Heroes, Villains, and Minions: How Politicians Use Characters to Wield Influence

Professor James M. Jasper (Photo courtesy of Jasper)

Professor James M. Jasper (Sociology) has been part of social justice movements for most of his life, starting from his time doing anti-apartheid work in the 1980s. He’s since traded in his picket sign for academia, studying social movements and the ways character-building influences political and even social outcomes. 

His years-long research has culminated in a book about the politics of reputation and the qualities that bring a person to power — or cast a person as the villain. Jasper spoke with The Graduate Center about the new book, Public Characters: The Politics of Reputation and Blame.

“The world’s a complicated place. Characters are part of that complicated world, but we need to use them in the right way when we use them as symbols,” Jasper says. “Donald Trump is a master of simplified tweets that demonize people. A better way to do character work is to find people who really do represent your moral point of view and enrich our understanding rather than diminishing and oversimplifying the world.”

Jasper describes “character work” as an effort to portray any human entity (like people, organizations, nations, etc.) in terms of their strength and weakness or morality. We use our understanding of heroes and villains in order to paint somebody as one of those. 

As the book’s description reads: “Character work consists of more than simple claims of fact; societies build their solidarity and policies out of admiration for heroes but also outrage over villains.” 

Jasper writes that a sideline gig as a standup comedian, where he used heroes and villains to pillory politicians like President George H.W. Bush, ignited his interest in character rhetoric. He has since devoted years of research to the subject. But for this book, he enlisted the help of Michael Young, a historian who studies past social movements, and Elke Zuern, a political scientist whose research centers on southern Africa. 

The way we characterize people and cast them in our political world defines our country in several ways, Jasper says. It influences how we see and engage with various groups, like immigrants, women, and Black people, whom we believe to be victims in the country, and how politicians portray themselves and their opponents. 

In a world where reputation is everything, “heroes, villains, victims, and minions” are very important in our politics and culture, Jasper holds. 

Jasper uses the recent protests in Minnesota (following the death of George Floyd) as a prime example of how character work isn’t always easy.

“Any oppressed group has character issues. They have to fight stigma that’s part of their marginalization,” Jasper says. “They do it through establishing themselves as heroes. It’s really when movements disrupt things that they get results.”

Submitted on: JUN 3, 2020

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