The Nature of Evil (IV) – Justice

In previous articles on the subject of evil in fiction, and its many manifestations, I have considered how the best depictions of evil show not that society is consistently active in it as a whole, or that people are frequently complicit in it, but that instead often there is a pervasive attitude of tolerance that manifests as a failure to condemn evil acts committed by others – the effect of societal prejudice is normalisation of evil, not necessarily increased participation in it. Indeed, my ultimate conclusion is that the most unsettling and unpleasant depictions show worlds where evil has “won” – that people have sleepwalked into a dystopic stasis as in Gormenghast or that inherently unfair systems have become widely accepted as in Under Heaven.

Yet there is a reverse side to talk of evil and that is talk of justice. It is usually a given in fiction depicting “evil” that there will be “good” that will prevail in time – especially when there is a “villain” at the heart of the story. Distilling a conflict in this way into opposed ideologies is both simple and allows for great complexity; it is rare both in fiction and in reality that anyone or anything so reprehensible should exist that there is no viable viewpoint other than to fight it. “Dark Lords” with world-domination intent and nameless otherworldly evils are comparatively rare nowadays even in fantasy stories. Instead, morally-grey narratives of utilitarianism and compromise are the new trend – heroes may not act chivalrously or in unquestionably good ways to win and villains will often have motivations beyond wilful destruction and personal greed. This ultimately improves the genre for the most part; it adds a degree of credibility that moves away from simple morality-tale conflicts. Even the Greek tragedies, which would present someone as inherently “doomed” and transgressive, explored why this had to happen; in Antigone, a classic conflict between law and moral duty is established while in The Bacchae the real “evil” is hard to find; is it the humans who defy a god, or the vengeful god who takes his revenge in the cruellest of ways? The king is the transgressor but is the punishment fitting? The presence of a moral in a story – even if it is not explicitly explained as, for example, the chorus may in a tragedy-play – establishes a “right” and “wrong” side for sure, but then the very best examples subsequently make the audience reconsider whether they agree with this.

A popular and more recent example of a story which causes the audience to genuinely question, if not who is right and who is wrong, but at least whether the conflict is as it seems, is Les Miserables. In both Hugo’s novel and the musical stage adaptation, the core conflict is framed as one between an unfair law (embodied by the dutiful policeman Javert) and a well-meaning criminal (the penitent thief Valjean). Codes of law are traditionally held in society to be barometers of what is “right” and “wrong” – villains tend to be those who break some kind of law, be it setting out to steal, or kill, or even violate some natural law with magic or dangerous science. In the absence of codified laws, “evil” is far harder to define and becomes a personal thing. Yet using the law as a reference-point for identifying evil is predicated on that law being fair, and the consideration of what would happen if an unfair law were enforced heroically is a fruitful basis for fiction. In Hugo’s writing, the law which ultimately drives the conflict by its breaking is not per se an unfair one, even; theft is widely considered wrong by many societies. Yet cold enforcement of a law without consideration for circumstance – as Javert does – is what is questioned, and what paints the law as the “evil” force. It is evil in that it ignores the capacity for people to change, and treats all infractions as equivalent.

This first point – that people have the capacity to change and be reformed – has in turn come to define modern fiction’s depictions of evil. To continue the above example, even Les Miserables has its moment of “rehabilitation” for its antagonist; Javert, unable to reconcile in his mind the idea that the law could be wrong, kills himself. This is ultimately among the most simple kinds of reformation of a villain; rather than giving in to the hero’s argument, they remove themselves from the picture. Yet in popular media now, what is so often the case is that the “evil” force are shown not to be cold and dispassionate but instead well-meaning, human and simply ideologically opposed to the “good” side. “Humanising” the enemy in this way then reflects badly on the “heroes” – when neither side is objectively “right” or “wrong” then victory can come as much through compromise as conquest. This can be a total change of heart and settlement of peace, as is at the core of many science-fiction stories dealing with aliens, or a more subtle repudiation of those things that are unacceptable and acceptance of what is acceptable – a criminal giving up crime or freedom fighters laying down arms for peaceful settlements, for example. Rather than vanquishing evil, it is made penitent. The concept of making a transgressor do penance – not specifically seeking retribution but simply redress – is a progressive one. It shows acceptance that sometimes misdeeds can be nobly motivated. It is thus very popular in fiction, yet in reality much harder to come by. Ideas of properly restorative justice – rejecting the revenge aspect and instead trying to prevent re-offending – have yet to become widely implemented. Similarly, sympathy for the idea that sometimes one can be a victim of circumstance – and that a law can be an unfair one – seems less popular.

Audiences of fiction love morally-grey heroes, and villains who see the light and change – they sympathise with characters like Valjean, or any number of freedom fighters and guerrillas, and especially children’s fiction has come to embrace ideas of ending peacefully rather than specifically with one side wiping out the other. Yet selling the idea in real life that the law can be fallible, that authority is not always well-motivated and that sometimes what is legal is not morally right seems much harder. Arguably this is because fiction is bloodless and victimless; even if the enemy are humanised or made relatable they are still framed as the “enemy”. No-one really dies or suffers, there is less of an actual emotive aspect. Indeed, often the conflicts are simple; the case of Valjean stealing to eat is so self-evident that similar stories are used as examples in schools of moral quandaries. Real life is rarely this clear-cut and it is harder to accept restorative justice or justified crime in many cases.

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