I’m not sure what it is about our human nature, but we insist on using our innate tendency to put people into categories, especially two: good and evil. We use it to justify actions or explain circumstances. This tendency is especially apparent in our entertainment history. Think of all the books, movies, TV shows where there is a distinct good guy and bad guy. Westerns made it very clear based on the color of their hats–white for the good guy, black for the bad guy. Comic book heroes added on to the idea.
For years, our superheroes were beyond reproach, always fighting for justice against villains that were characterizations of complete evil. The Wicked Witch of the West haunted our dreams as children with her flying monkeys. (OK, maybe that was just me.)
Real life helped shape art that reflected this distinct separation as well. During World War II, Hitler gave the world a villain that was so evil it almost seems as though Hollywood created him in a writing room. The allied powers were definitely and completely presented as the good guys, and, as if written by Hollywood, they of course ultimately won the war.
Since then, however, the lines have become a bit more blurred. Wars have been fought for much less righteous reasons. The good guys sometimes have had ulterior motives. The bad guys have been given more relateable back stories. Our entertainment has started to reveal this as well. The Wicked Witch of the West starred in her own musical hit wherein, it seems, she was just trying to free others from the Wizard’s control. Batman has a trilogy where his history is much darker and haunting than any of the BOOMs and POWs ever communicated in the 60’s. Maleficent really just loved Sleeping Beauty and wanted to protect her. Dumbledore earned his wisdom from many of his own wrong, deceptive decisions that led to tragedy for others. Even the top grossing franchise of the Marvel Avengers shows each of our superheroes with demons of their own, and anti-heroes like Loki getting much of the attention and sympathy of the audience.
So why, when our art is reflecting a gray world, do we still insist on commenting on current events in only black and white terms? Why do we insist on formulating opinions of people we don’t agree with as villains and those we do agree with as heroes? Have we not learned from our entertainment that, in the end, we’re all just humans with both light and dark in us?
The events that happened in Ferguson, MO were a tragedy, pure and simple. The events that continue to occur are what will be a legacy of this tragedy. However, as someone outside of the situation, the events that I find troubling are the postings I see daily on both unprofessional social media and professional media turning these people into black and white heroes and villains, both literally and figuratively. This goes for both sides. I’ve seen posts that paint Michael Brown as a thuggish, drug-dealing, gangster with no regard for any authority and as an unarmed, child-like angel. I’ve seen posts about the police officer Darren Wilson being a racist with a power-hungry authority complex and as a humble community servant who abides righteously by the law. Perhaps, we should think before polarizing these people, and remember that each of us has within us the capacity for great good and great evil, and sometimes tragedies happen without one person being a hero or one person being a villain.
I do want to stress that I am not commenting on whether or not I believe that the grand jury’s decision was the right or wrong one. I do not have enough knowledge of law or police procedure to make that kind of claim. I am also not claiming that justice shouldn’t be served if it is necessary in this event or any like it. All I’m saying is the rest of us, especially those outside of the situation, might want to think about how we characterize these people in our own public commentary. They are not black and white heroes and villains of a 1940’s movie. They are people going through a very human tragedy, and it deserves to be respected as such.