I tried desperately to find a short comic I had seen recently in which a group of characters ignore one. They did not appear particularly mean, but they omitted one person from the group. That one character, desperate for acceptance, acted out for attention and did incur the wrath of the rest of the group – teasing and condemnation for his disagreeable behaviour. This failed attempt to ingratiate with the group soured the outcast further, to the point that he wanted to inflict the pain he felt on the others and thus he became a villain.
We face a curious paradox in our society where the most undesirable tend to become the biggest villains because of that undesirability. The simplest correction would be to accept others, and yet something exists that makes people not want to provide time and attention to that individual – and we cannot compel people to provide those things to others.
“If you hang out with him and be nice to him, he won’t grow up and become a jerk.”
“But I don’t like him. I have a limited amount of time and energy, and I would rather invest that in other people. I don’t hate him, I simply don’t want to spend time with him. If we were forced to interact, I imagine it would be civil and friendly.”
Now, part of it we can address because it occurs on the foundation of ridiculous social tropes. Who are the heroes in our stories? Generally, they are gorgeous people in visual media – people at whom you want to look. The villains are unusual or grotesque even. We learn things like “the people we do not find aesthetically appealing hold less value”. Even if we like someone we do not find objectively attractive, they often have to work to overcome that with their personality whereas an attractive person receives the benefit of the doubt.
One can do entire papers on racial bias and such – I don’t want to get into the minutia of these biases here.
The point is that socialisation is the goal, the cure in so many of these cases where we have an individual regarded by so much of society as “the villain”, to use a melodramatic term, but their nature is such that much of society wants nothing to do with socialising them.
I struggle with this constantly, especially online.
Here’s someone with an opinion or a take I really do not like – objectively, most people do not like this take. Telling this guy to fornicate himself with a stick helps nothing though. He does not care what I think. In fact, there’s a good chance he specifically cares that I feel enraged (or triggered) by what he’s saying. Or he does truly believe it and I am not going to get through to him in a series of Tweets.
I suppose that is more the point here. To what degree does one become personally responsible for this? Going out and hunting for these people online is excessive, but what happens when the Internet drops the user right in one’s lap? Now I’m “in the room” with the individual, and leaving the room seems irresponsible.
Staying in the room will require tremendous effort though. Let’s assume this person is even open to the idea of hearing out someone else’s opinion and potentially changing theirs, I still have to break through all of the cognitive bias stacked between this person’s opinion and reality (as well as combating my own biases – no one comes into a situation armed with the pure reality of the situation. I have to be prepared to listen and adapt or evolve my opinion as well).
It gets worse – this could all be combating one point. Even if the person concedes that particular point does not hold water, they are unlikely to change their entire position. In fact, they may entrench harder in the remaining points, resolved to “be open-minded enough” to allow for some poor judgement while maintaining the overall position is correct.
It gets worse – this is one person. Even after having all of this out with the individual, even if all of that effort results in successfully bringing an individual back to the table, it changed one mind. All the rest remain unaffected.
“James, isn’t changing the mind of even one person worth it? That’s one more ally in the ideological struggle.”
This is part of the point – is it? Because while we have one person showing the patience and civility to reach across and try to connect with that one other person, twenty more people are jumping in to tell the other person to go fornicate himself with a stick. Side concern: the first person now risks alienation even for entertaining the notion of trying to connect with that other person.
“You’re being a bad ally by letting this person spew their BS.”
I am trying to get at the heart of that person’s BS to dissect and diffuse it. I am not looking to “defeat” that person, I am looking to bring them to my side. My side, and I am imperfect in this, is humanity. That’s why my views have to be free to evolve, too. I need to find my blind spots and biases to evolve them and be a better life. I want that person to grow with me towards that point, not to join me in my current ideology.
We do also have trolls and sea lions. Some people are not meant to have a platform because that is the goal – attain a platform and use it to annoy others. The subject and the context do not matter, whatever evokes the negative emotion on which the troll feeds. I do not need to empower them or contribute to that cycle. So we have exceptions and nuance with this as we do with all things.
From a personal angle, I am a socially anxious introvert who likes being a positive element in others’ lives. I have an intense set of principles that most people cannot satisfy (including myself, and I berate myself constantly for failing to meet them). This effort to connect with others across the ideological spectrum is tedious for some. It’s Herculean for me. Even with the people with whom I agree I often need time alone to re-charge because my mind obsesses over the imperfections.
These situations aren’t imperfect. They are not a hairline fracture in the porcelain veneer of my otherwise pleasant life. This is a great chasm of ideological disagreement oriented around my ever-evolving sense of principle. It would be unethical, irresponsible, even immoral of me to leave that chasm to harm someone else.
While often impractical, this is why I subscribe to a deontological philosophy of ethics. Some things are wrong. Do we have to do those things to avoid even greater wrongs sometimes? Absolutely. I would still regard that as a failure of sorts though – not one worth condemning the whole of one’s character, but a failure. It’s a failure because one failed to intervene sooner when the stakes were not quite so high. It may not even be that person’s failure. Perhaps it’s the failure of the others who decided “This is too hard, I’m not dealing with this” and let that person carry on with their terrible attitude.
That’s often what I think when I see ideological allies going about defending our shared ideology in an undesirable way. Sure, that person is being a jerk. I think their opinion about this reprehensible and we, as a society, should not tolerate that attitude, but you are not helping society right now. You are helping yourself vent your frustration about this. At best, you are providing some other soul a much-needed sense of support by speaking up on their behalf.
You’re also helping to create a monster on the other side who has no avenue forward. Perhaps they have no interest in seeking that attitude, but any glimmer of hope we have to guide that person towards that avenue is being extinguished by your vitriol.
This is true, for example, in the case of the “white knights” who mean well, but resort to the statements of toxic-masculine bravado to assert themselves over the misogynist they are trying to silence. Meeting threats of force with greater threats of force does not disarm the situation – it guarantees violence.
I don’t like misogynists either. I hate the rates of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in our society.
I also detest the idea that people (women in particular) must learn to defend themselves physically or learn to wield a firearm. I detest the verbal disputes that occur on the Internet over these topics. Why? Because it’s already broken down socially. It’s the social breakdown and alienation that leads to these things in the first place, and in the effort to extinguish it we perpetuate it.
Everyone cheers when the hero defeats the villain, but who questions how the villain got to that place? Who laments that we needed the hero? Think of all of the opportunities to intervene that occurred before that climactic battle where others could not be bothered to reach out with humanity to their fellow creature.
This is not meant to be some holier-than-thou pontificating. I get it – we acknowledged the challenges of this at the beginning. Who wants to associate with these characters except perhaps for other similar characters? Look at the incel community online, radicalising one another, taking those who might not have a particular hatred but who suffer the pain of isolation and tapping into it with their violent rhetoric.
If that man went to carry out an attack and some responsible gun owner ended the violence with their own, much of society would cheer the gun owner for saving lives. Where was that society the day before that man first logged on to the radicalising page though?
I am glad the violence was less severe than it might have been, but my heart aches that any violence occurred – including the “good” violence that put an end to it. My heart aches that their poor soul ever got to that point. It’s pity they do not want, but at that point pity is all I have. The time to give them anything other than pity had long since passed.
The answer to our social ails, to ridding the world of the Us vs. Them mentality, is not eradicating Them. It’s reaching out to Them, finding our common humanity, finding our common ground, and becoming all Us. We have to figure out ways not to fight the villains in our society but to engage the outcasts and stop them ever becoming villains in the first place. We do not need to stop condemning the acts of these individuals – we should condemn them as having no place in our society – but we must also mourn their loss of humanity and recognise them as people that society failed. Not you specifically – we do not have to take every one of these events to heart personally as our failures – but we must recognise our shared role in vilifying individuals to the point of villainy.