What If There Was No Good/Bad Split in Narratives?

Since I was a teenager I’ve preferred watching non-American movies because they aren’t saddled with the boring good/bad split.

Drama becomes exceptionally lame when you are told who is good, who is bad, and then you take an obvious side and wait out the inevitable results.

Nothing is at stake.

This was always one of the first points I made when I was teaching ethics to computer science graduate students.

A simple good/bad binary is like an empty premise, not food for thought; doesn’t come anywhere close to reflecting the messy and hard decisions of the real world.

On that note, here’s an interesting essay that says Robin Hood was transfigured into a moral tale to excite political resistance:

As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.

My immediate thought is that this presents a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Were old stories changed only after nationalist consciousness, or did they create it?

I mean these narratives may have changed as a reflection of nationalist consciousness, but that doesn’t preclude narratives from having moral spin. Nor does it preclude moral stories from being messy and complex to stimulate thought instead of obedience.

Overall the essay lacks a lot of oral traditions and mostly centers around Greek literature. It makes no mention of Native American or African stories at all, for example, so I am unconvinced it has a fully researched view.

One clear danger is how a good/bad narrative is a terrible way to practice intelligence, let alone threat detection and mitigation. Some people broadly apply a very precise term like “terrorism”, for example, to be a generic classifier of “bad”:

The terrorism label, for them, is a way of distinguishing who is in the wrong. Brian Jenkins, a leading scholar of terrorism, observed in 1981: ‘Terrorism is what the bad guys do.’

One thought on “What If There Was No Good/Bad Split in Narratives?”

  1. I think there’s an even more insidious effect: good guy/bad guy narratives anchor an implicit lie that such categories exist in real life, and that you can accurately assign people around you to those categories. On its face, it’s absurd: no person is wholly good or bad: we each think and do many good and bad things every day.
    The biggest problem with good/bad thinking is that it’s so easy to dehumanize “bad guys”. Part of our cultural narrative about bad guys is that they have no value and there’s no downside to hurting them.
    If you embrace this lie and someone antagonizes or even opposes you, it can be very easy to categorize them as a bad guy and therefore worthless and deserving of any/all harm.
    Coupled with tribalism, this can have a powerful negative effect on a functioning society: sects will naturally see all others as “enemies” and adopt bad-faith/win-at-all-costs/scorched earth mentalities.
    tl;dr: current political problems are Disney’s fault.

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