Understanding the Evil: an Example

>> Monday, June 1, 2009

I love my comment threads. People think and share those thoughts with me. Always makes me warm and fuzzy.

Someone commented that we always know evil when we see it and someone else commented that he wanted the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be evil.

I answered those but I thought they were both comments worth pursuing and I had an example to use as an, well, example. If you've ever read thriller fiction, some of the best I've read is by Thomas Harris, specifically a remarkable gem called The Red Dragon. (Yes, he wrote Silence of the Lambs, but I found if without what made The Red Dragon so good). The protogonist was troubled and brilliant, really a man with depth, troubled with his talents and yet appalled by them (an empathy that allowed him to reconstruct the thinking of serial killers).

However, what really fascinated me was the villain. Which isn't to say the villain wasn't horrible, didn't do heinous and evil things, wasn't a sociapath who felt no guilt about sacrificing others to his own twisted goal. He was and Thomas Harris did not pull back from all the ugliness (and that applied to Hannibal as well). But we were given a front row seat into the making of the monster, of the bits and pieces that pulled together to turn a boy with a minor handicap into a creature than would coldly sacrifice an entire family after family.

What made it seem masterful to me was that, without taking me to a place where I could excuse or condone the Dragon's behavior, I could empathize with him, understand how his feet were put on such a path, even pull for him to overcome his drives without really wanting a "happy" ending. Overcoming his baser drives wouldn't undo what he had done, but it would mean he had pulled away from the evils, the insanity, the cruelty that had shaped him.

Why was that important? Why understand the bad guy?

I'm not entirely sure but I think there are several reasons. Because even good people do little evils and we can't combat that if we don't make an effort to understand it. Because that's true of the big evils, too. Because the story was far more compelling by understanding the Dragon. Because the story was more realistic because, despite being a monster he did, he was also an identifiable human being.

And, looking at the twisted logic he used to try to overcome his drives, we can see how challenging it can be to see the evil for what it is, especially when our perspective isn't the way it should be.


  • david

    I think a high point in literature was when Twain’s Huckleberry Finn had a moral choice…to do the proper moral thing and turn in his slave friend Jim. Or be damned for all eternity by not betraying an escaped criminal slave. Huck chose eternal damnation over turning in his friend. What was evil? Mark Twain had a statement to make about that.

    Evil seems to have charisma. The rebel, the bad boy, defying moral conventions. But evil, the real thing, like Rwandan Genocide, the Taliban, or gangbangers shooting children…is not pleasing to the eye. Evil is not far away…its right around the corner.

  • Stephanie B

    Unfortunately, you're not wrong. Nothing makes a man popular like getting convicted for murder. Women, who's brains as far as I can tell have left the building, are soon writing sympathetically to them if not marrying them. Say what?

    I don't understand this reaction (and I don't think I've used this in a novel for that very reason), but I'd be lying if I didn't say it was the truth. I don't know if it's because they think their "love" will reform them or if they think that danger=excitement.

    I've been up close and personal with insanity, with cruelty. Believe me, it wasn't exciting or romantic.

    And I'm out of there now.

  • The Mother

    I can't speak to the love-danger-excitement phenomenon. I think those women are several screws short of a full system.

    But the twisted logic used to justify evil? Way too true. The Southern slave owners came up with a laundry list of reasons that slaves were better off in their care. And the Nazis were equally convinced that their cause was right and just.

    Our brains are plastic. We can convince ourselves of just about anything.

  • Stephanie B

    Mother, I agree entirely. I think the belief that people must realize they're doing wrong is part of the problem.

    If people couldn't convince themselves that the worst sins aren't reasonable under certain circumstances, our world would never have known war.

  • Bob Johnson

    What I think is amazing is that we all start out the same when we are born, what happens in between to drive a person to evil is what I find interesting, all about choices.

  • Stephanie B

    Bob, I understand some people have gone through horrific experiences or are mentally ill (seriously, they must be for some of the things they do), but I also think society as a whole is too quick to absolve them.

    In the end, we are all responsible for the actions we take and the decisions we make. If you are doing things that are horrible and you can't stop yourself, turn yourself in.

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