On Evil Television Heroes

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Kevin Spacey as the despicable VP in House of Cards, the Chemistry teacher-gone-bad in Breaking Bad, Lord Voldemort. The Devil in Dr. Faustus. Dr. Faustus himself, who makes a deal with the devil to get what he lusts after. He surely is the prototype for all the villains that followed. The list of truly evil characters is very long and of very long standing. So I was somewhat surprised to read Murray Dobbin’s lament over what these psychopathic characters signify and how we ought to return to ‘kindness’ in short order. It’s extremely well written and argued, but as a writer of fiction, I know this argument is morally sound—nobody could argue otherwise— but also artistically flawed. http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2014/08/25/Remember-Kindness/?utm_source=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=250814

It seems to me that Dobbin equates reading or watching these horrible people in action with admiring them in ‘real life’. But there’s the rub: very few of us actually admire them; no, on the contrary, watching what they do reminds us of our humanity in reverse psychology, a well known trope. Watching these frightening psychopaths doesn’t actually mean we want to be like them, or admire them. No, we are reminded rather strongly of how we are NOT like them, how we are different, and better. How we might be tempted, as they are, but that we would not commit the crimes they commit. Watching isn’t the same as doing or even condoning. So, in a strange twist, these stories of the anti hero accomplish what straightforward heroes almost never do: they make us think about who we are, what we could, should, and shouldn’t do, and how easy it is to fall prey to such temptations.

That is the role of literature, and to try and make it ‘nice’ and ‘morally sound’ has always resulted in mediocrity. And to School Boards and PTA’s banning books because they dared to present the dark underbelly of who we are. From there it’s a very short step to creating blacklists, as the Catholic Church and Mr. McCarthy have demonstrated with such success.

I know Mr. Dobbin doesn’t want that. It’s not what he means. But unfortunately, that’s the direction he espouses. So while I am not a fan of Breaking Bad (too violent), and only watched House of Cards once, I don’t think we’re any less moral than previous generations. We just worry more because there’s a lot of evil readily available, presented with great skill. The Internet is crawling with it, and we’re all on the Internet these days. Capitalism isn’t going away because we stop telling these admittedly horrifying stories. That’s going to take something else; a kind of universal awakening that is beyond art or politics. And it is possible that these tales of psychopathic perversion are contributing to that awakening. The very fact that we’re having this discussion is, I believe, a sign that all is not lost in this age of anxiety and fear.

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