Palpatine has perished, the Governor has fallen, Voldemort has been defeated, the virus has brought down the mothership. The Rohan have survived the assault on Helm's Deep, Voyager has survived its transit through Borg space, Westeros has survived the White Walkers. The most engrossing Super Bowl of recent times is now behind us, and tens of millions of people, not all of them by any means sports fans, are celebrating the victory of the underdog.
I too was rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles. But rooting is one thing; hating is another. What's remarkable to me is not that so many are so delighted to see the plucky upstarts overcome football's Evil Empire; it's that so many really seem to think that the empire is evil. People really, really hate the New England Patriots.
Future generations will puzzle over this moment. Perhaps we will leave images behind. A powerful hand in the air, an oddly shaped ball on the ground, maybe even a Latin inscription: Hic rex interfectus est. Our great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren will not understand the delirious atmosphere attending the outcome of what was, after all, only a game -- and a very dangerous game at that.
"Why?" the young of two centuries hence will ask their nano-nannies. "Why did they care so passionately? Why did they hate?"
Here's an answer:
We are secretly in love with evil. We love evil in the sense that we love rooting against it, a habit that in turn suggests that we need evil to exist so we can root against it. If the other side is utterly bad, perhaps ours is utterly good. This is true in so many arenas of life. Sports. Politics. Who was right and who was wrong when our dear friends broke up. We are drawn to the Manichaean, perhaps because it frees us from the need to consider whether the opposition might have a point or two in its favor.
Catherine Nichols, in an excellent recent piece at Aeon, points out that our passionate attachment to tales of good vs. absolute evil is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The great myths and sagas of past eras did not propose that the heroes were better than those ranged against them.
"In the 'Three Little Pigs,' " she writes, "neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn't stoop to. It's just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil." In The Iliad, Achilles and Hector "don't symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight."
In Nichols' view, the virtue of such complexity is that it forces us to reason about the tales that we have heard. But our modern myths, with their relentless focus on the need to defeat evil, "end up discouraging any moral deliberation." The "Star Wars" universe is great fun, but we should take note that the Emperor Palpatine and Supreme Leader Snoke possess no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Once we know who the bad guys are, we are freed from the need to reason.
In other words, today's myths make things too easy. They promote what John le Carré has aptly labeled "a militant simplicity." When we root against one side because that side is evil, we free ourselves from the burden of critical thought. But it is precisely this freedom that so much of modern mythology promotes. Once we know who the bad guys are, we no longer need to do much thinking.
Modern fables, writes Nichols, "rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down." By sorting the sides as good or evil, "we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals."
Talk to a Patriot-hater (or a Yankee-hater, or a Duke-hater, or what-have-you) and you will hear the echoes of what Nichols is saying, every quality ascribed to a single wicked "they": They're arrogant. They cheat. They're vicious. Not one or two of them, not a few of them, but all of them. The team that is hated comprises in its entirely people who share the wrong "moral qualities."
There's a lot wrong with this. In the first place, it runs counter to the ethic of loving your neighbor. Moreover, as Nichols notes, framed this way, our stories "don't help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions." Why take the time to ponder when the forces of utter malevolence are on the verge of triumph?
And they are on the verge of triumph. Constantly. Not just in sports but in politics. Writing in the 1960s, the political scientist Richard Hofstadter described the archetypal political activist of his day: "He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out." Anyone who has ever actually opened a fundraising email from a political candidate knows exactly what Hofstadter means.
If you believe the polls, a lot more people are happy that the Eagles won the Super Bowl than are upset that the Patriots lost. I'd like to believe that most of that joy is because the underdog shocked the world, not because the other side was hated. Sports is important, but it isn't important enough for us to decide that the other team is evil. Although I know many readers will disagree, my own view -- saving the rare emergency -- is that the same is true of politics.
I'm not denying that evil exists, and, certainly, we should do all we can to prevent its triumph. But we should be wary of ascribing it to those whose true sin is simply that we want them to lose. Nichols is right. If we need to hate in order to root, whether in sports or politics, we will never accept other people in all of their complexity. And that failure will make the rest of us a little less human too.