Playing Devil’s Advocate

“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”

Bob Dylan, 
The Times They Are A-Changin’



A few weeks after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Bob Dylan was honored with the Thomas Paine Award at the Emergency Civil Liberties Union’s annually-held Bill of Rights ceremony. It was a prestigious award reserved for individuals for “their distinguished service in the fight for civil liberties.”

Having no business with politics, it is needless to say that Dylan felt out of place in the ceremony. He did not feel a connection with the organization or its members. He had just wanted to go home, when he was ushered to give an unscripted acceptance speech.

At that point in his career, he was starting to feel disillusioned with the folk music scene. As he would later articulate in his song My Back Pages, he had come to the realization of the “lies that life is black and white”, that perhaps equality and liberty are not as rigidly defined as he had thought. He had become aware of his “half-wracked prejudice” that led him to scream “rip down all hate” at the top of his lungs. 

But now, he was done. He was done singing “finger-pointing songs” and being a spokesperson. And this disillusionment was imploded in his speech that night. 

He rambled about how complex the world really is — that rather than being black and white, it might actually be grey. “I’ve read history books,” he said. “I’ve never seen one history book that tells how anybody feels. I’ve found facts about our history, I’ve found out what people know about what goes on but I never found anything about how anybody feels about anything that happens.”

He went on about how the world had very much changed since the time of his folk mentor Woody Guthrie, three decades prior. “It’s not that easy any more,” he said. “People seem to have more fears.”

At the most controversial point in his speech, he gave his opinions about Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President Kennedy, that he could see where Oswald was coming from. He said, “I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too — I saw some of myself in him. I don’t think it would have gone that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me.”

Surely, Dylan was booed, with many people thinking he was a psychopath for what he said in his speech.

But he did have a point, though. In that unscripted moment, he played devil’s advocate and considered the situation from an alternate, albeit unpopular perspective. He was honest and self-aware enough to discern that even in the best of us — even in himself — there is the same seed of anger and hatred that has sparked countless wars and assassinations. 

And this brings me to the point of this article.

When we think about troubled people, it’s far too easy to see them as pure evil. It’s not about condoning anybody’s misdeeds. It’s about recognizing that people are complex, and that more often than not, they have had struggles that shaped them into becoming who they are.

Understanding that, we could possibly be in a better place to help them, or to prevent similar tragedies from happening.

Personally, I don’t usually have the self-discipline to watch a series beyond the first episode. But I’m currently about halfway through watching Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. If you haven’t caught wind of it, it’s an uncanny portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer, a real-life serial killer and cannibal. 

It’s possibly the most disturbing and uncomfortable thing I’ve ever watched. Yet, I’m compelled to keep watching, because I feel the need to understand who Dahmer was as a person. 

The series tells his story in an interesting way, in that it doesn’t depict Dahmer one-dimensionally as a monster (despite the title), as most true-crime films tend to do. Rather, the series guides you in understanding his human aspects: his childhood traumas, his loneliness and insecurities, and other aspects of his life that gradually led him into committing the crimes that he did.

It’s horrifying to observe his descent — how his first murders were accidental, done in fits of regretful rage. But over time, killing became a source of enjoyment for him, that he just couldn’t stop taking one life after another.

Especially once I’ve understood his troubled relationship with his parents, I started feeling a lot more terrified in a sense. Because I realized that anybody was capable of great evil, particularly if they found themselves in a similarly traumatic upbringing such as his. 

The series has gotten a lot of flak, as some think that it glamorizes serial killers like Dahmer. While I agree that there are certain aspects of the series that could have been done more respectfully, especially in regards to the victims’ families, but I believe that the point of the series is for society to have less Dahmers in the world. 

As the series demonstrates, it’s largely the lack of empathy that drove him to the edge, and allowed him to commit his crimes scot-free for the long span of 13 years. It’s the lack of understanding between his family members, and the absence of a safe space for him to confide in. It’s the homophobia and racism that pervaded deeply in the police and legal system, and society at large. 

Choose empathy over hatred. 

You don’t have to support or agree with anything that’s unreasonable, wicked or evil. Nobody’s telling you to. But if you try to understand the forces behind them, it might give you a more wholesome take on other people and their behaviors, as well as the many issues going on in the world. 

To close this article, let me quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains an uprooted small corner of evil.”

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