Here Be Monsters
I love a good story. Adventure; the unknown; peril; heroic deeds to save the day - and of course, beasts and terrors. You know the old stylised map illustrations that came with those types of stories, with islands and rocky capes and unexplored territory. In the truly traditional ones, especially if pirates were involved, there was always a part off toward the edge with a shaky pen-sketch of something resembling our best impression of Nessie, and in a cursive script was written: 'here be monsters.' The childhood imagination raced at the prospect of sea battles with thrashing serpents; in school we learnt of classical beasts with feather, fur, teeth, fire, terrifying tasks even for Hercules himself. And then? Then we graduated into the adult world, and the monsters were relegated to the bookshelves and the tv screen.
Last week I felt Radio Four exceeded its already high standards of considered and topical reporting. Rather than merely repeating the headlines as they came in, or analysing the weekend's terrible events from one perspective merely, they found new, genuine angles for discussion. I personally found their programming a saving grace in the midst of the media onslaught. It's hard enough to process what happened already; when you want to engage with it but none of your thoughts or questions are being addressed, it becomes too much to handle. I was therefore trepidatious in turning on the radio each morning on the drive to work, but the interviews they offered helped to humanise the approach.
There were two moments in particular that gave me food for thought on a subject I've been considering for this blog for some time. I would say it was fortunate timing but that would be a callous lie - merely, sadly, it seems now is the best time, and I wish it wasn't so. The two moments were these; firstly, an interview with James Harkin, a journalist and writer who recently published Hunting Season, a book about the rise of IS in Syria. He came out with this little nugget: 'evil is for fairy stories'. I'll let you consider that. The second came from a man named Niklas Frank, whose father was one of the senior Nazi officials convicted in the Nuremberg trials. Frank was being interviewed along with the grandson of one of the families for whose deaths his father was directly reponsible, and these two men have been good friends for some years. The interviewer suggested to Frank that his father had been a monster, to which Frank's response was: 'he wasn't a monster. A monster would excuse him.'
I was already turning over some ideas in my head and both of these statements seemed to connect: the separation of 'monster' from human, and the idea that evil isn't real. They almost form opposite views, but what's interesting is that I see both of them at play in our media and our social consciousness. The subject I wanted to write about is constructed otherness and communal identity - I know it sounds like an essay, but please stay with me! On a basic level, it's about how we view others, or how our constructed view of others affects our attitudes and actions toward them and what this does in society.
When I was studying literature, the idea of constructed 'self' and an 'other' was a very fundamental one in literary theory. A lot of postmodern thought went along the lines of everything being constructed in one way or another - our personal identity, our view of the world, and our morals and ethics. All these were presented as ripe for being deconstructed. I never completely agreed with this because I do think there are absolutes, but I recognise that I'm probably in the minority these days on that one. What I could recognise though was the opposition of 'self' and 'other' in literature: the way that a character almost requires an opposite force in order to clarify its own existence. Expanded beyond literary theory, this concept would basically show a society of opposites, which makes sense when you consider natural science. Light and dark, heat and cold, protons and electrons: the universe is full of forces that operate on opposing ends of a scale. It's not far-fetched to see human interaction in a similar way, but of course it would be simplistic.
In my view - and I don't purport to have all the answers, I'm just offering this up for consideration - this idea gives us an 'other' which is defined by our concepts of self, and set against the backdrop of what we are familiar with. We see safety in familiarity - why do we think children are afraid of the dark, if not because they don't know what might be lurking in it? Monsters are created from what is unfamiliar and therefore a threat; a 'monster' is de-humanised, its qualities and its capacity for creating fear detached from our human experience.
When we describe a person as a monster we are separating out their monstrous behaviour from their humanity, and by doing that we avoid tackling the foundation in humanity of that behaviour. We also create a target for hate and mistrust, but we may categorise too broadly and dehumanise others who do not fit our 'monster' catergory but who we are afraid are going to. We don't want to acknowledge the same capacity for hatred, 'monstrous' behaviour and outright anti-human thought in ourselves or our society, so we widen the barrier between us and the 'other' with the language we use.
No, the media are not describing most people as monsters, but what about the ways in which we choose to refer to foreigners, to refugees, migrants, and others who are seen to pose a social threat of some kind? The media and politics are full of terminology that prevents or discourages engagement on a person-to-person level - they create a disassociation of the projected common identity of one group from the projected common identity of another. More often than not, if you interrogate it, you'll find that the group is being treated as 'other': a danger to our understanding of self, both as individuals and as community.
We are at once scared of monsters, and persuaded that they don't exist. We are presented with evil in stories, but when we see it in humanity we try to find another explanation. And we create an idea of otherness that gets projected onto people or situations with which we are unfamilar and therefore don't feel secure.
I think that we have a responsibility to query those constructs, and aim to be aware of how we view others and why. Distinctions are valid and necessary, but where they are unthinkingly accepted or maliciously used they impact negatively on our ability to relate to others, and they close off both individuals and societies from thoughtful interaction and community living. Given that community has always had value throughout history, I fear this trend would only be damaging for the future.