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The Problem with Heroes and Villains

protestIn a bizarre twist this past week, George Zimmerman rescued a family from an overturned SUV.  The reason I call it “bizarre” is that so many (myself included) have been presuming Zimmerman’s villainy, given the killing of Trayvon Martin.

And in light of an obvious act of heroism (yes, I know, many will call it too coincidental, or staged to rehab his image, but that seems rather unlikely), I had to recognize that I had diminished his humanity in my mind.  It wasn’t something I did consciously, but something that as a therapist, I should have caught sooner.

I should know better.  And here’s why it’s important for everyone to be aware of that kind of reductionist tendency.Life can seem easier when we simplify it.  That person’s good, that one’s bad.  In more extreme cases, like with George Zimmerman, we might even find ourselves talking about him like he’s a true villain in our midst.  And on the opposite side, I noticed a tendency of people who supported Zimmerman to villify Trayvon Martin and hip-hop culture.

The problem is, this makes for an almost unbridgable chasm for discourse.  If we have good on our side and they have evil on theirs, what’s to discuss?  We’re in no position to have our minds changed, no matter what evidence comes out on either side.  We’re fully polarized.

And what that means is that both sides miss the benefit of the others’ argument.  We all have blind spots.  That’s true for all humans, including lawmakers.  And if we have a knee-jerk response to the Zimmerman verdict–either for or against–and from there decide that we know how to, say, reform gun law, it’s a limiting proposition.

There should be discussion.  There should be discourse.  There should be compromise.  And in a world where there’s irreducible good and evil, and heroes and villains, it’s hard to find a starting point.

I don’t know what’s in George Zimmerman’s head or heart.  I don’t know if he’s experiencing dark nights of the soul, if he has deep remorse for the killing of Trayvon Martin, if he is thinking of what he might have done differently or will do differently in the future.

Do I now believe that his actions were acceptable in killing Trayvon Martin because he rescued a family?  No, I don’t.  But I’m more aware that he’s human–with frailties and failings and the capacity for goodness and for rehabilitation–and that’s something I should not have lost sight of, as a therapist.

If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be capable of doing the kind of work I do.  Because sometimes, I work with clients who have committed terrible acts.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to empathize with them.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say, “I would never have done what they did,” and to be distant from that person.  But my profession requires more of me.  It requires that I find out more about that person’s story, and what in their particular history led them to that particular action.

What I mean is, Given my personal history, I would not have done what they did.  But maybe I also would never have been in that position.  I did not experience the childhood suffering that they did.  I did not have the exact set of factors that led me to that moment in time, and to having to make the choice that they did.

So when we’re going too quickly to a place of judgment, it’s good to step back and think that there’s no one who’s a hero in every situation, and no one who’s a villain in every situation.  We have our own unique suffering, our own unique privilege, our own unique experiences, and our own unique choices.

It might feel good to sit in judgment of others and to reduce their humanity.  But it doesn’t lead the way to greater understanding, to connection, or to illuminating discourse.  And that’s something that’s sorely needed in the wake of tragedy, and of finding our way forward as a society.

Protester image available from Shutterstock.

The Problem with Heroes and Villains

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). The Problem with Heroes and Villains. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 26 Jul 2013
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