The things our biggest and most nebulous villains have in common

June 20, 2010 | By | Reply More

Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis is one of my favorite books of all time. It is in the top 10 books I have heavily annotated. Here’s a sampling of why (although if you search for “Haidt” in the search field of this website, you will find 20 of other posts regarding Haidt’s work). In the following excerpt, Haidt discusses what all of our biggest villains seem to have in common:

When the moral history of the 1990s is written, it might be titled desperately seeking Satan . With peace and harmony ascendant, Americans seemed to be searching for substitute villains. We tried drug dealers (but then the crack epidemic waned) and a child abductors (who are usually one of the parents). The cultural right vilified homosexuals; the left vilified racists and homophobes. As I thought about these various villains, including the older villains of Communism and Satan himself, I realized that most of them share three properties: they are invisible (you can’t identify the evil one from appearance alone) their evil spreads by contagion, making it vital to protect impressionable young people from infection (for example from communist ideas, homosexual teachers, were stereotypes on television); and the villains can be defeated only if we all pull together as a team. It became clear to me that people want to believe they are on a mission from God, or that they are fighting for some secular good (animals, fetuses, women’s rights), and you can’t have much of a mission without good allies and a good enemy.

How devastingly “refreshing” that modern villains are so identifiable and that they are doing such tangible damage. We are now looking at a devastated national economy, two expensive and needless wars, a ruined ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico, an energy crisis and a helpless political system created by an utterly dysfunctional election system that, for the most part, attracts megalomaniac ignoramuses and repels humble, good-hearted and well-informed people. It remains to be seen whether we will ever be able to let go of our bogeymen and, instead, focus on our real villains.

Addendum:  See this related post on “The Power of Nightmares.”

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Category: American Culture, Good and Evil, ignorance, Quality of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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