"The world needs villains so there can be heroes." So says Netflix promotional material for the BBC television series Happy Valley. Do we, really?
The right villain can certainly heighten our interest in a story. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Moriarty, Superman without Lex Luthor, Batman without the Joker? Actually, they would still be heroes without those arch-nemeses. Despite all the movies and other adaptations, Professor Moriarty died in the same Arthur Conan Doyle story in which he first appeared. Superman constantly soars about, redirecting asteroids that might strike planet Earth and catching damaged airliners before they can crash. Batman has a rich gallery of other rogues to challenge him. Bruce Wayne would not become Batman without a mugger killing Bruce's parents, but the character's altruistic parents were nevertheless raising him to look out for other people. Those master villains may challenge the heroes and drive them to become better at what they do. Then again, repeatedly failing to end that villain once and for all can make the hero come across as incompetent.
Those heroes are fictional. From a storytelling standpoint whether recounting fact, fiction, or muddled myth somewhere in between, the villain has great value. How interesting were Adam and Eve before the serpent spoke and stirred things up? Maybe the whole point of giving them their time in Eden where they had only one rule, to stay away from two trees, was to give them a hard lesson after they inevitably broke that rule so they might see that humans do not belong in paradise. The troublemakers whose mischief may heighten an anecdote's appeal for audiences do not have to appear in everyday life for others to do the right thing, to stand up and help. A child can need assistance coping with many troubles that involve no bullies, abusers, or childsnatchers in the dark. A fallen adult can seem someone to take time to pick that person up. A depressed person can need inspiration. The belief that there must be a villain for heroes to arise can undermine the value we assigns heroism and might make people too ready, even eager, to perceive villainy where none is intended.
Does a belief that there must be a villain inspire people on opposite sides of a disagreement to villainize one another? The self-serving bias that leads people to accept credit for their own good deeds and absolve themselves of responsibility for their own worst actions paves way for the actor-observer difference in attributing one's own misdeeds to situational influences while assuming those observed in others came about because of those other people's ingrained traits - i.e, making the fundamental attribution error more often when judging others than when judging oneself. Each side in a conflict tends to see the other's hostility and actions as reflecting those other people's evil dispositions. Giving the benefit of the doubt to members of one's own ingroup but not to members of the outgroup is the ultimate attribution error. Whether looking at individuals or groups, we seem ready to perceive villains.
Although we do not need to overlook real evil, letting it foster and grow large unimpeded, expecting evil can lead us to see it wherever we look. Not only is that unfair to so many people who should not be villainized, this expectation can trick us into undervaluing heroes as well. Heroes can arise during calamities of many kinds, crises caused by no evil intent.
I raised this issue on Facebook and Twitter: "'The world needs villains so there can be heroes.' No, Happy Valley, it doesn't. There are catastrophes and other crises aplenty. Natural disasters, accidents—what other villain-less occasions call for heroes?"
What do you think? Do we really need villains so we can have heroes?