(This post originally ran at Womanist Musings. It has since been updated to reflect the comment thread from the original posting and my subsequent rethinking of this topic. As always, I am thankful for those who take the time to comment, to open up the dialogue, and to help me question/refine my own thoughts.)
I am beginning to wonder – have we become less like Frankenstein’s monster, who was horrified by his own monstrous reflection, and more like traditional vampires, who could not see their own reflection? I am in hopes the monstrous acts of violence, war, hate crime, etc will lead us to contemplate our collective reflection in that largest of mirrors – our society – and to become horrified by our own monstrous acts (as well as our monstrous inaction).
As pointed out in a comment from Sparky (of Spark in Darkness), designating people as monsters and their acts as monstrous allows a distancing — as if what she/he/they did is profoundly Other, not human, not us, not a reflection of our society. As Sparky points out, this shuts down analysis and allows for the writing off of certain acts as an aberration. “I hate it when we describe criminals as monsters. Because I think it is used to AVOID showing and AVOID examining. It is used as a simple closing word, a dismissal, and avoidance,” he writes. We certainly saw this phenomenon with the Abu Ghraib torture and the writing off of Lindsey England as a “bad apple,” a monstrous women.
We also see it in the labeling of Sarah Palin as a monster (as many pundits do and as one comment in the thread named her). While I am no fan of Palin, I think labeling her as a monster demonstrates Sparky’s argument. Palin is a product of U.S. culture and politics — in fact a creation that mirrors in many senses what is expected of a powerful woman. It is our society that is monstrous, evil, greedy, sexist, racist, etc — humans like Palin are the products of this, the modern Frankenstein “monsters” that SHOULD reveal to us our insanities and injustices. By labeling her a monster we instead Otherize her, discounting how she is a logical product of U.S. empire.
When I posted a few weeks back at my Seduced by Twilight blog on “What does a monster look like?” someone commented as follows in the thread:
“I think REAL monsters are those that don’t look like monsters at all. The most innocent looking, quiet ones that wait in the shadows and kill young women are today’s monsters. Monsters are violent and relentless but not always obvious.”
While I agree that real monsters are scarier than fictional ones, I am intrigued about the way we use the word monster both to designate creatures of the imagination – vampires, zombies, dragons, etc – as well as to designate people who act in ways defined as monstrous, cruel, and evil.
The etymological roots of the term monster come from “monere” (to warn), “monstrum” (that which teaches), and “monstrare” (to show). As noted in this essay on monsters, “The theme of teaching or guiding is thus implicit in the etymology, with the English word ‘demonstrate’ turning out to be a cousin of ‘monster’ in that the Latin ‘demonstratum’ is a past participle of ‘demonstrare’, which means ‘to point out, indicate, show or prove’.”
These etymological roots indicate that monsters (both those we create in our fictional worlds AND those that inhabit our societies) teach, warn, show, prove, and indicate.
Though I agree with Sparky’s points that labelling some as monsters can lead to a lack of analysis, I do think that the etymological roots of the word provide us with a critical lens with which to examine today’s “REAL monsters” (as they are referred to in the above comment). The daily acts of rape and murder should WARN us that our society condones and perpetuates violence. These monstrosities of war should TEACH as that war is not the answer. The prevalence of hate crime should SHOW as that we are not in a post-racial, post-feminist, or post-heterosexist world. All of these different acts of human monstrosity DEMONSTRATE, INDICATE, and PROVE that our corporate capitalist heteronormative patriarchy breeds monsters at an alarming rate.
Those we generally consider monsters – those that kill/torture/abuse indiscriminately and repeatedly – do serve as a warning – a warning that our society not only allows such monsters, but actively creates them. Are not such monster indicating that our world breeds violence? Do they not point out that the main modes of societal organization – patriarchy, corporate capitalism, militarism – is perhaps the perfect conditions for monsters to thrive? Does not their existence – in exorbitant numbers and in all branches of society – priesthoods, schools, sports, government, media, etc – PROVE that we may be creating more monsters than we can slay or contain, let alone eradicate?
I am focused on such so-called REAL monsters for reasons close to home. Last month, a 17-year-old female from my town was raped and murdered while jogging alone in a local park. This past weekend, on Easter Sunday, the attendance secretary from my son’s school was shot in her home, as was her husband, by a disgruntled neighbor who decided the best way to solve their long-standing disputes over a parking space was with a shotgun.
I am also focused on such REAL monsters due to a slew of hate crimes on the campus where I teach – crimes that have largely been ignored by campus administrators as well as the local media.
I know that such incidents are far from unique. I know such monsters lurk in every neighborhood, on every campus, in every corner of the globe, and certainly in many governments, religious organizations, and law enforcement teams. But, somehow, the warning seems more urgent when such monstrous acts become so common as to be expected – as if daily violence, rape, murder, and hatred – not to mention never-ending war – is par for the course.