From Heroes to Villains and Back Again: What Really Counts?

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By Kary Vannice

When does a hero become a villain and a villain become a hero? Some well-known historical figures have proved that there is a very fine line between these two dichotomous designations. And we, as a society, have proved that we are quite willing to turn a blind eye to the unsavory, detestable, and sometimes even downright nefarious behavior of our favorite “heroes.” While, at the same time (so as not to be hypocritical), we offer the same treatment to “villains” when they prove to be less than the despicable creatures we thought them to be.

In general, if you fight for the people against “the man,” you are considered a good guy and if you represent “the man” and fight against the people, you are a bad guy. However, history is often written by the winner.

Winston Churchill is a perfect example. History, in general, depicts Churchill as the hero who won World War II. And, certainly, largely due to his resolve and dedication, Hitler and his Nazi army were overcome. However, much like Hitler himself, Churchill advocated the sterilization of those with learning disabilities and mental illness. During his post as Home Secretary, in 1910, he wrote, “The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race,” and also argued openly in Parliament for the introduction of forced labor camps for “mental defectives.” 

Early in his military career, while stationed in Afghanistan, he said “All who resist will be killed without quarter,” because it was vital that the Pashtuns “recognize the superiority of race.”  In his personal reports during that time he wrote, “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” 

One need not go too far down the rabbit hole to find many who are of the opinion that Churchill himself should have stood trial for war crimes. Those who found themselves on opposing sides to Churchill received little mercy. Just as did another cultural hero, Gandhi. 

When Gandhi went on a hunger strike to call attention to British tyranny over India, Churchill’s stand was “Let him do as he likes,” and starve himself to death. 

Gandhi, too, had a dark side that is rarely talked about or reported on. He was openly disparaging of blacks, unapologetically misogynistic, and insisted that underaged girls, including his own grandniece, sleep naked beside him so he could test his sexual patience.

Nelson Mandela, another modern-day hero, tales of whom always seem to be bathed in the white light of purity and non-violence, started out as an extremist resistance fighter who lead an armed rebel army. 

While history has been kinder than may be warranted to some of our favorite heroes, it has been much less so with men and women, who despite being “bad guys,” may have actually had good motives, in the beginning, at least. 

In the case of Genghis Khan, his history was, in fact, not written by the winner. Much of his story was not documented until 100 years after his reign, and then mostly by those who had been conquered. 

Today’s “revisionist history” version of the Genghis Khan story might describe him as a visionary who brought literacy, law, and culture to his people. He unified a nation of nomadic tribes that frequently took money from other countries as mercenaries to kill their own. And, yes, while he expanded that nation across the whole of Asia and into Eastern Europe using force and brutality, that expansion also brought more developed systems such as a universal justice system, unified postal system, and the expansion of knowledge, craft, and innovation.  

Women in his empire were given a more equal standing and special rights. They took part in important decisions within the home and were also given the right to divorce their husbands, if they so chose. 

The Mongolian Empire treated people as equals and was tolerant of all different religious practices. It was also possible to achieve a better station in life than one started out with by making a contribution to society, which in many of the conquered countries had not previously been the case. 

A few “bad girls” of history may have also gotten a bad rap, or at least a less than deserving one. Take Marie Antoinette and Cleopatra VII. Marie was probably more eccentric and ignorant than evil. She had hardly any real political power, yet she became the symbol for everything that was wrong with the aristocracy, which famously cost her her head.    

Cleopatra, on the other hand, had substantial political power. And she used every other power at her disposal, including that of seduction, in an attempt to restore order to her crumbling country and try to save it from the clutches of Rome, to prevent the enslavement of her people. 

The British news outlet The Independent recently proved that even contemporary villains can be seen in a different light when they published an article with the title “So, it turns out Osama bin Laden was a terrorist monster with a tender side…”

An Internet search result for the top 50 heroes of all time yielded a list by the New Statesman American that included Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Bill Clinton. 

Ranker ( lists the top 100 worst people of all time and that list includes Carl Marx, Leon Trotsky, J. Edgar Hoover, and Hillary Clinton. 

There are those who would surely believe the reverse is true of some or all of these examples, depending on their personal points of view.   

Of course, no one person is without faults or lives a life without mistakes. But there does seem to be some sort of unwritten equation that says if you make a big enough contribution to mankind, we will subtract your wrongdoings and if you still come out ahead, you get a free pass, not to mention a ticker tape parade. We tend to see the world of heroes and villains in black and white. Maybe it’s our obsession with cinema that’s done it to us, but real life lends itself more to shades of gray. And, in a world where it seems as if a new shade of gray gets invented every day, we, as a society, need to come up with a better equation to hold both our heroes and our villains accountable.