A Less Simplistic View of Evil: The Jasmine Storyline in “Angel,” And Why People Do Awful Awful Things

Content note: This post contains significant Buffy the Vampire Slayer content. However, I think it’ll be of interest to non-Buffy fans. If I’m wrong, and you read it anyway… well, that’s five minutes of your life that you’re never getting back. Also, it contains spoilers about a TV series that ended over ten years ago. Sorry.

Why do evildoers do evil?

For obvious reasons — the Charlie Hebdo shooting, the NAACP bombing, Ferguson, and just all the awful shit that’s been happening in recent days/ weeks/ months/ years — I’ve been thinking a lot about evil. I’ve also been re-watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” lately, along with its spinoff show, “Angel.” (I promise this isn’t a non-sequitur. Stay with me.)

jasmine 1
Right now, I’m in the Jasmine storyline in “Angel” — the storyline about the magical being with god-like powers who wants to turn the Earth into a blissful paradise with no conflict, hatred, war, or poverty, and whose very presence instantly makes people (a) blissfully happy, (b) loving and accepting of each other, and (c) intensely devoted, worshipful, and obedient of Jasmine’s own god-like self. I’ve written before about how this storyline is a metaphor for religion and theocracy. But I was thinking again about why I like this story arc so much, and I realized:

It’s a realistic and insightful exploration of why evildoers do evil.

I’m a huge fan of “Buffy” and “Angel,” but it does have its flaws. And one of those flaws is that the Big Villains in the story tend to be somewhat cartoonish about their villainy. They know they’re evil, they self-identify as evil, they’re comfortable being evil and in fact actively enjoy it. The Master, Angelus, Mayor Wilkins, Adam, Glory, the Trio, the First Evil, Wolfram & Hart — they’re all like the Wicked Witch of the West, cackling over their beautiful wickedness. It’s true that the Big Bads are often interesting, entertaining, even complex in many ways (Mayor Wilkins’ affection for Faith is a good example). But their evilness itself is kind of simplistic, and it’s kind of tautological. They’re evil because… well, because they just are. And they revel in it. Anya summed it up really well in the “Bring on the Night” episode: “Please, how many times have I heard that line in my demon days? ‘I’m so rotten, they don’t even have a word for it. I’m bad. Baddy bad bad bad. Does it make you horny?'”

In fact, good and evil in the Buffyverse are often presented almost as competing sports teams. You’re on Team Good, or you’re on Team Evil. Team Good is essentially human beings and any demons or vampires allied with humans, while Team Evil is essentially demons, vampires, and any humans allied with them. Being “good” means you want to save humans and kill demons/vampires, while being “evil” means the other way around. In fact, simply being a demon or a vampire means you’re a legitimate target for death, even if you’re just minding your own business and aren’t killing anyone, and even if there are humans around doing way more damage than you. (A rant that I may explore further at another time.) Sure, there’s moral complexity and nuance in the show, and of course characters switch sides (sometimes more than once). But much of the time, good and evil get presented as just that — sides, like the Hatfields and the McCoys, or the Cal/Stanford rivalry. And that’s especially true when it comes to the Big Bads. They’re supposedly the personification (or demonification) of what it means to be evil, but there’s very little real exploration of what their “evil” even means.

Jasmine, on the other hand…

Jasmine, as far as we can tell, is sincerely motivated by a desire to do good. She sincerely wants a better world — not just for herself, but for all of humanity. It’s not that simple, of course — she definitely has a desire for power and worship and self-aggrandizement. (When she’s asked, “What can we do to show our love for you?” she answers, “You don’t have to do anything except love one another. Although — a temple would be nice. Something massive and awe-inspiring, yet warm and nurturing.”) But she feels real empathy for people in pain, and has a real desire to alleviate that pain. Sure, she kills people and eats them to replenish her godlike powers — but instead of gleefully reveling in the baddy bad badness of this atrocity, she rationalizes it as a cost-benefit analysis, a necessary price to save the lives of millions. In her mind, it’s the Trolley Problem in action. And when she’s defeated, she is sincerely distressed, not just by the fact that she’s been taken down and her power is gone, but by the fact that the blissful paradise she wanted to create for humanity has been lost.

Jasmine 2
The problem with Jasmine isn’t that she’s a cackling super-villain crowing over her beautiful wickedness. The problem is that her vision of a better world is profoundly screwed-up. She wants peace, harmony, and love — and she’s willing to sacrifice human autonomy to get it. She wants peace, harmony, and love — and she’s willing to murder people who get in her way. She wants a better world — and she sees no problem with unilaterally imposing her own vision of what a better world would mean. She wants to solve the world’s problems, not by actually solving them, but by obliterating people’s awareness of them. (Her intended Paradise reminds me a bit of William Lane Craig’s notion of Heaven, in which people are so blissed-out by Jesus’s presence they’re not even aware of their loved ones being tortured in the eternal fires of Hell.) She wants a better world — and she’s willing to literally eat people to make that happen. She wants Paradise, but it’s a road to Hell, paved with dead bodies and good intentions.

And this view of evil isn’t just more interesting than Team Evil cackling over their evilness. It’s a whole lot more realistic.

mistakes were made but not by me book cover
In my experience, and as I understand human psychology, very few people think of themselves as evil. There’s a reason our brains start rationalizing our behavior as soon we behave it. There’s a reason that, paradoxically, we’re more likely to rationalize our behavior when we’ve done it a lot, when we’ve committed more to it, when we’ve gone out on a limb for it, or when we’ve done something truly vile. We don’t enjoy thinking of ourselves as bad people — we can barely stand it. Seeing ourselves as bad is so painful, we will deny reality, cut off people we care about, even continue doing the same awful things and dig ourselves deeper into that trench, rather than admit we screwed up.

And this isn’t just true of ordinary people who sometimes screw up, basically decent people who swipe office supplies or don’t return emails or buy consumer goods made by exploited labor. It’s true of humanity’s worst villains. When you think of classic evildoers like Jim Jones or Osama bin Laden or Hitler, what you see is people trying to do the right thing. They just have a profoundly screwed-up notion, to say the least, of what that means. They’re trying to do the right thing by, say, eliminating the vile scourge of the Jews. And they want to single-handedly impose their own vision of goodness onto the human race, without the consent of the people they’re trying to happify, and by using other people as means to an end. And by, you know, murdering them by the hundreds or thousands or millions.

Classic evildoers aren’t like Angelus, boasting of their wickedness and luxuriating in it. They’re like Jasmine. They want to do good, but their ideas of what that means and how to make it happen are simplistic, coercive, dehumanizing, brutal, and murderous.

It can be comforting to externalize evil. It can be comforting to see it as Team Evil, a team that you’re clearly not on. But it’s a false comfort, and it’s a dangerous one. If we learned anything from the Milgram Experiment or the Stanford Prison Experiment, it’s that evil isn’t That Thing Out There. It’s a way of being. It’s a capacity that all of us have. We all have the capacity to be bigoted; to be corrupted by power; to obey orders or go along with the crowd even when we know it’s wrong; to reflexively defend ourselves and people on Our Side even when we’ve done something awful. And we all have the capacity to hate and dehumanize people who we see as Not Like Us. We all have the capacity to see others as Team Evil, and to twist reality to fit that narrative, and to rationalize our most vile behavior as long as it’s an attempt to defeat that evil.

So if we want to be superheroes and fight evil, we need to be willing to see evil, not as something that people are, but as something that people do. We need to be willing to see evil as something that we might do. We need to be willing to ask, not “Am I one of the good guys?”, but, “Am I doing the right thing?” And we need to be willing to ask it again, and again, and again.

It can be comforting to externalize evil. But that’s a really good way to perpetuate it.

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Coming Out Atheist
Bending
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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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A Less Simplistic View of Evil: The Jasmine Storyline in “Angel,” And Why People Do Awful Awful Things
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13 thoughts on “A Less Simplistic View of Evil: The Jasmine Storyline in “Angel,” And Why People Do Awful Awful Things

  1. 1

    Thanks for the post! This reminds me a lot of the rhetoric that’s flying around about “conservatives” and “liberals”. A lot of the memes that pop up on my Facebook feed treat one “side” or the other like they’re a monolithic bloc that’s uniformly stupid, evil, or intentionally trying to drag humanity into a new dark age because reasons. This is a good reminder that the people we’re debating are human beings, and are trying to do the right thing, no matter how wrong we think they are. Thanks again!

  2. 2

    Well said. One thing, though: I’ve gotten the impression over recent years that the Stanford experiment is not the best example to cite for these things, because the study itself was deeply flawed and biased in a number of ways (self-selected participants, direct participation of Zimbardo in the experimental environment itself being the most significant). I agree with your point, and I think you state it very well, but I think citing that experiment as supporting evidence gives credence to the original study that it doesn’t deserve.

    Something I’ve been wondering about, recently: the “these are people trying to do the right thing but doing it badly” model definitely makes more sense to me than “evil people just evil”, but I think there’s a slightly different model that also has potential. I wish I could remember the original post, but someone wrote something when GamerGate was going on about how it looked a lot like a few very dangerous, fucked-up, smart, manipulative people manipulating a mob of people into doing harm. That is to say, the mob may believe it is doing right, but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean the leaders do. The leaders just have to convince the mob that it’s doing right.

    To take it in a different context: do I think most people who say they think abortion is murder think that? Probably. Do I think the people in power who drummed up the pro-life movement as a way to solidify a political base behind an issue that they found they could steer them with–doI think *those* people believe that abortion is murder? Not necessarily.

    Which is not to say that I think the leaders of such movements are “just evil”, but that in general their motivations and rationalizations may be markedly different and potentially much less “help the world” and more cynical versus those they manipulate into achieving their goals.

    I’m not sure what I think, but I find both of those models for how mass evil is perpetrated compelling in different ways.

  3. 3

    From one HUGE Buffy and Angel fan to another, thank you for this fantastic post! You are absolutely right that real evil is not “demon” evil. It is the work of profoundly misguided and / or mentally unstable people with visions about how to improve humanity, no matter how many actual humans must be sacrificed in the process.

  4. 5

    “Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.” -George R. R. Martin

    I had a lot of trouble with the villains in Buffy because they were almost all the Wicked Witch of the West, glorying in their villainy. Thanks for showing that Jasmine was a villain who didn’t see herself as one.

  5. 6

    Evil is almost always portrayed in a ridiculously simple way, which is why I get so easily bored with TV and a lot movies. The best story I ever read, where there was no real “evil” but simply to forces which were working toward different ends, was “The Gap Cycle”, by Stephen R. Donaldson. The first book is a little hard to get through, with all of the gratuitous violence against one particular woman, but after that, it got a lot better and a lot more complicated, just as life does!

  6. 7

    Thank you. I saw the link on your FB feed yesterday, but only just now found time to read this, and I’m so glad you wrote it. I’m not a Buffyite, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about Comic Book Villains©, and the lack of same in the real world. What you’re calling Team Evil — or as a certain recent former president styled it, the evildoers — doesn’t, as you point out, exist in the real world, but way too many people believe it does, and that’s been the genesis of no end of serious fuckuppery.

  7. 8

    Another admittedly baddie group that gets turned into cartoon bad guys is the German population during the Hitler era.
    They were by no means simply innocent victims, but for those of us who grew up in the country after the war, it was very confusing to honor and respect our elders (teachers, political leaders, school bus drivers, business people, etc) and realize that those were the very same people who voted for Hitler, and allowed Germany to become what it did.
    It’s a dilemma most Germans have to face at some point, that those good and mostly decent people were the perpetrators of evil. And they are no more evil than any other group of adults, with flaws, some greed, some opportunistic tendencies, a desire to provide a better world for their children, a willingness to sacrifice some principles for that better world…
    And it’s endlessly frustrating to see evil consistently depicted as something “other”, something one can simply identify because of their looks (Skin color? Religious headgear? Accent?), instead of a more realistic portrayal of “good intentions gone horribly awry”. And it’s this oversimplification that enables theists to look at queers as evil personified, or pro-lifers to look at abortion providers as the devil incarnate, or wealthy people to look at poor people as obvious moochers.
    And it’s that oversimplification of evil that made me give upon Buffy after the first 5 episodes or so, as much as I wanted to like the show…

  8. 9

    I’m reminded of a bit of a kerfuffle in the German media when The Downfall came out. People were seriously asking whether it was OK to portrait Hitler as a human being as opposed to a monster.
    I can’t think of a more important lesson to learn from history than “Those horrible things back then? They were done by people like us.”

  9. 10

    Excellent article thanks Greta Christina.

    I think there’s also a case that Faith, the Watchers and even Willow in that one season as the BIg Bads count as other examples of this complex good intentioned people doing evil things from the Buffyverse. Maybe?

  10. 11

    I do wonder if we take this analysis of evil too far. Sure, it applies to most zealots and true believers and such, but it doesn’t really fit well with ‘selfish’ evil, where the perpetrator simply decides to not care how their actions affect others. I don’t think a mugger, rapist or corrupt businessman necessarily believes themselves to be ‘evil’, but I also don’t think most of them care about being good, either–at best, they may hope to be seen as being good by others, because that helps them commit their misdeeds.

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    jeffreyfalick says

    January 12, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    From one HUGE Buffy and Angel fan to another, thank you for this fantastic post! You are absolutely right that real evil is not “demon” evil. It is the work of profoundly misguided and / or mentally unstable people with visions about how to improve humanity, no matter how many actual humans must be sacrificed in the process.

    No. just no. Sure, there are mentally unstable people who do ‘evil’ things. But some of the most demonstrably good folks I’ve had the honor and pleasure of meeting were also mentally unstable. Please don’t conflate mental disability with doing bad things; it’s another form of the Other-ing that Greta’s column is against.

  11. 12

    This reminds me of Tolkien’s dilemma regarding the nature of evil in his works. He struggled for many years to reconcile the ‘always evil’ nature of orcs and the like against the fact that they were living, feeling, thinking creatures, but never quite reached a satisfactory balance.

  12. 13

    Tolkien wrote the orcs almost as though he thought ‘animalistic’ was the same thing as ‘base’ was the same thing as ‘evil’. Since he was buddies with CS Lewis, at some point he probably got an intellectual kick in the pants about it. Lewis thought that the possession of human rationality by an animal was good for its own sake. Tolkien seems to have been trying to demonstrate that possession of animal characteristics and drives by a human (as personified by the orcs) was inherently evil, but he couldn’t make it stick.

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