November 14, 2009

Good Guys and Bad Guys

We all love the struggle between good (us) and evil (them). It is, in its own way, deeply satisfying. Think of the plots of the James Bond films, the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films. In such movies, it’s quite obvious who the bad guys are. Caricatures of evil, they are ruthless, maniacal, without remorse, and so they must be stopped by any means necessary. We are meant to feel that it is okay—even, to tell the truth, pleasurable—to see violence inflicted upon them. Because the villains like to hurt people, it’s okay to hurt them. Because they like to kill people, it’s okay to kill them. After all, they are evil, and evil must be destroyed.

What is this kind of story teaching us? That if you really want to hurt someone, it is important to demonize them first—in other words, fit them into your good-versus-evil story. That is why truth is the first casualty of all wars.

- David R. Loy, from “The Nonduality of Good and Evil,” Tricycle, Spring 2002

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Alex Bowles's picture

Not all depictions of evil are intended to focus people's energy on specific threats, be they other individuals, groups, nations, or religions.

To the contrary, many stories with good and bad characters are designed for moral instruction. The fact that 'bad guys' are so universally recognizable only adds to their power as cross-cultural memes that can be easily adapted to local tastes.

The idea, of course, is to show an outcome that strikes listeners as both necessary and probable. As such, they have far more to do with developing the social norms that bind a particular group, and less to do with setting members of that group against one others.

Mumon's picture

As I wrote at Danny Fisher's blog:

Richard Dawkins put it thus: we’re wired for duality; it’s in our DNA, evidently. It clearly fulfills a function to help train young people; nuance doesn’t work in the hunt or in combat with other tribes.

IOW, we’re wired to not see things clearly.

Truth was the casualty of our evolution as human beings.

That said, nuance has a big survival value today.

A Gift of Dharma for 11.16.09 « Rev. Danny Fisher's picture

[...] habit of this, but today’s quote is kyped from a recent post by the great Philip Ryan at the Tricycle Editor’s Blog, and comes to us from Dr. David R. Loy.  I’ve been mulling over it since I read it a couple [...]

BlindRob's picture

Demonization of the enemy is a tactic that works so well becaue it appeals to human psychology, and it has certainly been used in the past in the west to good effect. However it tends to work best with naiive and unsophisticated populations. In the west we are developed enough that we as a population are rightly wary of being caught up in that sort of thing, and of course we in the Buddhist sub-group are particularly enjoined to remain above the propoganda fray. But I find nothing in any level of the Precepts that suggests that we should ignore evil or wrongdoing, which is a sort of a reverse trap we are falling into as often and consistently as our pre-television forefathers did with the infamous propoganda stories about the evil Hun and so on. At some point, surely, ignoring or allowing evil becomes as bad as the original evil itself. What we need is wisdom, always a commodity that has perhaps been over-rationed by nature. Could that be because, all things being equal, the Evil tend to kill or suppress everyone else?

Gene's picture

This tendency/need to demonize can be decreased through compassion. Not feeling sorry for or excusing the bad guy, murderer, rapist, thief, etc... but honestly trying to understand the conditions that created them and the situation. Then taking mindful action. This is not something most people want to hear though, so it's something I try to do and not talk about much. Be the change you want to see.

Charles Cameron's picture

Just read a terrific piece in Tricycle
with thanks to David Loy

Ye gods and goddesses how tired I am of Buddhism
this and Buddhism that when clear as day
common sense, clarity, a little introspection, a
pause for breath would say the same. Ferns,
lilies and perhaps sparrows take no thought for
the morrow, moreso than many a zen monk: they
do in fact labor and spin after the manner of
chopping wood and schlepping water, but there is no
requirement on them for doctrine, and we humans
might fly or flower with the same insouciance.
Better ride a tricycle than read it, I think,
or best yet, write one that doesn't belong to or
preach some hat, throne or book, when people
have insight anywhere -- since it inheres in all of us...


Rev. Danny Fisher's picture

Beautiful. Thanks, Phil.