Once again, there’s no such thing as monsters

Seriously, how often does this need to be explained?

There’s no such thing as monsters. There is such a thing as evil, but it’s just a descriptor, an adjective we use to describe certain actions. It’s not a substance or a force. There are people who do evil, and some people who do a lot of evil, but they’re still people. They’re not special. Literally anyone can choose to pick up a gun and commit a slaughter. It isn’t hard, much as we’d like to pretend it is.

In the Doctor Who fandom, thanks to the recent season premiere, that staple of college freshman bullshit sessions “Is it okay to go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby?” has been floating around of late. The correct answer to that question is neither “yes” nor “no,” but rather “How can you tell which baby grows up to be Hitler?” Because that’s the thing: Hitler is the same as anybody else until he makes the choices that result in being, well,  Hitler.

And that’s what nobody wants to admit, so we pretend to believe in monsters instead: Hitler made a series of choices over a handful of years that turned him from angry failed artist to, well, Hitler. Your next-door neighbor could do the same. Or your best friend. You child. Your spouse. You. The human capacity for choice means that anybody can choose to be monstrous–so we pretend otherwise. We pretend that only special people–monsters–can ever make those choices. Which is to say that normal people don’t.

That belief has real consequences. When someone shoots a bunch of people, the immediate go-to description is “insanity.” Because we’ve already decided they couldn’t have been normal. There must have been something wrong with them, some grotesque deformation of mind, right? Sane people don’t do things like that.

Except that they do. All the time. More than the mentally ill do, actually.

But every time someone shoots up a college or an elementary school or their workplace, we start talking about mental illness and equating it to violence and monstrosity. Even the President gets up on his podium and says that clearly the shooter had something wrong with them, a sickness. Mental illness is further stigmatized, and it’s already stigmatized enough that the mentally ill are twice as likely to be victims of violence as the general population.

No, he most likely wasn’t. Mentally ill people do sometimes commit acts of great violence–the Virginia Tech massacre, for example, was committed by a person who genuinely was mentally ill–but so do people who aren’t mentally ill. People who aren’t monsters. People who are just people.

It’s time to accept that the capacity for extreme violence is a normal part of being human. It is a choice that can be made by anyone, and hence we are all responsible to choose otherwise. The pretense that monsters exist helps no one, and the pretense that the capacity for violence is a mental illness actively hurts the mentally ill.

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