Have you noticed a strange thing about modern culture? People everywhere are complaining that the world is becoming a more evil place. Much of this is laid at the door of bad politics or religious fundamentalism or some other “great Satan.” But at the same time, if I were to mention that perhaps part of the problem is a blasé treatment of the problem of evil in popular culture, people would probably shush me. Or maybe just stare at me blankly.
What do I mean, exactly?
Several things, actually. In no particular order:
- The rehabilitation of traditionally evil characters
- The reduction of evil to a misunderstanding or a fluke
- The glorification of the evil as more interesting than the good
The Devil’s Advocate
I think you may know what I mean. The first is evident in such television shows as “Lucifer” or in the “Hellboy” comics and movies (which, by the way, are a guilty pleasure of mine, so don’t just dismiss my comments off-hand). There’s long been an impulse by writers and screenwriters to be (sometimes literally) devil’s advocates. On the one hand, such an impulse is understandable. It is part of human nature to want to see the good in others, especially in the worst people. Because then there’s a chance for all of us, especially if we go spectacularly bad.
This phenomenon is especially interesting when it shows up as a core belief of such characters as Maxine Watters’ atheist social-justice-warrior-advocate (gosh, that’s a mouthful) in the British TV show “Silk.” She is faced with the worst of human nature constantly. What gets her through is her belief in the inherent goodness of people. It’s a strangely inconsistent position, because she literally has no reason to believe that. But she’s an atheist, so she has to believe in something. Inherent human goodness is the next best thing.
I think that’s the main reason for this desire to rehabilitate the devil. If you can’t believe in God, then you must believe in the goodness of people. Even if they keep giving you reasons not to.
Evil is really just a big misunderstanding
This is a more insidious one, I think, because it’s at least partly true. And it’s so appealing to the modern mind. If we could just explain to the Jihadis that their world view is wrong, they would simply abandon their ideology in favor of hot tubs and Marvel movies, right? Again, it’s appealing to think in this way. Because then you don’t need to worry about the existence of an actual devil (not the comic book version).
Although I liked Disney’s “Moana,” its treatment of the bad guy is symptomatic of this issue. (spoiler alert) The bad guy is not really a bad guy at all, but a put-upon and misunderstood force for good. The reason it became evil is someone else’s misdeed, and all it takes to fix is a bit of tolerance (and lazy writing, but that’s neither here nor there).
I hope you see where I’m going with this. People really like to complain about the evil in the world. But it’s convenient to see this evil as something outside of ourselves that can be fixed with a magic trick. That’s why so many people on Facebook get mad when Christians send “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of school shootings. Thoughts and prayers are not a magic solution, they opine. Gun control is!
Evil is more fun
I don’t want to run the risk of being simplistic here. Bad girls have more fun. Good girls actually prefer the bad boys. Loki is much more fun than Thor (except in “Infinity War”. Thor was hilarious there). Heath Ledger’s Joker is much more popular than Christian Bale’s Batman.
In literature, especially fantasy literature, this comes out in the massive popularity of gritty antiheroes (something I talk about in my writers’ manifesto). Just for example, on a very popular facebook group for fantasy fans, here’s one reader’s impression of a recent book titled Darkblade Assasin:
This is REALLY getting good!! It’s been keeping me awake–not just reading it well into the night, but thinking about it after I grudgingly head to bed!! A dark blade whispering into your ear, imprisonment, torture, assassins . . . ? My kind of adventure!!
Now, I haven’t read the book, and maybe there’s a wonderful redemption arc in there. (There certainly is a similar vibe in something like The Book of the New Sun, but that book is ALL about redemption of the dark.) But this sort of blasé attitude toward things that are objectively horrible is a bit alarming. Especially since it applies also to video game violence, depictions of sexual violence on the screen and in books, and even in real-life reactions to certain kinds of crime.
We know (with or without scientific confirmation) that what we read and watch stays with us on a very intrinsic level. Sometimes it can even change our behavior or our world view. So if we enjoy casual depictions of evil in our entertainment, it might mean that we’re more capable of performing such acts ourselves. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
I’m talking about weighty matters on a blog. Not always a good idea. But I’d just like to suggest that this weird inconsistency is more pervasive than we realize. And the best way out of it is to recognize that evil exists, it’s not good for you, you should battle it and not sugar coat it. Nor should you pretend it doesn’t exist.
The problem of evil used to be a major theme of literature. How to deal with the evil you see around you. How to battle the ever-possible evil inside you. All the greatest novels treat it in some way. When people stop believing in that evil and stop battling it inside themselves, is it surprising if it increases everywhere around them?
When evil seems unbeatable…
This is why my own novels can be a bit dark. Or rather, they are honest about the human condition and the possibility of anyone, not matter how good, doing terrible things in certain circumstances. It’s important for literature to reflect the world around us, which is in the throes of something very dark and confusing.
But this is also why my novels are ultimately hopeful. Not about establishing utopias on earth. That’s pointless. Rather, I’m hopeful about the possibility of anyone defeating the evil in their own hearts. Even in the most depressing circumstances, when everything, even fate, seems to be against you.
This is a central theme of a new book that I just finished this past week, titled The Rusted Blade. It’s a prequel novella to my Raven Son series, and it encapsulates in short form many of the themes that I wrestle with in my longer books. This is also why I’m not attempting definitive answers to the questions I raised above. I think suggesting possibilities through the medium of fiction is much more interesting and effective.
Therefore, I’m offeringThe Rusted Bladefor free to anyone who signs up to my Readers’ Group. If what I wrote here resonates with you, just click the link below, which will take you to a sign-up page from where you can get your free copy.