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