The Unfortunate Paucity of Villains

 

You wouldn’t guess it from reading the news, but the sad reality is that there aren’t enough bad guys to explain all that’s wrong in the world.

Oh, we try to find culprits for everything: there’s a natural human urge to seek a malevolent intelligence behind misfortune — to ascribe blame to someone. It is comforting to imagine that bad things happen because bad people cause them to happen. We have some faint hope, after all, of ridding ourselves of bad people — and, until we do, we enjoy the knowledge of our moral superiority.

But much of what goes wrong in the world isn’t the result of bad intentions, but rather of good intentions gone wrong in unpredictable ways. That’s a disconcerting thought to consider, which may be why so many possessed of beneficent motives do their best to avoid doing so.

Examples abound. Those favoring legal enforcement of our borders are racists; their opponents hate America and want to bring about the ruin of our country. Those opposed to Roe v. Wade are medieval misogynistic oppressors; abortion supporters are murderers. Those who opposed same-sex marriage are theocratic tyrants; proponents are nihilists bent on destroying the fabric of society.

Global warming skeptics are Gaia-hating monsters in thrall to Big Oil; those sounding the AGW alarm are human-hating monsters in thrall to Paul Ehrlich. The rich get richer because they’re evil; the poor get poorer because they’re lazy. Minorities suffer because of white people; women suffer because of men; everyone suffers because of white men. (White men are the moral O-negative, the universal donors of oppression; and when you have a villain that versatile, why look any further?)

In the age of social media and an activist press, believing the worst about your opponent is wonderfully freeing: when your opponent is a hateful bigot — or, more importantly, when you believe him to be — you don’t have to engage his arguments. That saves a lot of time and is particularly useful if your own arguments are, well, wanting.

But a lot of our problems are the natural results of our prosperity and good fortune and technological progress. Safer and less menial work, longer lives and greater freedom and equality, deeper safety nets, the emergence of a technology-driven monoculture — all of these things are good and bad, bringing both comfort and problematic transformation.

Most people aren’t politicians, nor outspoken, nor activists. Most people mean well. Most people who voted for Hillary Clinton thought she would make the country a better place; most people who voted for Donald Trump believed the same thing. I know a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans, but I don’t think I know any villains. I don’t personally know anyone who wants to destroy my country, though I know a few who honestly believe that we can walk like Venezuela and talk like Venezuela but not, ultimately, become Venezuela.

The opinion cloud is invested in, obsessed with, demonizing the opposition: for the press, for pundits, for activists, for the professional political set, it’s just good business to assume the worst about anyone who stands between you and your conception of a better world. Because right makes might, and there’s no more compelling argument than “but you’re evil,” for those willing to make it.

We amateurs, who fancy ourselves modest thinkers and reasonably well-informed, fall prey to this easy superiority just like everyone else. But it doesn’t earn us a paycheck and is best kept in check if our hope is to persuade others that our views make sense.

Published in Culture
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There are 7 comments.

  1. Member

    I’m not a fan of drawing equivalencies between Left and Right. I think explicating the differences is more useful. The old saying, “conservatives think progressives are wrong; progressives think conservatives are evil,” comes to mind. 

    But, I can agree there are universals to human nature, and scapegoating is one of them. How do we mitigate this tendency? Well, religion would seem the obvious answer. Speaking as a Christian, one of the first things you come to know is we’re all sinners. What progressive Christians tend not to internalize is that good intentions don’t count. Or, to quote St. Paul, “I do not do the good I want to do.” This is a fundamental difference between Left and Right. One side accepts that any good which may occur is by the grace of God; the other side believes God will get behind their good intentions. 

    It’s also why progressives are willing to hand so much power to government — as long as they’re the ones running it. They believe in their good intentions. I do too, btw. I believe they have good intentions. I also believe they’re foolish to put so much faith in government. 

    • #1
    • January 11, 2019 at 11:32 am
    • 3 likes
  2. Member

    Henry Racette: But much of what goes wrong in the world isn’t the result of bad intentions, but rather of good intentions gone wrong in unpredictable ways.

    And sometimes good intentions gone wrong in entirely predictable ways.

    • #2
    • January 11, 2019 at 1:01 pm
    • 5 likes
  3. Member

    Very thoughtful piece, Hank. But I do have that I’d appreciate your thoughts on:

    I do believe that many people on the Left do mean well. I have a friend who grew up in Brooklyn, surrounded, I think, by liberals, who influenced her thinking. I tried, back when Clinton was running, to get her not to vote for him. She would not listen to me, actually saying, When I get something in my head, it is hard to get it out. That was the gist. It was so long ago that I don’t remember her exact words. 

    So she means well, as do a lot of people who think that way. But do you think that the so-called intellectuals on the left, who write columns and belong to think tanks, really do care? Or maybe they are just interested in power, and telling people how to live. Or could it be that they may think that, by making people conform to what they think is best will ultimately be good for them? That this sameness will somehow make them less jealous of others, which the Left seems to believe is responsible for the committing of crimes? I must admit that I wrestle with these thoughts.

    • #3
    • January 11, 2019 at 1:28 pm
    • 1 like
  4. Coolidge
    TBA

    George Townsend (View Comment):

    Very thoughtful piece, Hank. But I do have that I’d appreciate your thoughts on:

    I do believe that many people on the Left do mean well. I have a friend who grew up in Brooklyn, surrounded, I think, by liberals, who influenced her thinking. I tried, back when Clinton was running, to get her not to vote for him. She would not listen to me, actually saying, When I get something in my head, it is hard to get it out. That was the gist. It was so long ago that I don’t remember her exact words.

    So she means well, as do a lot of people who think that way. But do you think that the so-called intellectuals on the left, who write columns and belong to think tanks, really do care? Or maybe they are just interested in power, and telling people how to live. Or could it be that they may think that, by making people conform to what they think is best will ultimately be good for them? That this sameness will somehow make them less jealous of others, which the Left seems to believe is responsible for the committing of crimes? I must admit that I wrestle with these thoughts.

    I think that no one wants to believe that they are wrong or were wrong; were deluded, stupid, clueless, easily led. 

    And how much harder is it to reevaluate when there is a huge moral component to your beliefs coupled with the fear that if you cease believing in [X], you will be a [Y]ist. 

    • #4
    • January 13, 2019 at 12:29 am
    • 1 like
  5. Member

    TBA (View Comment):

    George Townsend (View Comment):

    Very thoughtful piece, Hank. But I do have that I’d appreciate your thoughts on:

    I do believe that many people on the Left do mean well. I have a friend who grew up in Brooklyn, surrounded, I think, by liberals, who influenced her thinking. I tried, back when Clinton was running, to get her not to vote for him. She would not listen to me, actually saying, When I get something in my head, it is hard to get it out. That was the gist. It was so long ago that I don’t remember her exact words.

    So she means well, as do a lot of people who think that way. But do you think that the so-called intellectuals on the left, who write columns and belong to think tanks, really do care? Or maybe they are just interested in power, and telling people how to live. Or could it be that they may think that, by making people conform to what they think is best will ultimately be good for them? That this sameness will somehow make them less jealous of others, which the Left seems to believe is responsible for the committing of crimes? I must admit that I wrestle with these thoughts.

    I think that no one wants to believe that they are wrong or were wrong; were deluded, stupid, clueless, easily led.

    And how much harder is it to reevaluate when there is a huge moral component to your beliefs coupled with the fear that if you cease believing in [X], you will be a [Y]ist.

    I remember vaguely when I stopped being a liberal (it was so long ago). I struggled with it. I didn’t want to say I was wrong. But I guess it’s a matter of character: If you want to learn the truth, you must be willing to face it.

    • #5
    • January 13, 2019 at 1:27 am
    • 1 like
  6. Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    George Townsend (View Comment):

    TBA (View Comment):

    George Townsend (View Comment):

    Very thoughtful piece, Hank. But I do have that I’d appreciate your thoughts on:

    I do believe that many people on the Left do mean well. I have a friend who grew up in Brooklyn, surrounded, I think, by liberals, who influenced her thinking. I tried, back when Clinton was running, to get her not to vote for him. She would not listen to me, actually saying, When I get something in my head, it is hard to get it out. That was the gist. It was so long ago that I don’t remember her exact words.

    So she means well, as do a lot of people who think that way. But do you think that the so-called intellectuals on the left, who write columns and belong to think tanks, really do care? Or maybe they are just interested in power, and telling people how to live. Or could it be that they may think that, by making people conform to what they think is best will ultimately be good for them? That this sameness will somehow make them less jealous of others, which the Left seems to believe is responsible for the committing of crimes? I must admit that I wrestle with these thoughts.

    I think that no one wants to believe that they are wrong or were wrong; were deluded, stupid, clueless, easily led.

    And how much harder is it to reevaluate when there is a huge moral component to your beliefs coupled with the fear that if you cease believing in [X], you will be a [Y]ist.

    I remember vaguely when I stopped being a liberal (it was so long ago). I struggled with it. I didn’t want to say I was wrong. But I guess it’s a matter of character: If you want to learn the truth, you must be willing to face it.

    Labels are often useful as practical and efficient generalizations. But, the more charged and divided we are, the more important it is to focus on the specific ideas, rather than group membership. I find myself less inclined to say “I’m a conservative” (though I am) and more interested in talking about whatever issue is at hand, without labeling either party.

    We live in shallow times.

    • #6
    • January 14, 2019 at 7:12 am
    • 1 like
  7. Member

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Labels are often useful as practical and efficient generalizations. But, the more charged and divided we are, the more important it is to focus on the specific ideas, rather than group membership. I find myself less inclined to say “I’m a conservative” (though I am) and more interested in talking about whatever issue is at hand, without labeling either party.

    We live in shallow times.

    I feel funny following this line, because it is not what my comment was about. But I will just say that I agree that we live in shallow times, but, if we use them in the right way, labels can be useful I think. So, for instance, in a discussion one could say, “I am a conservative, but I do not follow Donald Trump.” This, I think, would encourage true dialogue. The other person could say, “I am a liberal, because…” Perhaps I am asking to much. I just would like to move away from the shallow to a deeper understanding. Some way must be found to get away from today’s bitterness.

    Now… What I was saying, Hank, in my original comment, was that perhaps there are some who don’t care, but perhaps most people who are on the left honestly believe that by encouraging egalitarianism, they genuinely believe that this sameness in the culture will prevent the jealousy that they believe lay behind all the trouble we are having. I believe they are profoundly mistaken, and was just wondering what you thought.

    • #7
    • January 14, 2019 at 7:47 am
    • 1 like