years of flowing water, people are infinitely complex: the closer you look, the more you see.

Alan Rickman understands this complexity. His sense of nuance is admirable in our society – not just because it makes Alan Rickman a terrific actor, but because it is an regrettably rare understanding.

History textbooks, television, movies, and the news all avoid this nuance. Why?

Well, let’s explore what I mean by nuance first and then we can deconstruct why this might be the case.

Almost universally, media depict people who are relatable to their audiences in a positive light. Conversely, media depict everyone else in – at best – a neutral light. The events in Ferguson and the rest of America over the past six months demonstrate this point well: American news consistently uses different language for people of different skin colours.

The evidence is already overwhelming, but the recent historical inaccuracies of American Sniper really drive the point home. Americans are good guys and Iraqis are bad guys. Every time.

So what’s going on here? Let’s break it down:

  1. The media’s goal is to make money.
  2. They make more money if they produce content that their audience enjoys.
  3. People are cognitive misers. The human brain tries not to think unless it has to, so it uses social schemas to reason about others based on things groups of people have in common, like skin colour.

Adding complexity and nuance to stories is bad for business; it will force people to think, and brains don’t wanna think. That’s why James Cameron is so good at making money.

Let’s look at what is probably the most famous characterization of a historical figure. With apologies to Mike Godwin, I’d like you to think about Adolf Hitler. What do you know about him? What did he do? Why did he do it?

The common narrative is that Hitler was an evil person, and of course I agree. Hitler was undoubtedly evil and did evil things, but that doesn’t mean he was not complex. Like everyone that’s ever lived (or will live), his motivations are shaped by a lifetime of experiences. It is comforting to us to think that Hitler was just angry at the world because he wasn’t accepted into an art school. It’s comforting because it’s unreasonable – and we know it would never happen to us. (Or people like us – remember, social schemas.)

Reality is much more complex. Like everyone, Hitler was fundamentally motivated by his experiences. He grew up in a society where people like him had, until recently, held a position of power and privilege in European society. Despite this privilege, he found himself homeless on the streets of Vienna after his mother died. At that time, Vienna was run by a populist government – one that exploited citizens’ fears of being pushed out by Eastern Jewish immigrants – in order to increase their own political power.

This is much more fascinating because, unlike the art academy rejection situation, we can imagine this happening again.

And that terrifies me.

It should terrify you, too.

But that fear – that terror – isn’t the most efficient way for the media to make money. It’s too complex. It’s far easier to portray bad guys as only evil and good guys as only virtuous. In a race to the bottom, our cultural narratives have been dumbed-down so that they are easier to consume. Fox, MGM, Sony, Paramount, CNN, MSNBC, The Daily Show – all of them have pre-chewed your entertainment for you so that it’s easier for your brain to swallow.

Yum.

But why? Why are things this way? Well, let’s deconstruct the situation. When thinking about situations like this, I find it helpful to ask the three following questions.

# Who benefits from the way things are?

As stated, media companies and the moguls who run them do. But who else? Well, anyone they employ, I suppose. Actually, anyone that they give money to at all – in any capacity.

So, politicians.

That’s nice for them because if people believe that complex situations are simple, there is less room for ambiguity surrounding political decisions. The US had to invade Iraq. John A. MacDonald had to hang Louis Riel. Austria had to protect its borders.

Which is kind of a feedback loop, isn’t it? Media makes things easier for politicians, who in-turn make it easier for the media to make more money.

# Who would suffer from changing things?

Usually, the answer to this question has a lot of overlap with the answer to the previous question. And indeed, both the media and politicians would undoubtedly suffer from a change to the current workings of government and media.

It’s helpful to ask this question, however, because there are often people (or groups of people) who don’t directly benefit from the way things are, but wouldn’t want to see things changed, either.

Lots of groups enjoy privileges under the current system that afford them a lot of leeway. White people, for example, are less likely to get pulled over by police officers. If officers were trained to recognize – and compensate for – their racial biases, people would no longer enjoy these privileges.

In this context, a lot of people would suffer. I would suffer. I don’t really want to get into all the intersectionalities, but there would be a bit of damage to many different privileged groups (and a lot of those groups overlap).

# Who would benefit from changing things?

Well, certainly many underprivileged groups in our society would. Anyone who doesn’t resemble the cis white male hero of the heteronormative patriarchy would gain a lot.

But I would also argue that all of society has a lot to gain from this change – even those who would loose positions of privilege. Citizens should be able to see themselves not just as “good guys”, but as complex people who “want certain things in life, have made certain choices, and go after them.” If we were this self-aware, we wouldn’t expect to be greeted as liberators (and be shocked when it turns out that we are someone else’s bad guy).


It’s tragic that our education system and media have created a world where people see in – and reason in – absolutes. If kids were taught to relate to villains, or to relate to heroes that don’t look like them, they would be much more able to competently navigate the true complexity of adult life.

It doesn’t even necessarily have to be with real-life people or situations – kids can relate to all kinds of characters if we let them.

# So what do we do?

I honestly don’t know – fixing society is an implementation detail, after all. We’ve identified the problem and now we need to figure out a course of action.

I do know that it won’t be easy and it won’t be simple. The people who benefit from the way things are have a lot of power. All over the world, governments use their legislative and military control to maintain power over their own people, whether it’s the National Guard in Ferguson or the Great Firewall of China.

However, I think that we are in a better position today to make this change than we ever have been. For now, Western societies enjoy unfiltered access to information and may freely retrieve and share information. We need to use that to our advantage.

Learn, explore, and teach.


Posted on January 31, 2015