Heroes and villains

Along with a new pair of shoes for my son came a small comic book printed on cheap junk-mail paper. A little odd for a shoe company for sure, but it was definitely popular with my son. It was also the first comic book he’d ever seen. 

It contained three very short and, in my mind at least, dull and idiotic stories of fun-loving, hip superheroes taking on some or other supervillain.

What struck me most about these stories and, by extension, the plots I’ve encountered in most superhero movies (I’ve never read comics), was the exceedingly flat, one-dimensional nature of the characters. The heroes are unequivocally good, savvy, and beautiful while the villains are unrelentingly  evil and ugly.

There is no negotiating. There is no realization of being mistaken. There are no apologies, no regrets.

It made me think about Washington, and the stalemate in American politics. The whole thing really does seem like a bad comic book story. And then I began to wonder how many comic books the politicians in Washington read as kids, and whether this had any sort of influence on their later behavior.

As a young boy, I read the Mr. Pink-Whistle series by Enid Blyton. This strange little man bounces about the neighborhood “putting things right”. The series was written in the 1940s and 50s, and some of it comes across as a little creepy in the context of today’s society (for instance, Mr. Pink-Whistle happily trots into children’s houses and bedrooms uninvited, avoiding other grown-ups by wearing an invisibility ring). But there is a particular theme that appears in almost every story: The person who caused the mischief sees the error of his ways and turns over a new leaf.

This is undoubtedly naïve, but is it more so than the comic book version of reality in which character is set in stone?

I find myself wanting to read Mr. Pink-Whistle to the dear Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill.

Sadly, the comic book interpretation of character seems to hold sway in many places. As soon as someone is arrested under suspicion of committing a crime, his face is splashed all over the news, assigning him to a knee-jerk de facto guilty verdict, and attendant vilification, before he has even stepped foot in a courtroom.  Video games and movies, especially the violent kind, are hideously extreme in their portrayal of good vs. evil. Priests talk sadly about the evil that permeates the world outside the church’s door. Environmentalists complain about the Machiavellian evil of GMO companies and Big Pharma, while conservatives attack the evil mainstream media with their socialist-gay-liberal agenda.

It’s so easy to paint the “other” as wholly bad. 

Someone in a forum discussion recently said to me that if my moral system cannot tell whether a person is good or bad, then I’ll never “join the ranks of the great philosophers”. I replied that great philosophers are not so naïve as to get into the business of assigning such simplistic labels to people.

Rather, I think it’s the other way around. It takes a certain moral laziness to call people “good” or “bad”, especially when the judgment is based on a single meeting or news report.

President Obama has lately been spending more time with the opposition, listening to what they’re saying. Sharing a meal. Having a beer.

Perhaps Mr. Pink Whistle won’t be needed after all.


10 Responses to Heroes and villains

  1. rudyardh says:

    I could not agree more; over here in S A we have a similar scenario.
    The newsprint media constantly portrays the government as bad, incompetent and lazy but, as much as I am no ANC cardre, I must admit that their picture is not accurate and that they do appear to have a hidden agenda. A similar scene is unfolding with Oscar P. He is being vilified in the press and found guilty long before any trial takes place. It may seem cynical but is there really such a thing as “black and white” or are there only shades of grey?

    • Keith says:

      I agree – I don’t think anything is ever truly black and white. And sadly you can make yourself quite unpopular with a lot of people by pointing out this fact! There’s always pressure to toe the simplistic party line.

  2. RG says:

    There’s a difference between saying, “A good person would be/act like this: …” and “Mr/s X is a good person.” An adequate system of ethics would/should provide the former, and frown on the latter.

    • Keith says:

      Ruedi: I think I see I what you’re getting at. If we’re going to judge people at all, we should judge them by their actions, not by the things people say about them, etc.

      • RG says:

        Yes, and no. Yes, if we do judge, we should judge by the evidence of actions. But no, my point was that we should have a good handle on what actions should be considered good or bad, but that we should be extremely reluctant to judge any specific person at all. Even if we observe an action, we most often will not see the whole picture, and therefore be unable to judge correctly. (Of course there are clear cases, like Hitler’s genocide, but most often, things aren’t that nicely clear-cut.)

        And then of course there is that whole business of distinguishing between “judging in order to assess a situation correctly,” and “judging in order to make myself feel better than the other guy.” In my belief system, the former is encouraged, and the latter is condemned.

    • Tom Stewart says:

      Yes. Both virtue ethics and deontological ethics fail as fundamentals for this reason. Morally assessing either people or rules / duties, while convenient linguistically, are dependent, ultimately on the outcomes of their actions or the action itself.

  3. Tom Stewart says:

    Interestingly, I had a conversation along similar lines in the now almost defunct Fundamental Fighting Forums some time ago with a poster whose point was largely that the world was divided into two distinct ideological types – the good conservatives and the bad liberals. While we have to accept that words are defined by their usage rather than their etymology (think “atheist” as a good example) it seems clear enough that usage has deviated somewhat from their original meanings, enough to allow ideological proponents to corrupt any meaningful ideological debate.

    In the US, as elsewhere, both major parties have embraced policies that seem to be contradictory judged against the standards of previously-accepted political norms. If, for example, we accept a resistance to change as a fundamental aspect of conservatism, while an acceptance that societal improvement is possible through a commitment to individual freedoms as a liberal premise, then it is difficult to place the present-day Republicans and Democrats within this structure. Undoubtedly, in Abraham Lincoln’s day, the Democrats, especially of the Southern states, represented conservatism to a greater degree while the Republicans were the liberals of the later Nineteenth Century. To a great extent the positions had reversed by the Great Depression of the 1930s – although of course, it’s much more complex than that.

    We now have a situation where the Republican Party has come to represent an unholy alliance of fundamentalist Christians, free-market advocates and gun-toting libertarians, very often within the same person. However, perhaps the worst part of it is the use of labels which now have little other meaning as little more than mere derogatory terms, useful in no other way than to denigrate opponents, not for their beliefs as much as their very existence. It is reminiscent of the worst excesses of discrimination and unfortunately seems to be part of the nature of human society, albeit one which, optimistically I believe, continues overall to change for the better.

  4. On a similar note psychologists have documented the “halo effect”. This is where people are seen as wholly good or bad, usually based on one area. For example if someone is arrogant, people presume all their characteristics are negative. Or if someone is good looking, it is presumed they are also friendly, funny etc.

    • RG says:

      People are so complex… Psychologists have also figured out that traits change by situation: To simplify, if someone is arrogant during lunch time today, you can predict that they will be arrogant during lunch time tomorrow, too, but you cannot predict that they will be arrogant during the afternoon business meeting…

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