Why are civil rights issues ever issues? I mean, how hard can it possibly be to treat all human beings like human beings with all the rights inherent in being a human being, or at least all the rights we allot ourselves?
According to history and even today, apparently pretty freaking hard. But we’re supposed to be able to learn from history so let’s take a look at the man of the day, MLK Jr.
At this point in time, if you don’t think that MLK was a pretty super cool guy, most people will acknowledge that you are probably a bad person. You might have some reasons not to like him that don’t have to do with the whole fighting racism thing, hence the probably. But MLK is now closely associated with fighting racism and doing it peacefully and we can all agree that racism is bad. The end.
Yeah, except it’s not the end.
There’s still racism. And not just white-to-black racism. And back then, remember he and the people around him were fighting. People actually opposed them in their fight to be treated like people. Even though they were doing peaceful marches, they were opposed by the police and others. And I imagine those people fighting them thought that they were the bad guys. How do you see people who are just marching along asking you nicely to view them no differently than you view yourself and let them eat a sandwich with you for Pete’s sake as “the bad guys”? It helps when you already don’t see them the way you see yourself, that they aren’t people at all. Assign ulterior motives to them. Assign evil traits to them. View MLK as an evil mastermind trying to bring down your white society.
This is the sort of thing that really makes villains sticky. With the 20/20 view of being in the future, we can say that clearly the people spraying down the protesters or hauling them off or whatever are the Bad Guys. Of course, we all agree that racism is bad. If we didn’t then maybe we might see where those dealing retaliations were coming from, how they might think that they were defending their buildings, towns, children. Those are all noble things, right? Defending your home and family, we all agree that is Good.
Perceived threats – of course often an important part of racism, though it doesn’t have to be – make for interesting moral lines. In a way, it’s not much different than that trope where the hero is fighting this monster and then it turns out it was an illusion and it was actually their friend!
Honestly, this sort of thing happens to villains fairly often, when they think they’re fighting for all that they care about but really it’s just a perceived threat. Maybe the villain realizes this and changes his ways. Maybe he doesn’t care or doesn’t ever get it. Although there is one important note: just because he falsely perceives a threat doesn’t mean he’s automatically a bad guy.
Think about how often heroes, especially superheroes, encounter something they perceive as a threat when it turns out not to be. I’ve been watching Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited lately and I can tell you that that has happened a lot. Friggun Hawkgirl, stop punching things with your mace. Gaah why are you guys letting the barbarian do the charisma work! Everyone knows that’s a bad idea! So on that note, even fighting off the perceived threat doesn’t automatically make one a bad guy, since good guys do it too. But what’s different, exactly, from the people who sprayed down MLK Jr. and his protesters and Good Guys who make mistakes with harsh actions? Remember, fiction is a mirror to reality, so it’s not just Hawkgirl swinging her mace at everything – real people that we might judge as Good Guys do this too.
I think ultimately, it comes to the true nature of the heart. And that’s exactly why we’re not supposed to judge one another, because we have a hard time perceiving the true nature of the heart. While someone who perceives MLK as a supervillain because they’re legitimately scared and misinformed is…sad, pathetic, frustrating…it’s not automatically villainous. I think viewing idiocy as villainy is just another form of fighting illusions a lot of the time – because even if the idiot who can’t tell the difference between a perceived threat and an actual threat (and remember we’re all idiots sometimes) is actively attacking said perceived threat, if the threat defends themselves, attacks back, then they prove the idiot correct about the threat thing. Something that is attacking you is a threat, even if the thing is attacking you in self-defense. That’s why education is so important – that’s why MLK’s peaceful protests were so important, that they were peaceful. That’s why you could call him a supervillain – because he was smart enough to know how to defeat his enemy, racism – but only if you have, er, let’s call them “unusual ” morals.
So that’s something to consider in this interesting gray of morality, the line between hero, protagonist, antagonist, and villain. Threats and perceived threats, true motivations…what is and isn’t a villain. What you consider to be a villain or not. What side of the line you’re on – perceptions turn everything upside-down and that’s why figuring out morality can be so hard.