What is a good guy? What is a bad guy? Good, evil, what is it? Why do I feel like I’ve been lied to my whole life?
I was discussing issues of racism and cultural appropriation with an acquaintance once, and he asked if “playing cowboys and indians when you are 5 (years old) is considered racist now?”
It was at that moment I realized how many of my generation were trained to view the world in a very simple way.
Like many men my age, a lot of my childhood was spent watching cartoons about good versus evil, or running around the backyard making annoying machine gun noises while pointing plastic weapons at my brother, a cousin or a friend. There was a good guy, and a bad guy. We would take turns playing each. The bad guy would inflict as much damage as he could before suffering a bitter defeat and either dying or being locked up in an imaginary jail in the sandbox. Just as it was his sole purpose to fulfill this destiny, it was for the good guy to stop him. This was war, or what we thought it was.
If you watched something like GI-Joe, you would basically watch the same thing play out, episode after episode. On one side were “the good guys” whose entire existence seemed to revolve around “stopping COBRA” (the “bad guys”), who were there to basically just be evil and ruin the world for the rest of us. In fact, most of this is outlined in the theme song and opening to the show. GI Joe is described as a force fighting for freedom from COBRA, who is “a ruthless terrorist organization, determined to rule the world.”
Every character was designed to embody their role, right down to how they were drawn and the colours they wore. You were constantly reminded of who was good, and who was evil. The “Joes” each had their own quirky personality traits and specialties. They were humans that liked the kinds of things people we knew liked. They were individuals. They were also considered heroes and fought evil. COBRA was portrayed a bit differently. They were to be feared or disliked. They had an unending supply of masked generic troops who were there to kill or be killed. The villains who were given an ounce of personality were often narcissistic bullies with a mysterious past who toyed with the occult or abused new advancements in science to do inhumane things to others in crueller ways than otherwise possible.
Good and evil was simple. It was well-defined. We could take a glance and know immediately who was who and knew what had to happen.
This was a fictitious cartoon in the 80s. Yet, people all around us act and speak as if the world we live in today works in the same exact way as the one portrayed in this cartoon. When you examine the rhetoric of pundits, politicians and angry, scared citizens of North America, you would swear they are writing an actual episode of GI Joe. They’ll tell you who the bad guys are, that they must be stopped and not a whole lot else. Don’t bother asking who they are or why they do what they do, that would be seen as being sympathetic and compromising. You don’t support evil do you? Then don’t ask questions! Just make like the cartoon heroes and shout “YOOOO JOE!” and charge forward shooting your metaphorical lasers with everyone else.
When tragedy strikes, like the recent shooting in Ottawa, and people are storming social media to ask questions like “Was it a terrorist attack?” or “Was it ISIS or a Muslim?” before asking if the victims are OK, it says something about all of us. It says something about all of us when instead of waiting for verified facts, we’re clamouring over tweets and reports detailing the race or nationality of the alleged suspect. It says something about all of us when we’re pontificating on the need for violence and saying “hey, it’s those bad guys again,” before we even know what took place. “Let’s get them!”
When news media and blogs start pounding us with stories about ISIS and Iraq, somehow, everyone on the internet becomes a decorated military strategist and knows exactly how to fix the problem. Just go “get them!” They’re all the same to us, and no action we take could have any possible negative repercussions. They are COBRA, and we are GI-Joe. We have all the facts we need. There’s nothing for us but our destiny to defeat evil and win, right?
These things are challenging, because we’re suffering loss and violence. We all respond to tragedy in different ways, and there’s nobody I know who would simply say “Well, that’s OK, we can’t judge anyone.” Being responsible and ensuring that we’re not actually making the problem worse requires restraint, and a willingness to understand a given situation with all of our resources and find alternatives to putting civilians in a position where their lives or livelihood is threatened. If your friend’s home caught fire, you would feel compelled to act. Maybe someone hands you a container of liquid. You could splash it at the fire and hope to put it out, but it would be prudent to actually verify that it’s not a container of gasoline or something first. According to at least a couple of people I’ve spent time in needlessly heated conversations with over recent overseas events, that is equivalent to laying down and doing nothing, or as one put it, “singing Kumbaya with the terrorists!”
You’re GI-Joe or you’re COBRA. The world we live in couldn’t possibly be full of complex and storied history, choices and consequences beyond what is immediately apparent to us. Nuance be damned.
This sort of 2-dimensional thinking and suspension of restraint and nuance doesn’t just apply to war and armed conflict though. It seems that many people believe we’re always the “good guys” in all situations, and anyone challenging that is the enemy. If there’s disagreement or conflict over the rights of aboriginals, or equality for women or the LGBTQ community or people of a different faith or origin… it’s seen as some kind of sacrilege, an attack on the heroes, the good guys and that those contradicting us must be the bad guys. How dare they?
I’m reminded of how Vic Toews, former Conservative Party of Canada Minister of Public Safety, once told those opposing a controversial warrantless internet spying bill that they could “Stand with (them) or the child pornographers.” The Conservatives were GI-Joe. Anyone opposing them must be the enemy. They must have been COBRA. There couldn’t be any other reason for opposing a bill that contradicted civil rights and put millions of people’s privacy at risk, could there? It turned out that the bill he had been viciously defending was one he had not even fully read himself.
Here in the living, breathing, real world that we all try to survive day after day, every single individual is just that… an individual. An individual who is built over time, by the hands of the world around them just as much as their own. When we paint entire groups of people in broad strokes and call them an enemy, we’re basically closing our eyes and plugging our ears and refusing to accept that there may be more to the story than what we’ve already decided, or that there are costs involved that we don’t want to think about. Sometimes we are the ones acting like the tacky cartoon bad guys who believe there is only room in the world for their vision.
Maybe it’s time we stop pretending we’re all heroes or that everyone who isn’t us is “maybe a villain”. There are real costs to living like we’re in a make-believe 80s action cartoon. People get hurt, and often it’s us hurting ourselves without realizing it. Just as every one of us are capable of making mistakes or doing terrible things out of poor judgement or acting on bad information, every single person is capable of doing something surprising and adding value to the world in a way most of us can appreciate.
I think I wish I grew up differently and learned about the nature of the world around me earlier than I did. Instead, it was seeded into my life the way it was for many others, many who still see the world in stark black and white. They and the people they hold in high regard couldn’t possibly do wrong, and anyone else is seen as an enemy. Cartoons, movies, games, they all told us about good guys and bad guys. It is how we were prepared for conflict. We didn’t know anything else.
I wish instead of running around pretending to gun each other down as kids, that we more often pretended to figure out how to build inclusive communities or invent things that would give everyone a chance, that there were other ways to subvert “evil” than perpetuating violence endlessly. I wish I wasn’t lied to and told that we could end injustice and pain with weapons alone, that the “good guys” weren’t universally entitled to winning, or at least that conflict was more complex than being on the team with red lasers or the team with blue lasers. I wish I knew then that every conflict had a cost and that victory, even when just, had a price.
Maybe it’s all too heavy for a child to appreciate fully, but simplifying these things and teaching us that naming an enemy was so easy did us no favours either.
Image from gijoe.wikia.com
Copyright 2013 A.W. Young