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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Good vs Bad Guys in Stories (Mahabharata Notes #6)

More than a few times, I have heard American voters complain that the kind of leaders who should win elections are exactly those who do not want to be in politics in the first place. What they mean is that they want their communities or state or nation be run by people with no ambitions or are incapable of deception and manipulation. Of course, that's impossible, not to mention probably wrong anyway. Nevertheless, one could find quite the same sentiment described in Mahabharata, despite its time and political system way back when and where. In the ancient story, the rightful emperor to rule the Empire was Yudhishtir, the son of the god representing dharma itself, a man of impeccable personal and public morality and integrity. He is supposed to be every bit the ideal king/leader for average people across different cultures (if one could overlook a minor vice involving gambling).

What is the essential quality of such an ideal king/emperor/president/governor/head of the school board that everyone dreams of? He does not want it. Yes, such is the paradox. We want the assurance that he is doing this not for himself, but for you all! Oh isn't that sweet and lovely? Except this is neither human nor natural. People have to lie to be so saintly. Even if some are occasionally sincere in their selflessness, as we can see in Yudhishtir, such selflessness can be dangerous.



A good story has to talk out of both sides of its mouth, giving the reader perfectly valid motivations on both sides of the conflict. Both the good and bad guys look and sound human with reasons for their actions that we can empathize with. Then what makes some good and others bad? Why do we not feel they are morally equivalent? Why is Hamlet the good guy and Claudius the bad? OK, Claudius committed murder before the first act, and Hamlet did so in the final act? Why is Iago the bad guy while Othello the good? Indeed Othello's crime seems worse than anything Iago has done. Similarly, why is Yudhishtir the rightful emperor and his cousin Duryodhan the evil man? Only because the omens were ill upon the latter's birth, so bad that his uncle urged his parents to kill him right there to rid the world of the threat of destruction? Or because someone has to take the bad-guy role in a conflict?

There is a common but unspoken convention in stories about conflicts between good guys and bad guys. Bad guys, characteristically, never seem to have any problem grasping what they want. Yet good guys must hesitate and waver. They just want to live an ordinary, anonymous life devoid of power, we are told. They must not want the power and the glory which will inevitably be shoved in their faces. I thought "the reluctant hero" was a modern phenomenon, but I seem to be wrong. As such, the line of morality seems to be drawn along the question of how far a person is willing to go to get what he wants. It sounds odd, doesn't it? On first glance, there is nothing inherently good or bad in a person's desires and his or her actions to attain what he or she wants. Don't we all want and need something every day and then we try to get it? Why do people then assign the bad-guy label especially to people who have no restraints on their own desires and the good-guy label to those who do? How far does one go down the road of self-denial and restraint?

Perhaps all this grew out of an increasing size of population and complexity of society. People who are more motivated to shove others aside to grab more than his share of the limited resources pose a threat to the rest of the community. Meanwhile, people who tend to deny or curb their desires, out of whatever motives, are favored by others. This distinction coupled with power becomes a potent marker for one's place in his community.

Hence the paradox. One has to pursue one's self-interest in order to survive and maximize advantages in life. Yet at some point this natural and necessary instinct impinges on one's neighbors, who are also his competitors and collaborators. Hence it makes one a bad guy. Nobody is truly selfless, yet we all want the powerful ones to be selfless. No wonder deception and hypocrisy are necessary ingredients in politics. How else does one accommodate such conflicting demands from his society? Honesty would be the worst policy.

So we can revise the definitions of good guys and bad guys. A bad guy is a person who openly expresses his needs and wants and, in pursuit of these goals, is not inhibited by concerns for the welfare of others; in addition, he has the power and ability to get what he wants. A good guy is one who says, "Nah, you go first," for any kind of reason (heightened empathy, masochism, indirect gain, cooperation, etc.). An arbitrary definition, yes, and potentially detrimental. Thus we enter the territory of moral relativism.

Herein lies the problem. We know that stories are symbols that we use to code our inner conflicts, most of which unconscious. The things we fear become fabled monsters. Who are the selfish and uninhibited bad guys in stories then, if not an externalization of our own deeply hidden wishes and desires?

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