It used to be that you went to the movies so you could see Good Guys cream the Bad Guys. Robin Hood vs. the Sheriff of Nottingham. Superman vs. Lex Luthor. US vs. USSR.
But these days we like our villains to have a reason for their bad behavior. In entertainment and in real life, we want to know what makes people tick—what makes a mother drown her children, or high schoolers open fire on their peers or a teenager kill a nine-year-old. It’s almost as if we need to believe that every criminal is first a victim, and that being victimized caused them, in turn, to unleash their own atrocities. As if somehow, we want sympathize with our villains as well as with our heroes. We’ve done it with Batman and Mr. Freeze. We’ve done it with Gollum. We’ve even done it with Judas. And without that element, it’s as if a part of the story is missing.
There are those who would rather we return to the Erroll Flynn era—to paint things in black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. There are also those who, deliberately or unconsciously, fill in the chasm between what is and is not morally acceptable, explaining away the most unspeakable atrocities in the name of victimization or in pursuit of another value.
The desire to understand why a person does evil things resonates with me, deep in the place where I believe that all people are essentially good. But I also believe that sooner or later, we have to take responsibility for our own decisions. The danger in justifying our villains (by which I mean granting them any degree of lenience, even in our minds, based on their history) is that we start to think, If even a murderer’s sins can be excused, or at least explained, by the disadvantages s/he endured, then surely my own little sins won’t be held against me.
But every choice we make has consequences. When I grind a person under my heel in judgment, and s/he is wounded. When I watch shows making light of casual sex, or yet another murder drama.* When I decide I don’t feel like walking the quarter mile from one store to the other, and choose to drive instead.
Those consequences are small, at least on the surface. Damaged relationships. Supporting trashy TV. Wasted resources. Sometimes they seem so piddly that it’s ridiculous even to mention them.
But the problem grows. Wasteful spending has consequences. Sex has consequences. Overeating has consequences. And it seems we’re always looking for something to rescue us from the natural consequences of our choices. Debt forgiveness. Contraception and the morning after pill (which is nothing more than massive doses of contraceptives). Fat blockers. At what point does my puny vice intersect with the larger world, and become something much bigger?
None of us will ever escape the reality of human weakness. But we can always aspire to something greater. Today, I resolve to consider my choices, and to do my utmost to ensure that they result in good consequences.
* Note: One of my biggest pet peeves right now is the glut of murder on TV. If you take American TV as a reflection of modern life, you’d think that we were all in grave danger of murder—serial murder, no less—at every moment. But according to Nationmaster.com, which references UN stats, the murder rate in the U.S. is 0.042802 per 1,000 people. Draw your own conclusions.