By Kelly Andersen
What do Adolf Hitler and Christopher Columbus have in common?
According to recent research, regardless of whether their actions were horrific or magnificent, these figures are all perfectly normal by mental health standards and have served essential roles in establishing social behavioral standards.
Yes, even Hitler.
Because "heroes" sometimes engage in villainous acts in their quest for justice, psychologists, sociologists, and literary experts have all examined where we draw the line between good and evil forces. After all, publicly-decided upon "villains" probably believe their pursuits are for justice just as much as many heroes do.
According to Dr. Eric Susser, humanities professor at Arizona State University, villainy is relative to the time and place in which a figure gains prominence.
"What makes Hitler villainous is that his actions were not compliant with the norms of his social context, and the same remains true today," Susser said. "Figures guilty of similar crimes but who are instead revered as heroes were acting in a way that in their time and place was socially acceptable. Hitler is guilty of the mass extinction of people who were living beside him in the same social context and lifestyle. Odysseus, Christopher Columbus ... were all products of their time periods, while Hitler was an exemption. The fact that he was able to rise to power, however, goes along with the argument that villainy is something innate in all of us that may either be awakened or lie dormant forever."
Drawing the line a hero and a villain is challenging. To their followers, villains can be perceived as heroes.
In 1956, the American Sociological Review, published a study that attempted to define "villain." Participants in the study were asked to rank terms in order of how closely they related them to villainy. The author of the study, Orrin E. Klapp, found that a villain can be an outlaw, bully, authoritarian, rebel, flouter, trouble-maker, claimant of undue privilege, intruder, suspicious isolate, monster, rogue, or renegade.
But what they have in common according to Klapp is that villains usually engage in behaviors that are reflect extreme deviance or suspicision and/or threaten social norms.
It's a choice
In a March 2011 Review of General Psychology research article, the study examined Hitler and his actions to determine whether his behavior could be attributed to a mental disorder.
"Hitler did not behave abnormally, nor was he insane, nor were certain physical symptoms responsible for his decisions," the study authors said. The article noted Hitler had many issues regarding interpersonal relationships, ranging from having an abusive father to growing up into a friendless, untrusting adult.
Thus, provided a similar upbringing and circumstances, anyone could potentially be like Hitler. However, choosing villiany is a conscious choice, not an inescapable fate.
Recalling the earlier argument that Hitler was a considered a villain because his actions were outside of the norms of his general social context, the same argument can be used in favor of Columbus.
"It would be impertinent to expect Columbus to regard slavery as immoral, or to uphold the equality of all peoples. Conquistadors and colonists are as entitled to be judged from the perspective of moral relativism as are the cannibals and human-sacrifcers of the indigenous past," argued Felipe Fernando-Armesto is a 1992 History Today periodical.
Fernando-Armesto urges people to consider the "limited mental horizons" and "practical constraints" of the social context under which icons of the past functioned.
Territorial expansion at the expense of innocent lives was custom of Columbus' time period. The same cannot be said for the rest of Europe in Hitler's era. Terms like "conquistador" or "conqueror" were glorified then. Today they come with a negative connotation.
The benefits of villiany
Villains can serve as a reminder of what people could be and don't want to be.
"Classifying villainous names gives a picture of the kinds of behavior people respond to with a moral concept of the ideally evil person -- one set off by inherent depravity and malice toward mankind," said Klapp, author of the villain-term study mentioned earlier.
"There is a consensus among society's members about what behaviors are good, right and correct and which behaviors are wrong, bad, and inappropriate," said Whitaker. "Functionalists note that public identification and punishment of rule-violators serves a purpose for Society. Specifically, it reminds everybody what the rules are and reinforces the importance of obeying them."
Whitaker notes that on the other hand, the conflict perspective says society lacks a general consensus about right versus wrong behavior, but rather, it is up to individuals of various social groups to decide what should be classified as a violation.
The functional role of villian will continue remain, however history has shown us that the specific acts classifed as villianous may change.