The problem with vigilantism

By Lily Rusk, Clarion Co-Editor in Chief

Vigilantism is a prevalent concept dominating pop culture. Vigilantes are typically depicted as “heroes” doing what is necessary when a bureaucratic system fails to get things done. It is not difficult to perpetuate this story line when much of the nation is dissatisfied with the government. However, it is important to look at this concept as a whole as opposed to looking through the rose colored glasses of an unreliable narrator. 

According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, the definition of vigilante is a person or group of people who undertake law enforcement without legal authority. This concept can be applied to many characters in popular culture, and most prominently, superheroes. For example, Batman (as shown in The Batman[2022], The Dark Knight Rises [2012], Batman[1989] ) is construed as a hero who breaks the law but who is thought of as acceptable because he follows his own moral code.  

However, this vigilante concept can also be applied to his nemesis, the Joker. In the 2019 Joker adaptation, directed by Todd Phillips, the Joker is put down by a government and society that is designed to help those at the top and ignore people like him. It is apparent the character sees his attacks on wealthy Bruce Wayne as justice for what has been done to him. This view of who is right is often dictated by who is telling the story, because in their eyes, they are the hero who is doing what needs to be done. 

This idea of a moral code that the vigilante operates by is persuasive because it sounds nice. Most are along the lines of only hurting those who deserve to be hurt, however, what someone deserves is up to interpretation. This interpretation should not be left up to one person (real or fictional) to decide, ignoring the reason why the government exists. With a government, the population at large is deciding which laws get passed and which people get to make decisions about those laws through a system of checks and balances. When looking at vigilantism, it is presented as something moral that has to be done; however, many vigilanties, in practice, are not as likable as those on screen. 

In real life, the vigilant trope is embodied in deplorable groups such as those who led the insurrection on the U.S. Capital on January 6, 2021, and the Ku Klux Klan. These are two groups who have committed heinous acts in the name of how they think society should function. They discard laws and make their own rules, ignoring the democracy America claims to stand for. Even more ironically, these groups claim their efforts are for the welfare of the country, but in reality, they are fracturing it to a point which seems impossible to come back from.

One of the arguably most famous vigilante characters is Robin Hood. First mentioned in the 14th century in The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland, Robin Hood’s message to steal from the rich and give to the poor is an admirable idea. However, someone may disagree who has a lot of money – and who values making, and keeping that money. As opposed to one person stealing and giving to those who they think should have it, higher taxes need to be implemented upon the rich to pay for programs which can have widespread positive effects.

Conflicting opinions on what is just are the reason why we need a government, as opposed to allowing individuals with their own agenda to do as they please without any checks and balances or consequences.  Moreover, one person’s idea of what is best is subjective and may not comport with what is best for society at large. It is imperative that the outcome of whose ideas prevail is predicated on  a carefully crafted system of government rather than brute strength. In reality, life isn’t black and white, no one is perfectly moral without innate biases and a just system must be based on neutral laws not personal vendettas.

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