Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Stop Excusing Bad Behavior!

I read an article today from the Huffinton Post. It was meant, I'm sure, to be a fun little fan list meant to be a diversion from the rest of the heavy, crazy headlines, like Crimean invasion, Mayors abstaining from St Patrick's Day parades, a missing airliner, and downed helicopters. The article is titled The 10 Most Misunderstood Villains in Literature, which sounds pretty interesting to an English major. However, after the first number in the list, I realized that it was less about character study, and more about apologizing for villainy.

Let me sum up the article:

The ten villains chosen as the most misunderstood were (in order)
  1. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale's character in American Psycho)
  2. Regan and 
  3. Goneril (King Lear's daughters)
  4. Freddy Montgomery (Book of Evidence)
  5. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins's character in Silence of the Lambs)
  6. Grenouille (Perfume)
  7. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates's character in Misery)
  8. Kurtz (Heart of Darkness)
  9. Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)
  10. Dr. Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
So, right off the bat, the good looking, successful Wall Street businessman monster is pegged as the number one misunderstood villain. I think we need to set down some ground rules for what a villain is exactly. The word villain describes a character who is the opposite of the character of the hero. If the story has no hero, is the monster character technically a villain to start with?  

Regardless of the answer to that rhetorical question, the title of the article is about misunderstood bad guys. Whether the character is a villain foil, or the subject monster doesn't matter, so much as they are, in fact, awful people who commit atrocities, but maybe not, because they are misunderstood. I do not believe you can misunderstand Patrick Bateman, or anyone else on the list. The man hides behind a facade of successful boredom, and lures unsuspecting people into his apartment where he murders them in crazy methodical ways, sometimes with chainsaws.  
if he tramples you, its not his fault, he's the victim
To quote the article, and also most other criminal apologists, "But his amorality mirrors in miniature the heartlessly vampiric, ethically vacuous culture of Wall Street". In conclusion, the article states that we ought to blame the institution, not the monster it created.  

I call bullshit. True, Wall Street culture creates cold, calculating businessmen who prey on common people and each other to bolster their own portfolios. Gordon Gekko famously stated greed is good, and would sell out his own daughter. However, Gekko doesn't murder strangers on a whim to alleviate sexual frustration. If Bateman is the only example of a Wall Street broker becoming a psychopathic killer, then no one is responsible for his actions but Batmen.  

My point to all this is pretty simple. We can basically go down the list and arrive at the same conclusions. The theme here is making excuses for bad behavior. Stop that. There has been a trend in the justice system for a while now that finds someone or something else responsible for creating criminals, and finding these scapegoats to be legally liable for terrible behavior.

Dr Menninger, author of Whatever Became of Sin? in 1973, wrote, "Wrong things are being done, we know [...]  but is no one responsible, no one answerable for these acts"?

We are quick to acknowledge anxiety, depression, bullying, and neglect, as well as mental illness (the DSM V is 947 pages of diagnoses). And it is easy to give people a pass for a faux pas or bad manners after being aware of these things. But a social faux pas is very different from a psychotic murder rampage, or a shrewd calculated plan to keep your favorite author hostage. There can be no excuse for murder, kidnapping, and war crimes.  

This idea of misplacing blame is highlighted in works by journalist Charles J Sykes, and Stanton Peele (Diseasing America). Bert Thompson writes in an article for the Apologetic Press that "practically every human action can be accounted for by the plea "I'm not guilty, I'm just sick"".

I remember watching, when I was a kid, the trial of the infamous Menendez brothers. The two brothers were accused of murdering their parents with a shotgun in their home. The reason this trial was memorable, was because it was nationally televised, and because the defense relied solely on portraying the brothers as victims without any other recourse but violence to free themselves from oppression. Later in the trial, it was decided that the motive was more likely a desire to gain a large inheritance, instead of stopping abuse.

As a kid, however, I was amazed that this particular defense was given any credibility. It shouldn't matter, I reasoned, what happened before the murders, the trial is about whether or not there was a murder, and what the consequence for that murder would be. Clearly, someone shot somebody with a shotgun. You have victims (dead people), suspects, murder weapon... let's put this stuff together and come up with a conclusion, and then fit the crime with a reasonable consequence (usually murder is a life sentence). Apparently justice isn't so simple.

So, in conclusion, this list of misunderstood villains isn't a very good list, and falls prey to this idea that everyone is a victim of something, and that makes it okay to act in awful, illegal, and monstrous ways. This idea that these villains aren't really villains, just misunderstood sick people, is ridiculous. Yes, they are monsters, and yes they are correctly understood as monsters, and yes they are completely responsible for their actions, every one. Just the fact that everyone who is treated poorly, or is in compromising situations doesn't end up psychopaths is enough, one would think, to negate the victim card.

It is also interesting to note that the title of the article is called 10 Most Misunderstood Villains in Literature, and after reading a title like that, I was so sure I would see characters like Iago (from Othello), Moriarty (Sherlocke Holmes), Mr. Hyde (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Damian from the Omen, Joffrey (Song of Ice and Fire), The actual Monster from Frankenstein, or even the Grinch (although I suppose that would be too easy). Also, there are only really 9 villains, you can't combine two from the same work, talk about them together, and number them separately. That's cheating.  

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