“Some men just want to watch the world burn,” according to Alfred Pennyworth, the doughty Englishman who is the intellectual mentor to Bruce Wayne as well as aide-de-camp to Wayne’s alter-ego, in one of the recent re-remakings of the Batman yarn. In an era when entertainment has merged with real-life, and movies and miniseries are looked to now for insights on the human condition, the quotation has gained some resonance in public discourse. The movie’s popularity with younger audiences has helped spread Alfred’s wisdom, and it surely helps that each day brings new examples of individuals acting without concern for social propriety or personal decorum, with mobs screaming, threatening, and smashing and burning property. Pundits and comedians use Alfred’s line to drive home their unique wisdom, and high-school age philosophers and underemployed ethicists use it to argue their points on social media platforms.
These new oracles are not explaining the growing phenomenon of public anger and violence; they are contributing to the mood of public discontent: they’re demonizing their supposed opponents, not bringing any light to the gloom.
Alfred’s insight is that there are rare but real examples of humans who relish the misery or even demise of others. It’s probably true, but that’s not what accounts for the now regularly organized and staged violent outbursts, the justified incidents of vandalism and nuisancy, public shaming and threats of assault.
None of these things are explained by cinematic wisdom, but they do correspond to an unfortunately common sense of self-mythology, of individuals creating a story that explains and justifies one’s circumstances and then holds the rest of the world responsible for one’s grievances. At that point, violence has become practically an individual right.
It’s important to recognize how entertainment is the template for all this. Participating in violence is a style statement for some, a role-playing exercise for most. They’re demanding that the rest of us confer legitimacy on their unreality, but even those demands are for show. They don’t want to watch the world burn so much as that seeing the world burn gives them the thrill of seeing everyone else tremble at the unrest they create.
Anger, it should be emphasized, is a real human emotion, a reaction. But it is a personal one, not a social response. The advance of human civilization over thousands of years has tended to emphasize the superior value of other human impulses and to minimize the occasions of violence. Obviously, there are multiple examples of the opposite, but in general human beings learn that civility and collaboration are more productive uses of their effort and energy.
It’s undeniably true that the prosperity of individuals results from directing effort and energy at growing and building things, applying knowledge to improve things, and exchanging ideas and resources with others — even nominal enemies — to make even more improvements.
But, if the civilization has lost all memory of this progress, if it has nothing better to offer restless minds than entertainment, then the comparative value of individual restraint and applied effort may seem dull, ineffectual. If entertainment, not history or experience, provides the basis of our self-awareness then rage may seem like an effective reaction to failure, disappointment, or defeat. If so, we should be angry at ourselves.