January 31, 2014 by Kira Lyn Blue
I have an unhealthy obsession with controversial news articles. As a writer and a preternaturally curious person whose drug of choice is picking things apart and analyzing them from every angle, they absolutely fascinate me. I challenge myself to question why I have a certain visceral response to certain headlines or topics. I read through arguments on both sides to see why people hold certain beliefs and convictions. I analyze why the author of articles presented the topic in the manner that they did and what the net effect is. I torture myself with paging through comments on those topics to see how real people respond and watch how quickly the arguments devolve to name-calling on both sides.
I can’t help it because I find it utterly fascinating to see humanity condensed to its most distilled and volatile form. (See also Online Disinhibition Effect or what is better known as the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.)
What it almost always boils down to is Us vs Them. In other words, we’re right and you’re wrong. And once someone’s wrong it’s incredibly easy to demonize and dehumanize them because they are now…. drumroll please….
And this is why it interests me as a writer: because the mechanics involved in such debates and how real people react to controversial issues or any conflict is great fodder for writing and for creating really insidious antagonists.
So, for the next couple of posts let’s take some real-life case studies from current events and see what we can learn about conflict, evil, and human behavior.
Case Study 1: The Uintah Elementary Lunch Trashing Scandal
For those unfamiliar with the controversy, click this Salt Lake Tribune news article. Basically, the nutrition board for a school district in Salt Lake City decided to tackle the growing issue of unpaid school lunch bills by visiting a specific elementary school on Tuesday and refusing lunch to any child with an unpaid account, which was reportedly up to 40 students. What made this story national headline news is that the administrators couldn’t tell which students were to have their lunches refused until they had already gotten through the line to the cashier, so they took their lunch trays from the students and trashed them.
Cue the very understandable national outrage.
What I learned from researching this issue about conflict and human behavior:
1: We unanimously agree that decisions that cause harm to children are wrong.
Hallelujah! Something on which EVERYONE agrees! Comment boards on articles on this incident are LIT UP with condemnation of this decision and people have even taken to the elementary school’s Facebook Page to denounce this action. It was wrong to make the kids go hungry (they were given a milk and a piece of fruit instead of lunch) and it was wrong to publicly humiliate them like they did. I couldn’t find a single Greater Internet Fuckwad making even a half-hearted attempt at defending the district’s actions. Not even someone who was obviously trolling, although that could be due to heavy moderation of the forums. But still, it’s encouraging to see we can all agree that this is WRONG. End of discussion.
Note to self as writer: Thou shalt harm no children in thine books. Unless, of course, thou dost desire thine character to be considered unequivocally evil. (I’m looking at you, Anakin Skywalker.)
2) When we’re angry we lash out and God forbid you be anywhere close to the issue or you will get cut, too.
While every article I’ve seen on this subject makes it clear that the school district’s nutrition board made this decision and went to the school to carry it out, that elementary school itself and all of its employees are under fire for this. Posts on the school’s Facebook page requesting assistance at a school fundraiser, help judging a science fair, and a few other things are all being ridiculed because, “How dare you ask for help when you starved and humiliated children!”
While I understand the sentiment behind those attacks, do we know that every educator and PTA member associated with the school even knew about the pending lunch money shakedown let alone condoned it even by simply staying silent? For all we know the individual teachers had no clue. Maybe they found out about it when the first lunch was trashed. Maybe they knew a couple of days in advance when the district started making calls. Maybe cafeteria workers and teachers did try to contact the superintendent and ask him to stop this. But we don’t know, so how can we immediately jump all over everyone associated with the school comparing them to people who turned a blind eye to atrocities committed during WWII?
And let’s not even get started on the enraged people who used this as an excuse to attack Mormons, Obama, Republicans, or any other pet hatred.
For writers, we can think about what this tells us about how people respond to conflict or decisions they don’t like, most especially when it affects children, but it could easily apply to any situation where someone a character cares deeply for is harmed or humiliated.
While I fear this comes dangerously close to apologizing for the nutrition board’s actions, I really doubt they meant any harm to the children involved. They simply did not consider all of the ramifications of their actions.
Does that excuse it? No. I personally believe that anyone who could not extrapolate the potential negative impact of this action has no business being in a position to wield authority even over school lunches. Or maybe especially over anything that affects children. But I doubt they are inherently evil people even though popular opinion would have them in league with Satan himself.
A few things about this point to consider as writers: our villains don’t have to be evil masterminds, they can just be plain stupid but wielding authority or power that makes their decisions more dangerous. Taking it a step further, a narrow-minded, poorly-thought out, or uninformed decision can easily villainize a character either in the reader’s eyes or another character’s eyes.
I’ll leave you with a few thought-provoking quotes from other authors on Evil:
“Evil isn’t the real threat to the world. Stupidity is just as destructive as Evil, maybe more so, and it’s a hell of a lot more common. What we really need is a crusade against Stupid. That might actually make a difference.” – Jim Butcher, Vignette
“Stupidity is the same as evil if you judge by the results.” – Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
“It’s the fools that make all the trouble in the world, not the wicked.” – L.M. Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill
Stay tuned tomorrow for more thoughts on Evil, Villainy, and when Good Breaks Bad, but don’t forget to share your own thoughts below!