Throughout history, human beings have always been keen on the idea of labelling: tribalism, drawing invisible lines on maps as a demarcation of national territory, racism, classism, and other forms of artificial separation all stem from humanity’s obsession to be able to delineate a Self (a group that is portrayed and perceived as desirable and paradigmatic) and an Other (a group that is less desirable, and more deserving of punishment, or at least reform, in our eyes). Satan, criminals, psychopaths and terrorists are the traditional and universal Others in our world, however, often our rigid definitions of this notion tend to boil down to a matter of perspective.
Indeed, a good example of this is how, during the Nazi regime in Germany in the early 20th Century, numerous Germans perceived Adolf Hitler as a strong and unifying force; he promised economic revival and stability, an idea that was especially attractive to the thousands of starving innocent people he promised to liberate. Here in England, however, he was (and is) considered the epitome of evil- a merciless politician with questionable morals. Likewise, today (though not yet to the same degree) it has become acceptable to label individuals like Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani of Iran as significant ‘Others’ to Western liberal values, but, despite the binary messages that many authors and journalists are keen to promulgate, every villain has a story, and every hero has a secret.
Take Barack Obama for instance. Commonly hailed as one of the most charismatic and trustworthy American politicians ever to have served in office, it is easy for us to dismiss his ethically controversial actions (notably, his refusal to end American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan) but it seems to be less easy for us to dismiss Trump’s sarcastic Tweets directed towards ‘Fake News’ media outlets. Essentially, it is clear that ideas of Otherness can prove infectious, especially when they conform to (and, indeed, help to form) widespread popular narratives.
Our stubborn obsession with rigidly defining Otherness is as visible in the media as it is in politics. This is especially evident in the portrayal of villains in Disney movies: it is clear whom we, the audience, are meant to sympathise with, and whom we are expected to dislike, or detest, even.
Villains, whether fictional or real, are just as sentient as we are, and they are capable of sharing similar emotions, hopes, dreams and fears. My argument is not that we should completely excuse their misdemeanours, but that everybody deserves to be empathised with. Instead of labelling Brexit supporters (another example of Others in modern society) as racists or British children who have been radicalised by Islamic militant groups as scum who do not deserve to live, we must open up a dialogue, looking at things as a matter of ‘We’ rather than one of ‘Them vs. Us’. Ad hominem in debates does nothing to solidify arguments, but attempting to empathise, on the other hand, allows intervention. We should learn to challenge others’ views and actions without attempting to present ourselves on moral high horses.
Maleficient, the villain of Sleeping Beauty, was hurt when she was excluded from Aurora’s christening. Mother Gothel from Tangled just wanted to be young forever (don’t we all?). The Evil Queen from Snow White was jealous of Snow White’s beauty, and insecure about her own. Scar was resentful of Simba’s taking his place as the next heir to the throne. Every defining feature that a human creator has ever assigned to a fictional villain- is just a manifestation of humanity’s worst qualities. We are all made of light and darkness, and the darkness that hides within all of us makes us capable of feeling jealousy, resentment, desire and even ‘Satanic’ pride.
According to ‘biological historian’ Dr. Yuval Harari, “tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group”. He argues that ‘Otherness’ is an example of evolutionary residue; it was previously critical to our survival – such as when we shared the planet with our Neanderthal cousins, who, being an early form of Other, were “too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate”.
Archetypal villains are not just villains, and, similarly, the heroic protagonists of the stories we have written since the dawn of time are not just heroes. Everything is a matter of perspective, and, as Nietzsche put it, “morality is just a fiction”. We are all social actors, obsessed with convincing ourselves that we are good people. Why are we good people? We are good because we can differentiate between ourselves and our Others. In this repeated practice of attempting to walk forever atop a moral high ground, we forget where our real Other lies: it lies within the Self, in that abyss of confusion we all hold within us. We are, essentially, complete strangers to ourselves, unsure of who we truly are, where we are going, whether we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, why we think and feel the way we do, and, of course, why we are even here in the first place…
and we cannot help but project this terrifying notion onto other people.
Sadia Ahmed, 2017