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Perspective Drives Our Interpretation of Heroes and Villains in History

Heroes are easy. They save people. The commit selfless acts. Occasionally they may wear a cape, but that’s not required. The important thing is that they understand the human condition and work toward its betterment. They’re guided by compassion. The tradition of heroism is old; there have been many champions of and for the people. India’s Rama, Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh, and Persia’s Arash are a few that come to mind. The Grecian tradition of heroism crafted characters like Achilles who in turn created the foundation for how heroes should behave, and this legacy echoes in our expectations for these characters from the Marvel and DC universe to people our textbooks.
Villains are more nuanced. They’re out to undo the work of the hero, but for who’s benefit? Their own? A larger population? Lex Luthor believed Superman was a threat to humanity–whose ends did Luthor’s aims really serve? Was he protecting people from a perceived extra-terrestrial threat? Or spreading a divisive agenda for his own means? As popular as Superman was, there must have been some people who agreed with Luthor. (If our present administration teaches us anything about popular opinion, it’s that a minority faction DOES exist.)
Fictional heroes are fun. They have the opportunity to try things that may be out of character and still retain their core identity. Peter Parker gets to explore his dark side as Venom, for example, but he ultimately comes back around to Spiderman with no real harm to his reputation. He’s still a hero. Reality doesn’t always afford this option. In the historical record, we cast notable men and women into the character molds of hero and villain because it helps tell a story about who we are and what we value. There are trends that can help predict a person’s legacy—and interestingly, as our world becomes increasingly connected and we’re exposed to the belief systems of other cultures, these trends can be relatively consistent. This tells us a lot potentially about the reach of ideas and beliefs, and can help flag dominant ideologies. On the other hand, where villains emerge and how they are treated can help us understand and identify pockets of global dissent. This is particularly relevant because the influence of world leaders rarely stops at their geo-political boundaries. The historical record of villainy can highlight sources of global conflict where encroaching national ideologies cause localized friction.
In The Iliad, Grecian allies Achilles and Agamemnon get into a huge argument over possession of a consort during their siege on Troy. (And yes, this is already hugely problematic for a hero in today’s time but we’re talking ancient Greece here, so bear with me.) Achilles abandons the War to sulk over his loss and leaves Agamemnon to face the Trojans alone. Following some divine intervention, Agamemnon realizes he needs Achilles to fight at his side and makes a conciliatory gesture. The men are not reconciled in this way, however. It’s the Grecian concept of pity that brings Achilles around. Pity in this sense was more than recognizing the misfortune of others; it was a visceral emotion compelling actions that saved, healed, honored and avenged fallen soldiers. Acting with pity toward your allies was expected, and it brought you honor. This means, risking your life to reclaim a fellow soldier’s body because he deserved the honor of a burial, but also because you would be remembered for how you behaved in that moment: Did you pity your comrade-in-arms or were you pitiless? Your actions were a reflection of your character as well.
In the end, Achilles goes back to the battle because his good buddy Patrocles is killed. it’s a case of mistaken identity—he was wearing Achilles’ armor and the opposition thought it was Achilles—but for the sake of everyone’s honor, he has to be avenged. So Achilles ceases his protest and rages into battle; he slays a good number of people, obtains Patrocles’ body, and gives it a funeral. He also brings back the body of the son of the Trojan King, Hector, and lets it sit unattended as a form of repayment for Patrocles’ death. We have a clear delineation here in how heroes treat friends and enemies: honor by way of pity is awarded to one and not the other. But then Hector’s father sneaks into Achilles’ camp and begs for his son’s body so he can bury him. He pleads, “Pity me in my own right, remember your own father! I deserve more pity … I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before—I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.” And Achilles—once again moved by pity—grants him the body.
Is Achilles a hero to the Greeks for coming back to the battle or has he been tainted by leaving in the first place? Is he a villain to the Trojans for slaying Hector or a hero for returning his body and demonstrating compassion? Does he return the body to spite Agamemnon or is he truly sympathetic to the King? There is a definite reading of the The Iliad, but had Achilles been a real man, would his actions be so specifically identified?
Loyalty. Honor. Compassion. American children are told numerous tales about key figures who embody these traits. Honest Abe and the allegory about George Washington not lying about cutting down a cherry tree help teach young citizens what they should expect from their role models, and how they should behave themselves as citizens. But elsewhere, Chinese children may learn about the strength of Mao Zedong as evidenced by his swimming the Yangtze River in the 1970s, which signaled the start of the cultural revolution. The same traits of loyalty, honesty, and compassion are used to tell another story for Chinese children. Our cultural perspective can paint a very local, very specific picture of the world and anchor people to a very specific narrative.
For example, students in 20 countries around the world were asked to classify 40 of the most important events in world history as either Historical Calamities, Historical Progress, or Historical Resistance to Oppression. Participants had similar ideas as to what is a Historical Calamity (e.g., World Wars, atomic bombings, global warming), but there was less universal agreement on what constitutes Historical Progress (e.g., digital age, Industrial Revolution), and they flat-out disagreed about what constituted Historical Resistance (e.g., Human Rights, American Civil War, fall of the Berlin Wall). Nuance and perspective were key here in how people come to understand what has happened both to themselves and to others. The broader the impact, the greater the consensus.
When students were asked to rank historical figures, the 10 most positively evaluated historical figures across all countries (in descending order) were Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln and Buddha. The list was comprised of scientists, humanitarians, and religious figures. (Lincoln was the exception as a political leader.) The five most negatively evaluated historical figures across all countries were (from the bottom) Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush and Joseph Stalin. These men played key roles in dictatorships, terrorism, mass murder, and unjust wars.
When we dig deeper into these lists, we find that among the top 10 most admired figures in world history, there was more agreement about Buddha, Newton, Einstein, Mother Theresa, and Mandela as positive. There was less agreement about Edison, Gandhi, Christ, Martin Luther King. And the greatest variation when it came to ranking Lincoln. This suggests that in our present global society, we tend to rank scientists, religious leaders, and humanitarians as heroes. Among the most negatively ranked figures, there was the greatest variation in ranking for Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Sun Yatsen. These men were ranked more positively in Muslim and Chinese societies respectively compared to others. And again, the broader the impact, the greater the consensus.
There is also the question of time. George W. Bush received a more negative rating than Joseph Stalin, when the latter caused a greater number of deaths. It may very well be that among his former countrymen, Stalin’s reputation is something different. He may be more of a villain to them because his legacy is strongest there and the losses he caused are felt more keenly, whereas on a global scale he has begun to metaphorically fade from public memory. His notoriety will never be completely erased. Genghis Khan is certainly not a footnote to history, but eight centuries separate us from his actions and his rating by present-day students rendered him an almost neutral figure. With time perhaps the same will be true for Stalin, and Bush, and the others. As global media helps spread beliefs in such a way that we are free to choose those that relate best to us, this “forgetting” or neutralizing may be accelerated.
The name for this kind of bias is called “in-group favoritism.” In its most basic sense it means that people will give license to people they are more closely connected to. On a national level, that means people will tend to side with their national history over the perspective of others. It provides justification for a desired discourse. In-group bias may rationalize that while Stalin may have made mistakes, he was also faced with hard choices that come with building a nation.
The similarities that emerged in the cross cultural rankings of events and historic figures are indicative that university educated students have a collective view of the world, which may be driven by Western liberal democratic ideals. But presently in the US, the discourse unfolding under the current administration is far from congruent. Here there are tiers of in-group identification that ladder up to a conflict about national identity. What does this mean for the legacy of Donald Trump? He seems already widely cast as a villain, but are there those who still regard him as a hero? What will be the impact of how they remember this time?
ALSO READ:  History of Muslims

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