Atrocities: Deification and Vilification

Americans recalled and held dear the memory of a day that shaped their country; wounded and scarred by an attack on their own soil.  I am one such person.  Like many such pivotal moments in history September 11th is a day that is forever etched into my memory.  The heartache, the fear and the desperate need of being close to those I loved and who loved me was all encompassing that day.  There is nothing in me that requires the belief that those lost were good and innocent for me to mourn them, just as there is no impetus for me to believe in the evil of those individuals who hijacked the planes.  To do either is, to my way of thinking, nothing short of an abomination to the memory of all.

When one chooses to raise people on top of a pedestal that individual has lost something.  It’s not the anonymity that I’m addressing here, although that certainly can and often does apply in our media saturated culture, but rather what happens when someone becomes a symbol.  There is a separation that can occur – symbol from humanity.  This also applies to individuals who are vilified.  A need to believe in the exceptional natures both in those who commit heroic and despicable acts.  Individuals with such firm focus and drive as to complete such things do seem to be rare in the grand scheme of the world, but that exception is noted as compared to other human beings.

The most heroic symbol I can think of is the way many view our men and women in the armed services.  While I have my own views of what the military symbolizes, what it embodies and entails, to me that is a separate matter.  The PEOPLE, though, are still that to me.  Human beings who, at least in this present environment, chose to enlist.  All people in the military are not the same, the capabilities varied just as much as they are in the general population, but they have one very defining characteristic besides their membership and participation in a group employed by the government.  They’re people.  Not heroes, not idols, not deities.  People.

In the vilifying category there are of course many historical examples.  Hitler is the most prominent modern villain with Mao getting lumped in there somewhere as well while still Lenin and Stalin either get ignored or viewed the same way.  I do not say these names lightly and without knowledge of their despicable and horrifying actions.  I do say it with complete ownership that these individuals were also people and that as such they need to be viewed with eyes that see them as such.

What separates all these people?  What makes them, their motivations, their ethics so very different from each other?  From us?  This is the question I find to be lacking when we start terming people as evil or hero.  The learning process is shirked to take time to worship or hate.  No lesson is brought forth, very few salient and vital pieces of information brought up, for analysis and philosophical thought all resulting in missed opportunity.  This loss, to my way of thinking, is more than not seeing capabilities in ourselves that could turn us down either path but in hindering how people are treated.  Through viewing uniformed men and women as heroes we are missing their individual assets, their limitations…  their humanity.

The exceptional acts committed are diminished through hero worship.  We expect heroes to act a certain way, to accomplish certain fetes, but not so with other human beings.  When we expect the outstanding it becomes not such an outstanding thing but rather something that is standard, normal and not necessarily held with high as high of esteem as when we view it from the perspective that a human, or a group of them, accomplished something brilliant.  Through history three dimensional people are subverted into two dimensional form: Albert Einstein’s intellect is amazing and out of the stratosphere while knowing how he walked the Earth, what his struggles were as he persevered to brilliant deductions are left out of the equation; Hitler is evil with amazing powers that convinced a whole lot of people to take part in great atrocities, while economic and psychological motivations are overlooked.  How can we truly respect or appreciate acts of greatness without acknowledging the human limitations that apply to all with the appropriate genetic make up?  When a person’s humanity is injured in the process of doing something we term as great how can we treat it if we don’t consider that aspect of them first?  What lessons can we learn through history if all those malevolent forces are deemed as evil and the entire picture that impacts and comprises the entirety of the human experience are left on the wayside?

We can’t.

Admittedly, inspiration for this post came from a movie that didn’t get enough consideration or touting in the media (in my not so humble opinion):  In the Valley of Elah.  It had me weeping and wishing fervently that people would allow these people to be, not symbols or tools working for support of their own ethic, but as people.  To see what conditions they are bearing, what actions they have to take and live within and, perhaps most importantly, ask themselves if those conditions allow for healthy humanity and if not ask the hardest question of all:  On what grounds can I support the subjugation of humanity?


7 responses to “Atrocities: Deification and Vilification

  • Teresa

    In my opinion, there is suffering among living things because someone claims power over them. These people who only care for themselves and the power they feel when others suffer. Suffering also comes when others look the other way.

    Great post and heartfelt.

  • Jan

    I wholeheartedly endorse your article. That is exactly why the Founding Fathers of this country insisted on trial by peers. What they did in practice was appropriate the British trial system which was not worthy of being emulated.
    What is less known, is that, in spite of the problems with a jury system, the jury was originally empowered to also try the law. That is no longer honored and the jury system in this country is a joke because the trial judge allows or disallows evidence and tells the jury what conditions they may use or must overlook and the law is sacrosanct.
    I would guess the media of our country are useful in “training” people to see and hear only what they are given permission to show and tell. It is for that reason that I have no television set in my house.
    However the electronic media make it easy to deify or vilify anyone. With tidbits of information in short bursts their deification or vilification of anyone is a little more like brain washing in my opinion.
    That is also why books are so necessary a media. They can present pros and cons and can be one sided but because of the time factor, the reader can make up their own mind.

  • Hart

    Very thoughtful post. It reminds me of the quote which I am going to proceed to mangle (undoubtedly): Out of extraordinary times come extraordinary people. LOOK at all the world war 2 personalities still held up today as extraordinary (in the good or the bad): Churchill, FDR, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. Those men all has personality traits that made them best suited to take advantage where they were, but without the TIMES, what would they have been?

    You’re right that it is a danger to take the humanity out of the hero or villian. Likewise, i think it is also wrong to weed out the circumstance in which he acts, because HONESTLY, more human behavior is reaction than intentional: reaction to both personality traits and a LIFETIME of experiences teaching 1) what one does or does not do, 2) for whom, 3) who or what is the priority, and then reaction to the current societal experience.

  • Carol Kilgore

    I think the world will always have heroes and villains. And what they represent can be used as shortcuts to understanding or hatred. But the real person – the person behind the headlines – is usually a mystery to everyone. This is the person that great novels are written about.

  • Helen Ginger

    A truly heartfelt post.

    I think people find it easy to hate when they lump people into categories and then name that category something disparaging. Then they’re no longer people. They’re less than people and aren’t called people.

  • Tina DC Hayes

    Very insightful post, and it made me stop and think. You are so right, about humanity really needing to stop and realize all people, no matter how good or how bad, are simply people, and if studied, each would have redeeming qualities as well as darker secrets. You brought up some excellent examples, especially those involved on both sides of 911.

  • litlove

    Very interesting and provocative in a good way. We hate people who threaten our security, or the security of those we love. We worship people who rescue us and do things we lack the courage to do. So those emotions tell us everything we need to know about ourselves and nothing about the other person. One country’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and all that. Actions are defined by context, and often history complicates things further by asking us to change our mind on value judgements. All those scientists in the 1930s working on eugenics were seen as pioneering and laudable in their day, and then after the gas chambers, the work seemed shameful and sordid. The best we can do is try to understand all sides of a dispute, and, exactly as you say, remember that every human being is someone’s child.

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