Many humans like evil clearly defined. Black and white. To point at someone else and say, without hesitation, “That person is/was evil.” Shades of gray can make people uncomfortable. And you can never, ever humanize the enemy, because then you might start seeing them as… human beings. Like yourself. With dreams. Ambitions. Love for their families. And maybe deep down, they’re actually a “nice” person. You know, despite their evil actions, or the worldview they support, or what they do to protect their family.
Soldiers cannot think, in the heat of battle, of their enemy as a human being, because they could never pull the trigger otherwise, without being a psychopath. That man fighting on the other side is also doing this for his country, a greater cause, a religious belief. He has family. Friends. Possibly pets. People who love him, who rely on him. But no, he’s the enemy. He represents a great evil. He must die. And so, dehumanize him. He’s just a number. A helmet. A thing with a gun. Don’t think about the rest of it. Because if you do, what makes you any different from him, except being on the opposite side?
I’m a big fan of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s an alternate universe reality where the Nazis and Japanese won WWII, conquering America and dividing the United States between them. There’s Resistance on both sides, and characters from every faction. On one side, you have the Japanese… who are “higher” than the Americans, but don’t have “strict enough racial laws” so they actually let “defective people” live (oh, the horror and inhumanity!). And on the other, you have a German State, with routine eradication of “Defectives” (those with health problems), while trying to attain a Master Race. The show asks a lot of hard questions, about terrorism (when are you a terrorist or resistance fighter or are they one and the same?), about sacrificing people for “the greater good,” about racial equality, about bigotry (in one episode, in casual conversation, German ladies discuss how you can “know” a man isn’t completely white, because… well, you can just “sense it”).
But most of all, it humanizes the Nazi characters. And I’m glad. Because much as we like to look back on history and think of them as a bunch of bigoted, murderous, scheming, evil bastards… they all had families too, personal views, individual beliefs, things they would and would not do, and sometimes they had to do bad things to protect the people they cared about, because society left them no choice (you defy the Reich, you all die… and everyone you know dies). In short, they were humans who were acting on beliefs they thought were right; beliefs I may fundamentally disagree with on every possible level, but… they were still human… just like me.
Thus, despite my love for the pure-hearted, gentle heroine, Juliana, over time John Smith became my “favorite” character on the show – yes, in the words of a Resistance fighter, “a murderous, scheming, evil Nazi bastard.” The great irony of it was in season one, while he scared me out of my ever-loving mind (put any man in a Nazi uniform, and my entire body tenses up – there’s so much “historicity” in that uniform, as one character puts things with Great Meaning Behind Them), I thought, “I bet he’d do anything to protect his family.” And guess what: I was right. You know a show (and a performance) is good when this character stands for everything you denounce, and nothing you can stand behind or defend (other than intelligence)… and you’re sitting there hoping nothing bad happens to him, that he won’t get caught trying to save his “Defective” son, because part of you really feels for the murderous, scheming, evil Nazi bastard.
Some people might call Smith a villain; he may very well be, but he shows us a deeper, uncomfortable truth: that anyone can become a villain at any time, and for any reason. That’s not something society likes to think about… that under the right circumstances, with the wrong worldview, I might be willing to kill someone for my beliefs.
In most people, problematic beliefs are not a threat to society. So, your uncle makes bigoted jokes at dinner, and it makes you uncomfortable but he’s powerless to do anything about it and wouldn’t anyway, because he’s not a mean or violent person. Or would he do something, if a larger group shared those views? If he was encouraged to act on his bigotry? How does someone become a Nazi? Or a White Supremacist? How does a soldier who is a decent family man when he’s at home go in and massacre a bunch of … kids? People? How could people eradicate entire civilizations? Native Americans? Africans? Koreans? How the hell did Columbus’ soldiers dismember natives for fun and sell ten year old girls as rape fodder? How does a mob, made up of probably semi-decent individuals, string up someone from a tree, or beat them half to death, or set a city on fire? How does evil like that sprout in a heart? With a secret thought in the soul, a hidden bit of bigotry, that becomes an action?
The beliefs we choose reinforce who we become; they give us license to act. Smith’s beliefs enable him to kill people, to participate in mass “exterminations” for “the greater good of the Reich.” We might look at him and think, “He’s HORRIBLE, those beliefs are so wrong!” … and then go to lunch with our friends and make nasty comments about people from the opposing political party, as if they are our literal enemies and evil inhumane scum. Is that truly what we think and feel? Would we act on those statements, if we got the chance? Are they actually our enemy, or just the mouthpiece for a belief system we hate? You can’t attack a belief system; you can only attack other people, so… humans do. They punch, kick, bite, shoot, knife, and blow up people, when they’re really fighting against an ideology that fills them with intense hatred and disbelief that anyone could believe or support something like that. They give Evil a human face and call it the enemy, which justifies them in attacking it.
Juliana’s beliefs are in the inherent goodness of humanity, and the right to make something of life, regardless of who you are; she refuses to take actions that result in innocent people being hurt. She sometimes makes mistakes because of her compassion and idealism, but she doesn’t barter with people’s lives, or judge them as not being equal, she values them even above her own safety at times. Her core belief is in the right place: other people are not the enemy, but human beings.
Perhaps the greatest question The Man in the High Castle asks is, what do your beliefs say about you… and what do they permit you to do, under the wrong circumstances?