“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.”
“Yes, but the bank is only made of men.”
“No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”…
…“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all.”
~John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
I don’t believe in villains. As far as fairytale archetypes go, I’m willing to accept the existence of most: I’ve benefitted from the wisdom of many kindly old men and women, see distressed damsels and lads on the news daily, and believe we’re all potential heroes. But villains are too fantastical for me. The idea that evil comes so neatly packaged and disposable seems even more convenient and artificial than American cheese, which I also don’t really believe in. Yet, this is the processed, refined manifestation of evil that we’ve been fed all our lives in the form of Scooby Doo monsters and jeering orc armies and mug shots in Busted magazine.
So, when we hear that a 21-year-old white man sat alongside a Bible study in a historic black church for almost an hour before killing nine of its members, we want him to be a villain. We desperately want him to be the epitome of hatred so that we can cage him up or kill him off and call it finished. In the wake of such an untreatable tragedy, we want at the very least a simple course of action. And we absolutely don’t want to be told that villains don’t exist, especially by someone so removed from the situation.
And removed I am. In fact, as I’m currently living with a family in southern France, Google tells me I’m a 21-hour and 45-minute train-plane-tram-plane-plane-car trip away from Charleston, South Carolina, which actually seems a very reasonable journey compared to the one I’d need to take to truly feel and understand the frustration and anger of being a black American today.
However, while here in France, I have been helping my host sister, Zélie, with her English lessons, currently centering on the theme of capital punishment. As a final assessment for the unit, Zélie must prepare a speech arguing for or against the re-instatement of the death penalty in the United Kingdom. Through our research, Zélie has decided to argue against, and I have decided that villains do, in fact, exist. They just aren’t people.
This is a concept that John Steinbeck illustrates vividly in my very favorite classic novel: The Grapes of Wrath. In one of the book’s iconic intercalary chapters, a disgruntled Oklahoma farmer is confronted by a tractor driver who informs him that he’s under orders from the bank to level the farmhouse on the farmer’s over-worked, dried-up land. In the conversation that follows, the farmer interrogates the driver as to whom he should shoot for this. He’s met only with more frustration, however, when the driver informs him that the perpetrator he seeks is not a man, but an entirely different monster.
Similarly, amidst the dark swirling of the most recent in a series of racial dust storms, we squint and wave our arms around in search of a body to blame. But the task is less simple than we hope. This is not to say that individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions or that punishment isn’t due, but that villainy cannot be quarantined to flesh alone. Villains are entirely different monsters. Racism is a villain. Poverty is a villain. Sexism and homophobia and depression and lust and greed are villains. And while the idea of people as villains—hiding under our cars, following us down side streets—scares us, the idea that villains aren’t people is worse.
Because, when villains are people, we have something to distinguish ourselves from. There is security in thinking that I don’t own a gun or make prejudicial proclamations to my friends or have a backwoods-y bowl-cut. If I can see a villain, I can know I’m not one. However, if villains are beyond human—systemic, societal—how am I to know that I have not readied the soil for their havoc or that someone I know won’t someday ride up on a tractor on their behalf? How are we to shoot them down? Can we?
The ill-equipped expatriate that I am, I cannot possibly tell you not to be angry, not to be furious, not to pray, not to feel disgusted when you read testimonies of the events in Charleston, or not to want the man that pulled the trigger dead. However, I can say that any energy invested in making him the sole embodiment of evil is only another victory for the true villains.
Instead, ask yourself where you see those villains in your world—be it Calvin College, South Carolina, or France—and ask yourself what you can do to fight them. How can you vote to combat poverty? When can you speak up to confront racism? Who can you educate to dismantle stereotypes? What can you say to that someone to eradicate the feeling that they’re misunderstood or alone or unloved? These are not the convenient villains we hope for when atrocity strikes, but they are ones we can all have a hand in fighting at all times.
“I got to figure,” the tenant said. “We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.