A Paradigm Shift for Empathy, or the Cultural Case Against War and Violence, or a Review of Maleficent

A little more than a decade ago, when the United States was preparing for war with Iraq, the Bush administration used a lot of dichotomous language, like “axis of evil” or “evildoers” when referring to regimes and terrorist cells, if not large swaths of the Middle East. Like a good Western, there was the “good guys,” us, and the “bad guys,” them. Kipling was probably rolling in his grave. But that’s a theme we’re used to seeing in movies; it’s a theme we read in books. Good vs. evil is so nicely simplistic that even when it gets complicated, we don’t generally lose sight of which side we want to win.

But culture is shifting – and maybe drastically. It’s hard to come across a good television show or movie these days where you don’t find yourself rooting for the “bad guy,” at least on some level. I mean, no one is going to argue (hopefully) that Walter White is a good guy, but we all love him a little. And a Miami serial killer who only kills whomever he decides is a “bad guy”? Or how about Game of Thrones, where every character exemplifies the epitome of human depravity. I don’t think there’s a single “good” character on the show – just characters who murder only when they feel they have to as opposed to those who murder for pleasure.

This week, I watched Maleficent, the story of Sleeping Beauty retold through the lens of the mysterious, evil fairy who cursed Princess Aurora in the original animation. Warning: spoilers ahead. It’s a beautiful film that takes an “evil” woman from the original story and gives her purpose and struggle. We’re made to identify and empathize with her story to the point that we begin to see her not as the self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil,” as she was in the original but as someone wounded who, rightfully or not, responds through her wounding. Essentially, it’s a story of how hurt people hurt people and how only love can redeem that hurt. Most strikingly (big spoiler here), as she learns that only her true love – and not the romantic love of a prince in shining armor – can end the curse she cast on Sleeping Beauty, the “evil” fairy Maleficent finds healing, and you almost get the sense that the curse she cast on Sleeping Beauty was actually a curse she’d cast against herself, as the beautiful princess comes across as oblivious and almost unfazed by what has transpired.

If only it were that nice in the real world. I know all too well what it is to be wounded, to need to wound others, and then to again turn inward wounded again by what I’ve done. The wounding stops when someone decides enough is enough and decides not to respond in kind but to take the higher road. It reminds me of the too-often quoted (and yet not quoted enough) MLK quote that goes, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And that’s nice and something we all nod our heads to until a terrorist bombs a train or until a world leader uses drones that accidentally kill civilians or until someone hurts someone you love or hurts you. I mean, if anybody ever tried to harm my dog, Abner, I’m pretty sure all my hippy words would just get tossed right out the window, and I’d go purchase my first 12-gauge (that’s a type of gun, right?). But the philosophy I’m advocating, that’s been advocated a thousand times before me, is spot on. It’ll still be spot on no matter what happens to us that changes our minds. The question is, how do we remember that when we’re loading the guns or preparing for battle?

I think a cultural shift, at least in part, is the answer to that question. To teach the world to step in the shoes of others, to hear their wounded experience from their perspective is about the only way we can ever even hope to replace vengeance with non-retaliation. It’s not a debate about whether or not evil exists, and I’m not arguing for some kind of relativism (at least not intentionally), but to view “evil” as having a cause rooted in grief is to recast the conversation about how that grief should be dealt with. And when I watched the movie this week, I got the overwhelming sense that a call for empathy is the new paradigm and isn’t just something being whispered on the fringes or only spoken by a handful of great men and women the way it once was. We’re slowly but surely teaching each other to step into the shoes of the strangers who hurt us and be profoundly moved by that hurt before we fight fire with fire.

It’s nice to think we can keep selling that message until it takes hold.

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