How to Make or Kill Monsters

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Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
Strike the bell and bide the danger,
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.

Introduction:

C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew tells, in part, the story of Jadis, the last queen of the world of Charn, who rebelled against her sister and, facing defeat, uttered the Deplorable Word, a spell which killed every living thing in Charn except the person who spoke it. Jadis then cast a spell on herself to put her body in a sort of suspended animation, so she could wait in the hall of her ancestors until someone, perhaps a wizard from some other world, came into Charn, found the hall, and struck the bell bearing the above inscription. This all (apart from the wizard thing) ends up happening when, more or less by accident, Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer make their way from our world to Jadis’ great hall, and Digory is overcome with curiosity. The striking of the bell, as you may have guessed, wakes Jadis, who then then follows Digory and Polly first into our world and then ultimately into Narnia, where she becomes the White Witch.

Those who know this story or any of the many kid-focussed stories like it can see, without even knowing the history of the bell inscription, that striking the bell is exactly what the two children shouldn’t do, especially without adult supervision. Knowing the bell’s history and/or the stories in the books that follow The Magician’s Nephew1 makes it even worse: this is an inscription made by a character who for all her life (and afterlife) has basically zilch in terms of redeeming qualities, a villain who stands mostly as a symbol of complete and utter, though tempting, evil—evil which, though the characters often miss, we can see clearly. This is, we must not forget, a story written for children, and although they are often more intelligent than we give them credit for, moral ambiguity and veiled intent isn’t often high on a six-year-old’s list of priorities. Accordingly, we have a villain who is scary when we meet her, who confirms her villainy after approx. ten minutes of casual conversation which is mostly recollection of genocide, who responds to an obviously benevolent God-lion by bashing it over the head, and who flatly ignores another inscription similar to the one above in favour of stealing a magical apple.2 And we have Digory and Polly as pretty much explicit Adam and Eve stand-ins (that is, humanity stand-ins), with a moral dilemma involving fruit and gardens that’s one step shy of a great neon sign saying, in Impact typeface, this is the right thing to do, not that. To call the novel’s general allegory overwhelming and the mechanics of its drama rather conspicuous is probably fair, but to just label it simplistic and move on is really to be so ourselves by ignoring its considerable nuance.

For one thing, the underlying theology of both The Magician’s Nephew and the Narnia series as a whole, though often pointed to by Christians and non-Christians alike (for opposite reasons) as your bog-standard Christian thinking is quite a bit more radical than this label might imply. To fill a sentence with far more theology and jargon than anyone would ever want: Aslan’s self-sacrifice on the Stone Table lines up more with ransom theory than with substitutionary atonement; there is all manner of “pagan” imagery present (fauns, naiads, dryads), plus some occasionally dark magic;3 the garden’s apple, far from being an evil that must always be avoided, is simply meant to be eaten at the right time; and, probably biggest of all, the introduction of some sort of religious pluralism in The Last Battle, when a loyal and loving servant of Tash (a Narnian non-Jesus), is accepted by Aslan because, as the God-lion puts it, “if any man swear by [Tash] and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not.”4 If the previous sentence made no sense, or if it made sense but was too boring to even bother parsing, suffice it to say that the theology of the Narnia series, so central to its message and impact, is quite a lot more intricate and inclusive than the books’ popularity with strongly conservative audiences might imply. So too, I would argue, is The Magician’s Nephew’s inscription. Within the context of Digory and Polly’s choice, the inscription is of course intended to control and to deceive, yet it does this not by abject dishonesty, but by reference to some unadulterated truths about humanity. Those truths are twofold. First, the crucially important or ethically revealing choices we make often don’t seem as such in the moment. And second, the aspects of our nature that can cause us to set aside our better selves are often normal or basically benign in and of themselves, and, worse yet, aren’t even that interesting. Digory struck the bell out of simple curiosity and a little bit of bitterness toward his friend, neither of which would I call aberrant or unique. And it may well have driven Digory mad to have never seen the results of the bell—at the very least I think we can all understand his feeling that it might. And anyways, what’s the big deal about hitting a bell? It’s just a bit of metal.

Perhaps the fictional nature of this dilemma negates some of its impact for you. It’s hardly likely you’ll find yourself in the great hall of the last queen of a world under a dying sun. But of course it’s also unlikely that you are going to find yourself the guardian of a flock of sheep, burdened with the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of wolf alarms. The moral, of course, is located in the principles underlying the stories, which principles I see alluded to later by Aslan. “It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things.” In the Chronicles’ linguistic and historical context, of course, this warning refers to atomic weaponry, and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. Nevertheless I find it interesting that the representative of the most dangerous of all things is a word. The tongue’s ability to harm is by no means a novel observation—it has a long history stretching back as far as the Old Testament—but what’s more interesting than word’s potential harmfulness (and in fact a possible reason for it) is that words, especially in abstract, are just so damn boring. Much like Digory’s curiosity, there seems on first glance to not really be anything to say about them. Unfortunately, boring as both word and curiosity are, they can ruin us. Maybe this seems negative, or doom-y/gloom-y. Or maybe it seems outside the wheelhouse of a writer whose main jam has been art criticism. Either or both of these could end up being true, but I have to contend for now that the ultimate trajectory of this piece is optimistic or at least hopeful, and that art has a big role in shaping how we confront the unsettling reality that the most terrible of truths can be both relatable and boring.

Cartoon Villainy

For the sake of not appearing more of a snob than necessary, I will clarify that I’m in no way fundamentally against either cartoons or even one-dimensional villains. Cartoons are great, or at least potentially so, for obvious reasons,5 and there are any number of reasons one could come up with as to why a villain needn’t be humanized. It could be the story is for children, and so is meant to impart messages appropriate for kids of a certain age—it’s probably best to teach children the basic black and white rule not to lie, steal, or kill first, then explore whether there are any exceptions. Or else what if the villainy isn’t actually the main point of the story, and focussing on it would detract from some other purpose? Or maybe the villainy is meant to seem inhuman, strange, ridiculous. Many other dramatic rationalizations could be thought up, but the most compelling evidence I can find that villains don’t need to be made normal, relatable,6 or understandable is the fact that so many of them aren’t, and they work just fine. Jadis, as mentioned, has paper-thin reasoning as to why she decides to be so evil, but she still fulfills her purpose in the story without much trouble. Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars saga began life (from our perspective) with almost no explanation as to why exactly he felt the desire to ruin everything, short of some vague musings about power and hate which amount to little more than “I felt like being evil,” yet again he does precisely what he needs to, nothing more. The later (for us) effort that went into fleshing out his character’s ambition and political machinations, in my view, actually made him rather less functional on a story level—though Palpatine never had much to him, he didn’t initially need to: he was simply a representation of total evil.7 And any number of superhero villains, from the Green Goblin of Spider-Man to Aldrich Killian of Iron Man 3, spawn villainous plots that no ordinary person could ever relate to, for reasons none of us can understand,8 yet this deficit is offset in large part because the real focus of these movies is not the journey into becoming evil, but about being good in the face of it.9

But in spite of all the many legitimate dramatic reasons for making villainous characters with little to no understandable reason for their behaviour, it has to be admitted that this portrayal is basically nonsense. At the risk of swinging the pendulum too far from exotericism to esotericism, from Marvel movies to ancient philosophy, I would counter by pointing to Socrates’ and/or Plato’s theory of Moral Intellectualism, which holds that no one knowingly, intentionally, purposefully does something they believe to be evil.10 On some level this is obviously untrue, because it doesn’t take most of us much time at all to think of a time when a friend or family member knowingly and with malice aforethought, for example, spread an embarrassing story about us.11 Certainly we must agree that Ted Bundy understood that kidnapping, murder, and necrophilia are wrong according to the overwhelming majority of society. The notion that everyone else and all their moral failings are attributable to simple ignorance buckles under the weight of just how much inconsiderate behaviour, intolerance, hate, and depravity we see on a daily basis.

Yet, as a person who has done wrong in the past and who continues to do it to this day, I can report that, at the time, it usually feels right, neutral, or at least the lesser of two evils. And if I were to evaluate my character in general right now, I would have to be honest and say that there’s a huge, egotistical part of me that believes I’m basically a pretty alright guy who always does what he thinks is best. I don’t want to distract too much from the central train of thought of this piece with a lengthy digression on Socratic vs. Platonic vs. Aristotelian ethics, but I do want to point out the particular double standard that comes naturally to me and, if much psychological research on attribution theory is to be believed, many other people: the notion that no one knowingly does wrong intuitively feels preposterous when applied to others, but more or less accurate when applied to me.

None of this solves the central problem present in all double standards, namely that identifying a mismatch does nothing to determine which of the two contradictory standards should prevail,12 but I think it highlights both why it’s so viscerally uncomfortable to watch obviously human yet villainous characters, and also the necessity of doing so. It’s uncomfortable because this is an exercise in self-condemnation, intentionally meditating on all one’s own personal flaws. So I watch Noah and see a person with recognizable faith-based convictions who nevertheless turns into something of a monster, and it reminds me of the potentially drastic effects of my own convictions, religious or otherwise. Or I watch Whiplash, and see a young man with admirable ambition, work ethic, focus, and perseverance use all of those wonderful qualities as an excuse to ignore, needle, or outright reject the few people near him. Or Calvary shows me a priest of great integrity struggling to serve his small community as best he can, and I can’t help but notice I’m as cynical and detached as all the parishioners who use him as their communal blasphemy receptacle—particularly the self-described “atheistic doctor,” whose scorn for the priest would mirror much of mine except that I’ve self-servingly disguised it as “critical thinking.” These portrayals aren’t terribly realistic in the sense of accurately representing the world exactly as it is. Noah has rock monsters; Whiplash posits the existence of music schools with widespread student acceptance of a physically violent, rampantly homophobic, sexist, inflammatory, and personally injurious professor; and Calvary is at least partly a comedy, with all the ridiculous characterizations that implies. But they are realistic in terms of the sources of their bad behaviour: faith, ambition, systemic injury, or maybe better yet just call them all fear.

Which sources’ realism and commonplace-ness is exactly the reason that these portrayals are important. Because of course if someone is totally depraved and that’s the whole truth of their person, very little benefit can be gleaned by knowing this, except perhaps insofar as this knowledge helps one not get hung up trying to fix the unfixable. But on the off chance that they’re not, if there’s even one sliver of a worthwhile person in there left to save, and especially if their villainy is an outcrop of a human nature that we all share, well now, that’s something we need to watch out for.

And in the Life That Imitates the Cartoon Villains

In any rigorous discussion of film, there is always the looming spectre of Who Cares? This is probably fair and almost definitely in line with the general thinking of people who aren’t no fun at parties. Writing even the fraction of the total word count of this piece on the possible Socratic interpretation of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is a bit much, particularly when my above conclusion is that the villainy there in question isn’t even the main point of the movie. I won’t argue that this is probably an unnecessary dissection of Mr. Dafoe’s character. But I would suggest that stories, and their respective methods of antagonism, don’t just appear. These stories are made by storytellers, financed by money-grubbing executive producers like Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, and George Clooney,13 and evaluated by us, the audience. In this sense, any movie is a reflection of us both because we, in the cultural sense, had some part in creating it, but also because we are then responsible for the reaction to it once it’s been made.

If this holds true, then my own experience with filmgoing is quite instructive: I intuitively generate antagonists with little to nothing in common with me, and I feel uncomfortable seeing villains that are anything like me at all. Assuming I’m not unique, it could be said that most of us don’t like to think of our villains this way, or at least that we don’t do so naturally—instead preferring, either explicitly or subconsciously, to demonize those we stand against. It’s worth keeping in mind that even this demonization isn’t necessarily done out of any ill-intent or horrifying depravity. Mostly I think we just feel more secure in our own goodness if we think that we’re nothing like those people, and that’s much easier to think when the principle baddies on display plan on blowing up the sun or some such. On the other hand, we might honestly believe that calling those people monsters will help them to change. Unfortunately, despite these motivations’ being understandable, the approach they recommend isn’t likely to be much actual help at all. At the most pragmatic level, demonization flatly ignores the exact people whom its practitioners should be focussing on wooing. Again, I understand completely how difficult this is to digest—genuinely monstrous behaviour happens all the time, and I’m not denying it—but if our ultimate goal is to stop this behaviour, the audience that needs to find us convincing is not the Normals, the Appropriates, or the Standup Guys,14 but the monsters. And this is not even to consider the wellbeing of the monsters themselves, who, presumably, aren’t just harming others with their actions. If that were to be brought into the mix, this caricaturization could rightly, if perhaps a bit quaintly, be called unloving.

But let’s suppose for the time being that the above is not convincing, which is probably true because, let’s just face it, the people you’re thinking of when I say monsters: they’re assholes and you hate them for a reason. Even on a completely self-interested level, though, this mindset is still undesirable because it neglects the very real prospect that there is some monstrosity in all of us, and we would do well to keep the danger of it in mind, lest it get loose.15 This I think gets at the essential truth of the Socratic model of ethics,16 which is its pragmatic-, life-application-level truth. Because whether or not the theory is actually objectively correct about human nature,17 it is accurate, in large part, about what the first-person experience of doing wrong feels like, and so in that sense it’s of no little importance that we all—but specifically you, first-person reader—keep in mind what it’s likely to feel like when we’re the monsters, which, frighteningly enough, is that it probably won’t really feel like much.

The above is basically just theoretical jibberjabber, though, with little real-world evidence or example. Thankfully (or maybe not) the world isn’t at all short on actual examples of this issue. Rather than calling myself a “cultural commentator” and diving right into social issues, though, let me begin with a personal story, just so it is at least apparent that I’m not simply sniping at others’ concerns, risking nothing of my own. The ending of the story is probably the most interesting, so let’s start there: through a series of yet-undescribed events, several years ago I found myself watching snuff films on the internet. For the uninitiated, a snuff film is one in which a real person is actually murdered on camera.18 Though not a new phenomenon at all—rumours have have been around for decades—the expansion of the internet has given us an unprecedented ability to disseminate these files broadly while remaining mostly anonymous, and on the other side to independently verify the existence of these files, which latter thing I’ve done, and can confirm that they do, in fact, exist. I’ve seen fear. I’ve seen people turn to animals. I’ve seen real forks going into real eyes and I have to say it’s a lot less funny than that bit in Pirates of the Caribbean.

I also, meanwhile, enjoyed very much spending time on what one could call “normal” websites—CNN, CBC, Wired, any place that attempts to retain some kind of respectable public image—and browsing the comments sections of the stories that reported on snuff films. Such unilateral hatred, disgust, empty threats, and thoughtless misrepresentation are hard to find outside of conversations involving Ariel Castro or whatever band is most recently loved-to-be-hated. Of course the people who made the videos were monsters, that goes without saying, but here I was told that I, too, deserved to be shot, electrocuted, hanged, flayed alive, drawn and quartered, kept in a room too small to sit down in for the rest of my life, and/or to have each and every atrocity I’d ever watched done to me, as well.19 This all because I’d watched someone I’d never met do something I’d never do to someone else I’d never met. I found this very amusing in its barbarism and irony-blindness, and never more so than when my motives for watching were speculated upon. Some people thought I was looking for methods by which to enact my own (inevitable) murders. Others thought I was living vicariously, enjoying murders which I was too cowardly to carry out myself.20 A surprising number simply took it as a matter of fact that I watched them while masturbating. None of these, of course, were true. Far from making murder look sexy, fun, or manageable, snuff films drilled into me just how degrading it actually is, to both victim and perp.

So what could drive me, a decidedly average person, to do something so obviously horrifying? Not much, really. Someone told me I could die, once, and ever since then I’ve been pretty worked up about it. Death’s inevitability has driven me up the wall trying to divine what might be the easiest way out. Such preoccupation with the potentially violent ends of life flow quite naturally into a curiosity about what that might actually look like. It’s relatively improbable I’ll ever be sucked into a jet engine, but on the off chance, it’s best I know what I’m getting myself into, right? This “why not?” attitude can happen cyclically, and with a downward bent. As time went on, the justifications grew more numerous, if perhaps not more sophisticated. Footage of a luger being thrown into a concrete post, or bodies bouncing off pavement in New York, or the peoples of some far off land being gored in a fight with an elephant: these were all educational. They taught me how the world really is, when stripped of Wolf Blitzer’s spin. The one with the icepick, that helped us catch the murderer. A soggy smear of brain and bits of skull where a head used to be, well that’s most important of all: this taught me never to fear. I’ve now seen it all, and if I see it for real, I’ll be ready, not like those emotional ninnies crying or screaming or vomiting or otherwise carrying on.

These excuses are, of course, in the technical sense, horseshit. I am no closer to understanding death now than I was before I watched dozens of people go through it. I just know what organs look like. As far as documenting the world as it “really” is, the first five minutes of any worthwhile documentary film class will disabuse you of the notion that any video can directly recreate reality.21 If you don’t have the money to take such a course, simply consider that in all genuine snuff films, the person recording the footage is either alright with murder or alright with filming it, and in either case that is the mindset that governs how shots are framed, what music is played, what cuts are made, etc., just as some mindset guides decisions in any mainstream film. It should go without saying that the a person who would put on stilettos and crush kittens’ heads for fun just might have a slightly tilted notion of how to represent objective fact. And snuff films did help me dull my literal and metaphorical gag reflexes, such that I’m now able to comfortably view more or less any feature film, TV show, operation, or hospital ward without much fear of being overwhelmed by disgust. To pretend this hasn’t occasionally been an asset would be disingenuous, but it’s also now become undeniable that such detachment is also a liability. It’s freed me up to watch Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, sure, and that was a trip, but it’s also lead me to unflinchingly recommend Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene to two girls with documented discomfort toward rape scenes because I thought it used cross-cutting well. It’s not that I have no emotional response to those scenes, but more as if they happen at a distance now, a distance I choose to cross (or not) in order to intentionally ask myself “how would I feel about this, if I decided to feel it?” Perhaps that sounds nice, to be able to feel nothing, or at least closer to it. As a default state, though, it puts something of a strain on any human-level relationship one has.

If I had heard these arguments, either before or at the outset of my snuff period, I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t have still watched people die. Still, the chances seem better than otherwise. Instead, I was simply called a monster, and these more nuanced responses were never given to me. I can’t very well condemn people for this reaction—it’s as mundanely understandable as the boredom and curiosity that led me to snuff in the first place. But something’s being understandable doesn’t make it helpful, and the fact is that snap judgments and demonization were little more than fuel to my fire, yet more evidence that these Normal People just didn’t get me.

But enough about me. Let’s criticize you. Because there’s no shortage of cultural products of this demonization process. It infects culture both high and low. Most of reality TV operates on it, on some level. Simon Cowell isn’t a basically normal actor being paid to play the jerky British snob; he’s just one of those guys who Tells It Like It Is and Isn’t Here to Make Friends, etc., or else is just a total jerk. Ditto Gordon Ramsay and the one from So You Think You Can Dance. Wantonly inaccurate caricature is a mainstay of every unfortunate portion of every Comedy Central roast I’ve ever seen. And worse than all of this is the way so much of these entertainment properties manage to preempt this sort of criticism by wholeheartedly embracing the label of trashy entertainment—sometimes to such a degree that viewers I’ve talked to honestly believe that they like watching the show not to feel better than the characters in it, but to feel better than the creators, or in many cases better than the sorts of people who would “actually” watch such trashy stuff. For examples of this, see Jersey Shore, wherein imagining the sorts of idiots that like it is half the fun. See also The Room, Sharknado, and Troll 2, all three of which are universally regarded as awful movies yet maintain large cult followings mainly on account of how fun it is to feel better than the idiots who made them.22 Of course, in all these cases there are not necessarily good but still perfectly normal reasons why the characters, producers, filmmakers, contestants—or whoever else is being portrayed as inhumanly stupid/horrible/loco—might have done what they did. In many cases it could be as simple as the offer of a lot of money to look like a fool, which is a lot harder to reject in practice than in principle. In others there’s the obvious truth that most of us could be made to look ridiculous if the right scenes were filmed. None of this is considered; instead we (and the producers of the entertainment in question) work very hard to make scapegoats out of what are actually, if you think about it, human beings. At any rate, the culture of cynical/ironic/knowingly trashy entertainment has become widespread and assumed to such a degree that I’ve now spent years trying to figure out whether the resurgence of Doctor Who is genuine or not. Its fans assure me it is, but of course if it’s all a joke they’d say the same thing.23

Which if that’s all it was, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. TV isn’t really that big of a deal. But the general principle, that of dehumanizing everyone that isn’t already on the same page as you, is writ large all over more obviously pressing issues. Read the comments on a few stories on Jezebel and A Voice For Men.24 Try to filter out the philosophies or ethics behind what the commenters on either site are saying. It’s likely that one site seems to champion justice and the other stomps all over it. Which is which may vary from reader to reader. Focus instead on the way each site talks about the sort of people who would agree with the opinions of the other. Note, for example, how the portrayals of the “other side” fall, almost without fail, miles below anything like an actual, living human being. Instead Jezebel will tell you about basement-dwelling neckbeards or roided out gym-rats who only ever stop blaming victims of sexual assault so that they can complain about Social Justice Warriors, who are ruining the world with all their social justice. A Voice For Men will tell you about women who are dishonest at best, who constantly and intentionally toy with the feelings of every man they meet, simply for the sheer pleasure of hurting men, or else about raging feminists who religiously criticize the actions of every man they come across, deeming even a slight glance at an attractive woman to be emblematic of Rape Culture, and therefore actually as bad as rape.

Even when taken to such extremes, one of these ridiculous descriptions might sound more plausible than the other. I would like to suggest that this isn’t the case, at least insomuch as both descriptions fall within the category of nonsense. Neither does even one slight bit of good to help a person understand any of the possible number of opposing viewpoints—not even their own. And neither helps a person to convince anyone on any opposing side, because all further conversation will be based on the false pretence that everyone who disagrees with you is essentially subhuman, lacking even the slightest bit of nuance or tolerance. Neither will help anyone understand arguments for or against terms like Social Justice Warrior25 or Rape Culture.26

The Soft Sell

But then, how should someone respond to terms like this? Because for an average person, these terms cry out for some kind of response. Even something as base as reality TV invites conversation. To simply do nothing within these conversations is both a pretty distasteful abdication of responsibility, and a tacit agreement with whatever popular opinions are out there—because as we all know, if they vote and you don’t, you’ve just made their vote count double. Which this leaves us in a tricky situation, because doing nothing is off the table, and fighting against the baddies seems counterproductive for all the reasons above. My best guess at a resolution would be to do some of both, or to try to find what’s been called the Golden Mean between the extremes of apathy and antipathy;27 to recognize that, while the extremes aren’t justified, the natural, human-nature flaws that lead there are; and to recognize further that, whether in art or commerce or conversation, we will end up making some sort of representation of our opposition and, far from being a good reason for demonizing, the existence of real, monstrous evil that defies comprehension is actually a great reason not to make things up about it, and to try to be as accurate as possible in our other-representation. Because it seems not impossible to me that we could disagree with proponents of GamerGate without misunderstanding them or making them into monsters, instead trying to interact as genuinely as possible with what is at its core a terribly sad worldview, which drives a person to automatically distrust any kind of altruism and attribute it to simple pride. To honestly believe that there is no other extant motivation than self-interest is hardly monstrous; it’s about halfway between bathetic and, in the technical sense, pathetic. And maybe we can get to a point where we accept that those freaking out over vaccines, or the poorly-defined catchall “toxins,” or feminists, or MRAs, or abstinence preachers, or sexual hedonists, GOPs, Dems, evangelicals, protestants, Catholics, atheists, and Mac users are all motivated by the simple, painful, human feeling that there must be more than this. Things should be better than this. I should be better than this. Shouldn’t I?

Good examples of this sort of behaviour are hard to come by without making the list mind-abradingly intimidating—Dr. King, Gandhi, and Jesus spring to mind—but one that’s had a lot of mileage for me is that of the fitness guru in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which opus I will simply excerpt without commentary or expansion, because to do either would likely damage the magic irreparably. After a brief description of the sorts of advice the guru gives to the gymgoers (“And the Lord said: Let not the weight thou wouldst pull to thyself exceed thine own weight.”), we find this.

Sometimes the newer kids who won’t even let him near them come in and set the resistance on the shoulder-pull at a weight greater than their own weight. The guru on the towel dispenser just sits there and smiles and doesn’t say anything. They hunker, then, and grimace, and try to pull the bar down, but, like, lo: the overweighted shoulder-pull becomes a chin-up. Up they go, their own bodies, toward the bar they’re trying to pull down. Everyone should get at least one good look at the eyes of a man who finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down to himself. And I like how the guru on the towel dispenser doesn’t laugh at them, or even shake his head sagely on its big brown neck. He just smiles, hiding his tongue. He’s like a baby. Everything he sees hits him and sinks without bubbles.

This is not meant to be a treatise claiming that no one is actually evil or bad, or that everyone actually has perfectly good reasoning for what they do if only we took the time to ask them. Evil happens all the time; it is actually bad; things would be better if it didn’t happen. Nor is this meant to claim that the best course of action in the face of social ill is simply to do nothing, or to zen out, or to just “be present,” or any ineffectual nonsense like that. Social action, large or small, is warranted at worst and probably necessary. It just matters how we go about it. And it’s also not meant to make this course of understandingly calm passion sound easy or to complain that more people don’t do it, because it’s hard. Understanding the enemy, breaking bread with those against us—people who oftentimes hate us even if we refuse to hate them—people have been slandered, assassinated, and crucified for such things. And even if you don’t get martyred, understanding your enemy takes away much of the visceral satisfaction of crushing them, of untainted good triumphing over irredeemable evil, of us unequivocally winning. But then, the visceral satisfaction of feeling like you’ve done good—or better yet of being told you’ve done good by someone else—which is as much a tangible reward as money/power/fame, isn’t really why we want good and abhor evil. We abhor evil because it begets itself and gives a person all he needs to snuff every bit of his own humanity without even realizing it. We want good because it can thaw a frozen world.


  1. Or, for some, the stories that precede TMN. Far be it from me to dictate Narnian canon (even though the obvious answer is TLtWatW, THaHB, PC, TVotDT, TSC, TMN, and then TLB—or at the very least make sure to read TMN after TLtWatW).

  2. Lewis had some sort of thing for inscriptions, it would seem.

  3. Or, perhaps, magick.

  4. This despite some admittedly iffy characterizations of warmongering brown people.

  5. The main reason being if you can think of just one good cartoon, they have potential. Plus even if you can’t, they still might (and you need to watch more cartoons).

  6. Those of you readers who aren’t English professors should know that those who are are cringing right now. “Relatable” is a bit of a persona non grata amongst Anglo-academics on account of its extreme overuse in ninth grade book reviews. Unfortunately, it’s also exactly the word I need right now.

  7. Vader is, for certain obvious reasons I won’t spoil here, the villain in need of humanization, and he gets it.

  8. They’re both insane, I guess?

  9. Whether or not they do that well is, of course, a whole separate thing.

  10. Though they may make mistakes. Nobody tells the whole truth.

  11. For the last time, I thought it was just Five Alive.

  12. Maybe men should get paid 20% less?

  13. This being yet another example of cartoonishly evil stereotypes squeezing out a more nuanced reality.

  14. /Gals/People/Persons

  15. Which possibility is made all the more potent by the Narnian bell analogy, because as you may have heard, you can’t unring a bell.

  16. Which model states, remember, that no one knowingly and intentionally does evil.

  17. Or whether “objective” and “human nature” can even coexist like that.

  18. Some require that the film be commissioned by a third-party for money. Personally, I find nitpicking on this sort of thing pretty insane.

  19. Taking my offences in order—because of course I remember the first one I saw—this would amount to nothing more than my being shot in the head, which isn’t so bad, all things considered, but still probably a bit much.

  20. Curiously, they seemed very angry that I didn’t have the guts to go through with it.

  21. Well, the first five minutes after the syllabus/course description/introduction time.

  22. Which, and I know this might sound crazy, it’s likely you’re not. Filmmaking is hard. That so many movies even manage to be passable is a mid-level miracle.

  23. Another, frustratingly similar example happened several months ago, when the internet was brought down by an image of a dress which appeared to some people to be white and gold, while others saw it as blue and black. Some of the problem admittedly arose from my (apparently unique) visual system, which has over the proceeding months refused to see anything but a white and gold dress, even on images which have been colour corrected so as to supposedly prove the bistability of both colour perceptions. But this basic problem was made quite a lot worse by my extensive experience with the internet, which taught me never to trust anyone, particularly when they’re peddling something amazing. I read hundreds of comments in which people marvelled at the hue-shifting nature of the fabric, certain in my belief that everyone saying this was simply trying to be in on the joke, as in this video, which has almost as many comments claiming legitimacy as any story about the dress. It took several days and a CBC story for me to believe that everyone wasn’t simply trying to one-up each others’ irony.

  24. Not something I ever dreamed I’d recommend, but there it is.

  25. Which I would argue the progressive left seems very much to miss the point of, at least in its original intent. As a pejorative, it refers not to the social value of an action, but to the attitude behind it. What is pejorative about the term is not that social justice itself is a bad thing, but that it implies Leftists view themselves as badass and, most of all, very important, possibly the only defence that those poor, poor marginalized people have. Of course, the response of many accused SJW’s—to point out that their social justice fight is entirely noble, and that thus this warriorhood is something to be proud of—completely plays into the hand of GamerGate et al. Then again, a lot of what is being fought for is actually pretty good, so maybe being hilariously self-important about the whole thing is worth it.

  26. Which has at its core a useful, socially adept, paradoxical, logically flawed premise: the equation of a horrifying evil with one that is, relative to the first, somewhat less horrible. Essentially, the term does a lot to help transfer the disgust we feel toward rape onto the seemingly lesser social problems that can lead to it. In its understanding that our actions are guided as much by our emotional responses as by our cognitive ones, the term is quite perceptive. Then again, it can’t be denied that, even if an actual equivalence between peak evil and societal causes of it is not what we want people to get from the term, it’s not a completely unjustified response.

  27. The Golden Mean, for those who are curious, is also an ancient Greek idea, this time from Aristotle more than Socrates, but good Lord I’ve done enough of that here.