Monday, March 10, 2014

Dualism: The Sequel

Last week we talked about the tendency of popular story-telling to engender dualistic thinking either directly, within the story, or indirectly, by making it look like nothing cool happens without evil people around mixing it up.

But, dualism isn't true, and its effect (whether it’s in a story, or in the mind of the reader) is to make stories about good and evil much less awesome. To illustrate this, let’s talk about Darth Vader.

Shooting lightning and getting pissed-off are strictly forbidden by The Force...
or, half of it anyway. 
We have a perfect example of dualism in The Force. A long time ago, a galaxy far, far away was held together by an invisible,
impersonal being that was just as willing to hand you a cup of tea as it was to delude the stupid person of your choice, or frickin’ choke them to death, dependent solely upon how attracted it was to you. To spite the fact that this makes The Force about as moral as a rock (use it to build a house; use it to bash in a head) the Jedi ascribe moral significance to it, and seem to claim that it has a side that is “light” (i.e. “good”) and one that is “dark” (i.e. “evil”), and that it has “ways”. So, what we have here is the fundamental binding principle of the universe revered as quasi-divine, but it’s equally willing to enslave and destroy as it is to do anything else – dualism.

Now, the alternative to dualism is the position that good is the real thing, and that evil is failure to be good – whether by accident or on purpose. This is very handy, because it means we have a single standard by which to evaluate everything from a moral standpoint: actions, goals, attitudes, apples, back-flips, whatever.

If the Bears win Super Bowl XLIX,
the world will be shrouded in darkness forever.
On the other hand, if we think that good and evil are equal principles – like two “sides” of the same thing maybe – then “good” things and “bad” things fundamentally have equal right to exist. If evil is as old and fundamental as good, then who are you to say that good should win in any given circumstance? 

If we think this way, then fights between good and evil end up being like football games. You might root for the Eagles or the Cowboys but, really, they could swap uniforms and the game would be the same. The outcome just determines which guy gets the Gatorade dumped on him.

When we recognize that good is the real thing, then we can see that not only are murder and theft evil (because life and property are good) but we also see that ignorance is evil (because knowledge is good) and that weakness is evil (because strength is good). A bad apple is bad because it’s rapidly ceasing to be an apple. Bret Favre and I couldn't just switch uniforms, because I am crappy at football.

But, if we think that evil might work, that evil endures like good and matches it punch for punch, then there is nothing to stop us calling good qualities bad and bad qualities good. Really, we’ll have to call some good qualities bad at least, otherwise we’ll never be able to maintain the idea that it works – because, fundamentally, only good does.

This, in turn, leads us to Darth Vader.

The first thing we ever see Darth Vader do is board a ship using deadly force, casually walking over the bodies of the fallen. The second thing he does is lift a guy off the ground with one hand and crush his throat. He wears an inhuman mask connected to his mobile iron lung, which has a Nazi helmet on it, and tortures people who get in his way. Yet, not only is he a popular character, he’s the center of that story in a very real sense.

Plus, immediately after being reunited with his son,
he offers him a partnership in the family business.
And this is not surprising, because Darth Vader possesses several actually good qualities which have been placed on the evil side of the dualistic playing field. Qualities that, most of the time, are displayed by the bad guys in popular fiction. Qualities like an iron will, strong conviction, and, perhaps most notably, having something to do. In these stories the bad guy positively wants or believes in something. The good guy is just there to stop him.

Darth Vader, for instance, wanted to rule the galaxy. And, besides blowing up Alderaan (which they only did because of the rebellion in the first place), it isn't clear why the rebellion objected so strongly to that administration. But they did, and they struggled heroically to make sure something didn't happen. “But,” you may say, “They fought for freedom!” Sure, but the problem is that freedom is the ability to do something, it isn't something to do. Freedom without anything you actually intend to accomplish is boredom. It is listless and meaningless.

Having something to do is good, but in fiction it seems that only evil people have specific goals, while the good guys sacrifice their very lives for everyone’s right to do whatever. This is silly. And, even if the bad guys are bad because their goals are evil, we should admit that good guys without goals aren't actually very good.

The influence of dualism throws us into a hopeless confusion about what to fight for, or fight against, or whether to fight at all, or eat meat, or get angry, or do "evil" so "good" can come of it, or visa versa. When good is good, and evil is evil, things become a lot clearer. And the fight scenes are more exciting.

© 2014 John Hiner III

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