Which is to say: everyone tells a story to themselves about their lives, and in everyone’s story their actions are justifiable and make sense. It’s quite natural to think of some people as utterly incomprehensible, completely detached from reality, incapable of noticing obvious flaws in their beliefs, or valuing evil for its own sake. But mostly people aren’t.
Not everyone’s story is in the same genre. Some people are in a sitcom; some people are in a save-the-world science fiction novel; some people are in a mainstream, realistic novel about a father going to work every day and nobly sacrificing so that his children will have a better life. Me, I’m in a tremendously tedious biopic and we’ve been stuck in The Artist’s Early Life for an extraordinarily long time.
Of course, some people do tell stories in which they are the villains. But nobody tells a story in which they’re a lame, stupid villain; they tell stories in which they’re the villains that you wind up rooting for. They might be Punisher, wreaking vengeance on those who truly deserve it, willing to make the hard decisions for the greater good of all. They might be Frank Abagnale, living by their wits, cleverly outsmarting the forces of law and order. They might be Darth Vader, evil but oh-so-glamorous.
(In my experience, the last group tends to be pretty wimpy on the actual evil front.)
People are sympathetic to themselves mostly. When they aren’t, it’s called depression and it’s a pretty serious mental health condition– but even depressives, in my experience, often still have a story about how everyone has mistreated them and they’re holding up under adversity. That means that, for everyone you loathe and despise, there is a story in which they’re doing the right thing. If you try hard enough, you might be able to understand it yourself.
This applies even to the great villains of history. Nazis, Maoists, segregationists… they aren’t that different from us psychologically. I’m probably more different from the average neurotypical than I am from a Nazi with borderline personality disorder; in the right conditions, I too would be a Nazi. This is important. It means that you can’t say “I have a story I’m telling myself about why I’m sympathetic and good, so that means I must be sympathetic and good.” Everyone has those stories.
That doesn’t mean you have to stop thinking they’re doing harm, of course. People who think they’re doing right often hurt people in tremendously awful ways; the most dangerous people in the world are those who are well-intentioned but misinformed. But I think understanding people who are doing wrong is the first step to convincing them that they shouldn’t, and it’s an important tool to keep from demonizing people who hurt you.
Because… some of those self-justifying stories people tell should throw up a red flag. They’re stories told far more often by those doing evil than by those doing good. And “those people are Always Chaotic Evil orcs” is one.