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Posted by on Jun 26, 2014 | 4 comments

Dangers in Designating “Monsters”

We live in a world of monstrous acts; where teenage girls are kidnapped, shots are fired on university campuses, suffering is seen as a form of entertainment, young children are prey to adult perversions, and the list goes on. I myself, as much as anyone, want to be able to claim that these events are evil. But, I have also noticed a tendency both in myself and others when doling out judgment on the monstrous actions. We designate the monsters in our midst. And, this designation leads to significant dangers.

First, a monster becomes something other than us. The term “monster” derives from the Latin monstrum, which points to something unnatural or mutated from its natural state. A monster is something we are not. It allows a separation between who WE are and who THEY, the monsters, are. There is in this a loss of the commonality of humanity, be it in the fact that we are the same species or more profoundly that we are, all of us, image bearers of the same creating God. In naming monsters we run the danger of creating an “us” versus “them” mentality, which negates our shared humanity.

Second, because a monster is “them” and not “us” we fail to see ourselves in them. That is, we lose sight of our own ability to do monstrous things. We make monsters an ontological status (i.e. an issue of the substance of who they are). Monsters are not who we are. Monsters do horrible things to people. Monsters are capable of doing even more horrible things. But we are not monsters. We do not do what they do. We suddenly become innocent in the face of our newly named monsters. We run the danger of denying that we ourselves are capable, even bent to doing horrible and monstrous things if the conditions and temptations are right.

Third, in similar fashion to our failure to see ourselves in them, we also fail to see the monsters in us. Monsters are also sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, etc. The world is much too gray for us to simply designate a monster without also recognizing that these monsters have often been victims of others’ monstrous actions. The world of victim and perpetrator is never so simple. Having worked in ministry with the marginalized, I have experienced firsthand that hurt, victimized, and wronged people often perpetrate monstrous acts. We run the danger of losing our ability to see the situation and person clearly if we quickly slap a label of “monster” on someone who has done something abhorrent.

Finally, a monster deserves a monstrous punishment. This final point is not to say that monstrous activities do not deserve punishment. I firmly believe that structures need to be put in place to keep our lives relatively safe. The danger I see in this final point is that when a person becomes a monster—a “them” and not an “us”—we might find ourselves performing our own monstrous acts of punishment in response.

These dangers are rooted in the mentality of “us” verus “them.” They are rooted in our tendency to want to disassociate ourselves with the evil we see in the world. But, particularly as Christians, it is essential to recognize the tendency towards destruction, violence, selfishness and ruin is not something only out there but in us. If we fail to recognize this, then I fear we make ourselves vulnerable to be perpetrators of those monstrous actions we’ve so zealously stood against.

So then, how do we engage when the next horrible news story flashes across our Facebook timeline or Twitter feed? Might this reflection on the language we use help us to encounter the tragedy with more nuance (and likely even more heartbreak)? Might it make us more tender to our own areas of sin and more repentant of the ways we have wrong in face of the evils of others? I’d like to hope so.

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Studying theology, baking bread, enjoying the company of a handsome bearded man and two adorable pit puppies.

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  • Kathleen Jarvis

    This quote which has been modified many a time comes to mind; something I didn’t “get” when it was presented to us in elementary school in the 1960s —

    There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best
    of us, that it ill behaves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.

    James Truslow Adams

    Not that we can’t call evil ‘evil’ when we see it, but the longer I live,and after 23 years working in criminal court, and looking back on my own life and regretting decisions and sins — the truer it rings.

    Corrie Ten Boom wrote of the difficulty but necessity of remembering, while in a prison camp, to be aware of one’s own sins and potential for moral failure, despite living amongst guards/tormentors who were so much ‘worse;” to continue to see herself as a fallen human being saved by grace rather than an innately superior being.

  • KC

    Good points, Rachel. I think the us/them mentality is important to avoid, but I don’t think regarding something as “monstrous” necessarily implies the things you have mentioned above. Of course, I will quote Cavell:

    “The anxiety in the image of slavery—not confined to it, but most openly dramatized by it—is that it really is a way in which certain human beings can treat certain others whom they know, or all but know, to be human beings. Rather than admit this we say
    that the ones do not regard the others as human beings at all. (To understand Nazism, whatever that will mean, will be to understand it as a human possibility; monstrous, unforgivable, but not therefore the conduct of monsters. Monsters are not unforgivable, and not forgivable. We do not bear the right internal relation to them for forgiveness to apply.) To admit that the slave-owner regards the slave as a kind of human being bases slavery on nothing more than some indefinite claim of difference, some inexpressible ground of exclusion of others from existence in our realm of justice. It is
    too close to something we might at any time discover.”

    It seems to me that calling someone a “monster” or regarding something as “monstrous” is less to invoke an “us/them” claim than it is to express horror at something. This might indeed reveal that there is a great divide between us and those things we deem monstrous, but this is not to say they are wholly other or less-than-human. Rather it is to say that we do not know how to account for those particular human things in our moral and linguistic world. Following Cavell, calling something monstrous does not mean we are distancing ourselves from them, rather we are trying to see it as a human possibility (myself being included in what I am calling human). We don’t say of lions hunting baby elephants that the lions are “monstrous,” we say they are acting like lions. We (I) do say of the elephant poachers that they are monstrous, because we (I) do not know how to share a world with them. But that just means that I believe we are more similar than not because we have the potential to share a world.

    Arnold Davidson’s “The Horror of Monsters” is probably one of the best essays I’ve ever read, and he makes very similar point that regarding something as “monstrous” is more about our own horror at the human condition than it is the condemnation of such things. His final line is worthwhile: “…the history of monsters encodes a complicated and changing history of emotion, one that helps to· reveal to us the structures and limits of the human community.”

    • Thanks KC. Here I am trying, albeit possibly poorly, to distinguish between the monstrous and the monster. I follow your Cavellian thoughts with the monstrous but I do think that to say someone is a monster is more than speaking to a behavior of a person that we don’t know what to do with. I think we are saying something ontologically of the person. They are a monster. Who they are is something that we are not. I guess when I look at the way the word is actually used, I see an us/them dichotomy present.

      • KC

        Yes, if we’re going by how most people might think they are using the word, I think I agree with you. And as I said, I think avoiding the us/them mentality is integral to any attempt at Christian ethical thought.

        But obviously there is an internal relation between our use of the word “monster” and “monstrous,” right? I think even looking at uses of the word “monster” exposes the fact that we use the word only to describe other humans. (Nazis are monsters, we say, precisely *because* they are humans. If we are making an ontological claim when we use the word “monster”, in this case, then it must be about the depth to which human depravity reaches and not anything about those particular humans.) If they were not human we wouldn’t judge them in the same way. So I think the question is less about our use of the word, which I think is a very important word for ethical thought, but what we imply when we use it (which is what I think Cavell is trying to show us).

        So I guess next time someone uses that word just point out that they are implying as much a similarity as a difference.