Villainification refers to the often unintentional process of focusing on one person, the villain, as wholly representative of a larger evil (van Kessel & Crowley, 2017). A common example would be Hitler as the embodiment of the horrors of the Second World War. Although these villains are responsible for horrific events, they are not solely responsible. Focusing the blame on an individual has the unintended effect of letting everyone else off the hook. “Villainification” is a term used to describe the process of portraying individuals or groups as villains or antagonists in a narrative, historical account, or public discourse. Similar to “heroification,” which idealizes historical figures as heroes, villainification involves presenting individuals or groups in a one-sided, negative light, often oversimplifying their actions, motivations, and complexities.

NEW BOOK! van Kessel, C., & Edmondson, K. (Eds.). (2024). Teaching villainification in social studies: Pedagogies to deepen understanding of social evils. Teachers College Press.

How do otherwise normal people inflict harm upon others?

For Hannah Arendt (1963/2006), evil can be a form of thoughtlessness—the banality of evil. As Arendt (1977) stated over a decade after her initial exploration of mundane evil: “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or to do either evil or good” (p. 180). In some contexts, this situation is interpreted as our socialization to follow orders in the sense of Stanley Milgram’s (in)famous experiments on destructive obedience. In other contexts (and not necessarily mutually exclusively) thoughtlessness can be interpreted as a lack of critical thought about how ordinary individuals can affect others (den Heyer & van Kessel, 2015). The historical record indicates that “demonic despots are never exclusively responsible for hatred and violence” and it is largely “normal” people who are perhaps thoughtlessly following orders or passionately doing “God’s work” to “stoke the gas chambers at Auschwitz, sow the killing fields in Cambodia, or hone the horrors of Abu Ghraib” (Solomon, 2012, p. 1).

While Arendt revealed how we can perpetuate evil without intending it, Becker explained why sometimes ordinary people can indeed purposely do evil deeds. The fetishization of evil leads us to localize all of our fears and anxiety into a single, manageable source. We take all that threatens to overwhelm us, confine it to a particular group of people, cause, ideology, or, in some cases a specific person, which is then labelled as evil. Our heroic quest, then, is to annihilate it. One’s own group is “pure and good” and others “are the real animals, are spoiling everything for you, contaminating your purity and bringing disease and weakness into your vitality” (Becker, 1975, p. 93). We have seen this in the Nazis conceptualizing Jews as infectious vermin before and during the Shoah, and some Hutus labelling the Tutsis as cockroaches before and during the Rwandan genocide.

From Arendt and Becker, we have come to understand how people like ourselves can perpetuate extraordinary death and destruction, both intentionally and unintentionally. The task of anti-villainification, then, is to highlight how there are a nexus of factors that contribute to the evils of the world. Instead of focusing only on one villain, we need to examine how ordinary, average people also contribute to great harm.

What Villainification Can Look Like

  • Simplifying Narratives: Just as heroification oversimplifies history, villainification can oversimplify the motivations and actions of certain individuals or groups. This can create a clear-cut narrative with heroes on one side and villains on the other.
  • Demonizing Opponents: In political, social, or ideological conflicts, villainification can be used to discredit opposing viewpoints or delegitimize opponents. This tactic can polarize discussions and make it more difficult to engage in constructive dialogue.
  • Propaganda and Manipulation: In propaganda, individuals or groups may be villainified to manipulate public opinion, generate fear, or justify certain actions or policies.
  • Reinforcing Stereotypes: Villainification can reinforce existing stereotypes about particular individuals, cultures, or groups, perpetuating bias and discrimination.
  • Cultural and Historical Narratives: In the retelling of history or cultural narratives, certain individuals or groups may be portrayed as villains based on prevailing perspectives and biases.
  • Maintaining Power Dynamics: By villainifying certain individuals or groups, those in power may seek to maintain their own authority or dominance.

It’s important to recognize that both heroification and villainification oversimplify complex historical, social, and human realities. They hinder a deeper understanding of the nuances, motivations, and contextual factors that shape the actions of individuals and groups. To develop a more balanced and accurate understanding of history and contemporary issues, it’s crucial to critically analyze narratives, seek diverse perspectives, and engage in open dialogue that acknowledges the complexities of human behavior and interactions.

Suggested Readings for further study

Arendt, H. (1977). The life of the mind: Thinking (vol. 1). Harcourt Brace.

Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. Penguin. (Original work published in 1963)

Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. Free Press.

Browning, C. R. (1993). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Harper Perennial.

den Heyer, K., & van Kessel, C. (2015). Evil, agency, and citizenship educationMcGill Journal of Education, 50(1), 1-18.

Journell, W. (2020). Vice, On the Basis of Sex, and the liberal imagination: Villainification and heroification in popular political film. Educational Studies, 56(1), 66–82.

Krutka, D. G. & Milton, M. K. (Producers). (2018, January 27). Episode 75: Evil and Villainification in the Social Studies with Cathryn van Kessel and Ryan Crowley. Visions of Education. [Audio podcast].

Minnich, E. (2014). The evil of banality: Arendt revisited. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 13, 158-179.

Solomon, S. (2012). Terror management theory: Why war?” In D. J. Christie (Ed.), The encyclopedia of peace psychology. Blackwell.

van Kessel, C. (2018). Banal and fetishized evil: Implicating ordinary folk in genocide education. Journal of International Social Studies, 8(2), 160-171.

van Kessel, C. (2022). Deindividualizing evil and good in social education. Social Education, 86(5), 347–354.

van Kessel, C., & Crowley, R. M. (2017). Villainification and evil in social studies education. Theory & Research in Social Education, 95(4), 427-455. https://www.doi.org10.1080/00933104.2017.1285734

van Kessel, C., & Edmondson, K. (Eds.). (2024). Teaching villainification in social studies: Pedagogies to deepen understanding of social evils. Teachers College Press.


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