When something terrible happens, people rush to attribute it to an ‘evil human being’ or a ‘monster,’ whether they’re talking about a killer, a rapist, someone who told an extremely offensive ‘joke’ at the expense of a child, or someone else who has done something outstandingly gross. Gross doesn’t even seem to be the right word there, but it’s the most general one I can think of; someone has done something bad1 and people want to understand it, and one way of grappling with it is to cast the person who did it as a monster, as someone evil, as a fundamentally bad person.
Except that lets everyone off the hook, and in a way that has very sinister implications. My favourite anonymous biologist put it this way back in February when she was talking about the situation that ensued when The Onion called nine-year old Black actress (and awesome girl) Quvenzhané Wallis a c*#!:
It does NOT take a special kind of soulless asshole to call that girl a cunt – it just takes a white person…Saying it takes someone especially evil just creates a false distance, like what happened to her was just so beyond and perpetrated by particularly evil people, not people like us, when that’s not the case.
She very neatly nailed the problem with labeling people as monsters and moving on. By doing so, and by distancing yourself from their actions, you ignore your own complicity, and your own capacity for doing the same thing. The problem here isn’t that there is an us and a them, people who do bad things and people who do not do bad things, but rather that everyone is capable of doing really awful things, and everyone has a responsibility and a duty to not only not do them, but to work to ensure that the world contains less tolerance for people who do do them.
In the case of this situation, what happened to Wallis wasn’t a one-off event. It was part of a larger systematic pattern of sexualising Black women and girls, of turning nine-year-olds into sex jokes, of creating an overall cultural tolerance for the abuse of Black women and girls. You don’t need to be monstrous to participate in that culture; you just have to be a person, and a person who is capable of racism. Unfortunately, a whole lot of people are capable of racism, and it’s worth noting, as I often have in the past, that even if you think you’re not a racist, you’re still benefiting from the structures of racism, and there’s actually a pretty solid chance you’ve done (and do) racist things. Because we’re all trapped in this framework together.
I talk about this issue a lot in the context of mentally ill people, where I immediately see crimes attributed to ‘crazed monsters’ and cringe for the way people want to distance themselves from the other people, the other human beings, who commit horrible crimes, but this isn’t a phenomenon limited to mass shootings. It happens every day and in a myriad of ways, and it’s a neat, dismissive, tidy thing, a way to completely pull oneself out of the equation. That’s something they, the monsters over there, do, not something you, a good person, would ever do, because you know the rules and you are kind and responsible and respectful.
That distancing tactic, incidentally, is why many people who belong to minority communities are distrustful of members of the majority in general, and most specifically when they hear comments like ‘well, she’s not like the rest of us’ or ‘a real feminist/letterpress printer/biologist/doctor wouldn’t do that.’ Because those comments suggest that the commenter doesn’t understand, on a fundamental level, that the capacity for monstrousness on scales large and small lies within everyone; that yes, in fact real letterpress printers do produce badly kerned broadsides, and there is no getting away from that. You need to face facts and educate your fellow printers about kerning, not pretend that it’s not your problem.
If everyone has the capacity to be evil, does that mean we should all just give up? Of course not. It just means that we need to recognise the possibility of doing evil ourselves and be aware of it, and especially aware to the times when we may be doing bad things, unwittingly or intentionally. Because we have done them, we are doing them, we will do them, because no human being is perfect, just as no human being is a complete monster. And when we stop distancing ourselves from the evil held in humanity, and the evil seen in members of our own social groups, then perhaps we can talk about how to confront, combat, and put a stop to that evil, because that’s when we’ll be facing it head-on with the capability of actually doing something about it.
Without an admission that none of us is, so to speak, without sin, we will be trapped forever in a world where people attempt to prove themselves more virtuous than each other through increasingly tangled and confused machinations. The increasing desperation of attempts to weasel out of social responsibility aren’t just rather tragic and pathetic. They also send a clear message to those who suffer as a consequence of acts of evil that society as a whole will refuse to take responsibility, and that the possibility for change is hopeless in the face of that refusal.
- I feel like I’m in kindergarten here. ↩