In sixth grade, my YMCA summer camp took a trip to Corona Del Mar, one of the nicest beaches in Southern California. One of the campers — we’ll call him Evan — grabbed a big slice of watermelon out of his backpack and began eating it with his tiny hands. A couple of seconds later, I felt the slice of watermelon thump on my foot as Evan went into a fit of rage at another camper — who we’ll call Paul. Evan pushed the kid into the water. We will never know if he intended for Paul to hit his head on the side of the pool. In any case, the water began to look oddly pinkish, Evan started laughing, and spectators crowded around, watching. Paul got an absurd number of stitches, and I didn’t see Evan for the rest of summer. For the onlookers, it was one of the most memorable experiences at camp. But why was it?
There’s a convincing belief in society that evil is individual. The people make a spectacle of individual wrongdoing like that of Evan’s, while neglecting to mention the systemic problems that might have allowed for or exacerbated the incident. What was up with Evan’s mental health? Why were the youth leaders not watching closely enough? Why did everyone watch the scene unfold instead of helping? We don’t ask these questions often enough, and that leads people — in this case a sixth-grade me — to have the insight that certain people are inherently evil and bear the burden of their wrongdoing alone. The reality is that evil is not an isolated incident, and the blame should be more widely disseminated.
“Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli is a perfect example of this. A Google search of the former Turing Pharmaceuticals chief executive officer and convicted fraudster reveals more than a million different hits. He inexplicably raised the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000 percent overnight, and he’s certainly received a lot of attention for that.
To many, he has become a living manifestation of the capitalistic greed plaguing the American economy. If “evil” did exist at the individual level, many would use the term to describe Shkreli.
Yet it doesn’t; not to me, at least. I don’t think Shkreli’s evil. I think it’s just what media narratives happen to portray — or maybe that’s just an easier way for our brain to process it. When we focus on the individual, we allow ourselves to bury the real issue. It is easy to blame one person for doing something awful. It is less easy to reckon with the issue that certain systems exist and are complicit in perpetuating wrongdoing.
To simply denounce Shkreli is to ignore the real problem. Don’t get me wrong; Shkreli is a bad person who did bad things and deserves to be punished for them. It’s the amount of attention he’s getting that’s the problem. The whole scandal has acted as a sideshow, a red herring diverting our attention from the reality that the U.S. healthcare system is the worst in the developed world. It ignores the fact that many Americans can’t afford their medications, that Breaking Bad’s plotline is vaguely realistic. The message is clear: Paying attention to dramatic media sideshows produces a cost we may never know.
The YMCA incident still replays in my mind more often than one might expect. Still, I don’t feel I’ve done enough to ensure that moments like that never happen again. It’s hard to not go along with the way things are. Complicity is easy, but complicity is foolish.
Off the Beat columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion columnists have been selected.
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