Case Studies in Villainy Part 1: Evil or Stupid?

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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….

villainVILLAINS

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.

evil or stupid3) “Villains” often do bad things out of stupidity or lack of foresight, not maliciousness.

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!

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12 thoughts on “Case Studies in Villainy Part 1: Evil or Stupid?

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    I believe that most evil–in terms of damage done–is the result of people who think they are doing the right thing. In the case you cite above, the overall goal was a laudable one. The school district was losing money on lunches, their goal was to collect on monies that were owed to the district.

    My question is, how did they get into that situation in the first place? When I was a child, many years ago, we were expected to bring lunch money to school every day and pay the cashier at lunchtime. If you forgot your money, or lost it, you didn’t eat. There were cases where a student (who was sometimes me) got to the cashier and found at that point that the lunch money had mysteriously vanished, but no one blamed the school for that.

    The other students might laugh at the student who came up short, or pity him or her, or even offer to pay the bill, but everyone agreed that the system was inherently just–no money, no food. Everyone knew the rules, and they applied to everyone equally.

    Somehow that system changed to one where students themselves did not handle the money. (I don’t know the specifics of how the billing worked.) This created a new expectation in the minds of the students–you went through the line, got your food, and showed your ID or signed the list, again I don’t know how the system worked. The point is the students who were refused service were doing what they always did, and not getting lunch. This created the appearance of injustice, although the basic principle of “no money, no food” remained unchanged.

    No doubt the change in the system was done for the very best of reasons. Perhaps the school authorities were worried about children having their lunch money stolen, or didn’t want their cashiers handling money, or were trying to avoid students on public assistance from being stigmatized by handing over a voucher instead of cash.

    When the system was changed, the question of “what do we do if parents don’t pay the student’s lunch bills?” probably never came up. The article mentions that families who owed balances had letters sent home with the students–a notoriously unreliable form of communication. It also mentions attempts to reach parents by phone which were in many cases unsuccessful. Reading between the lines, it seems that seizing the lunches at the point of purchase was the result of officials given a mandate to collect funds with no collection policy in place.

    So I would add another couple of observations. First, evil isn’t always caused by one single bad decision, it’s often the culmination of a number of steps, each well-intentioned but ill-informed. I am quite sure that no one in the district envisioned the end result of their policies. Second, the one who actually preforms the overt “evil” act is often not the one who set in motion the events that led to it. The field agents who refused service to the children probably had no input whatsoever in the decision to extend credit to the students in the first place.

    This is a topic that strikes close to my heart, because of my experience in the repossession business. I wasn’t the one who talked the client into buying something that he or she couldn’t afford, that was the sales staff. They get to be the good guys because they let the client drive away with a car, while I got to be the bad guy because I was the one who picked it up. But it was the sales staff who got the client into the situation of having bills he or she couldn’t pay. Does that seem to fair to you?

    So my final observation–the perceived villain isn’t always the real bad guy. In fact, the best villains get other people to do their dirty work while they get to still look like heroes. No doubt the school board who approved the original policy changes will express outrage at the actions of the staff who refused service to the children. They’ll keep their jobs and look like the good guys, their flunkies will get fired.

    • I read somewhere that the school lunch policy had always been for lunches to be denied to children with unpaid accounts, but it normally only affected 1-2 at a time rather than dozens. so in trying to fix their problem, they caused an uproar in the cafeteria, an upset in the learning environment, and triggered an avalanche of negative publicity for the school. There had to be a better way to handle this. I also wonder why no one freaked out about the policy when it was 1-2 kids at a time. If it’s wrong to deny a bunch of kids lunch, wouldn’t it also be wrong to deny 1 or 2?

      Anyway, I do see what you’re getting at and I agree that perception can affect who our characters and our readers see as the bad guy. We can use that in our favor to create conflict in stories and misdirect the reader’s attention from solving the puzzle too soon.

  2. I remember reading on a forum a response that stated most villains don’t go out to do evil, but think they’re doing good. Whether it be from stupidity, pride, or ignorance, they think they’re the hero or a victim.

    • Absolutely. One person’s good could easily be another’s evil and both sides could absolutely believe that they are the ones in the right. It doesn’t even have to be that one side is acting out of stupidity or ignorance, they could both have valid arguments or a fundamental difference of ethical opinion.

      • I actually prefer my villains to feel like they’re doing the right thing. Though slipping a pure evil guy into the mix seems to really help with villain depth. Guess there’s some use to the black-hearted.

      • Me, too. I like the complexity in the plot provided by a villain doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Still, I can’t seem to get completely away from the black-hearted either. A secondary villain who really is evil provides an interesting contrast to the misguided evil-doer and, depending on the set-up, a chance for two opposing sides to join forces, compromise, and defeat true evil.

      • It’s also interesting when the secondary villain is nastier than the main one. If they’re a minion then it can draw out the main villain’s few positive qualities. The readers can then connect, which means they won’t readily call for his defeat.

      • Oooh, you’re a wily one. That’s tricksy and I like it!

  3. trishmercer says:

    Good point, Charles. In my research all evil-doers are certain they’re saving the world or, ironically, fixing the stupidity they encounter. There’s always some greater good they’re pursuing, which brings up the fascinating argument of what constitutes “good.”

    (While researching for my own villain, I picked up a marvelous gem called “How to Rule the World: A Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator.” Quite insightful, and funny.)

    • I’m going to have to check that book out. Thanks for the tip!

      Hmmm, we may have to do a follow-up post on defining good after the villainy case studies. I found all sorts of fun quotes and discussion about what constitutes Evil but I wonder if there is the same for Good. It seems that would be much harder to quantify.

  4. Erica Dakin says:

    Okay, so I must be the only person then who’s more upset about the food being thrown away than the kids going hungry. Kids don’t die if they don’t get lunch one day, but throwing away perfectly good food? That’s wrong.
    But then I don’t usually have a lot of sympathy for children in general, so that’s probably just me…

    • I think it was the trashing of the meals that made this a unanimously reviled decision. It’s the waste of the food that elevates their actions to complete and utter stupidity. Even ignoring the issues of children being publicly humiliated for their parents’ actions or inactions, the school district still loses the money for the meals they trashed so what did they accomplish?

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