Deep Thought: What About…?

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Deep Thought: What About…?

Statue of Good and Evil, part of the Peace Fountain outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, New York
Statue of Good and Evil, part of the Peace Fountain outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, New York

Okay, let's talk about 'what about…?'

Growing up, I detested John Wayne movies. I still do. One reason, of course, was that I think Mr Marion Morrison was a terrible actor. Another is that I don't admire him as a person. But the main reason I dislike movies in which actors like Wayne (and Eastwood, and that ilk) appear is the moral corruption evident in most of the plots.

You see, bad Westerns and bad war movies have something in common: they lie. And their lies are morally corrupting to their audiences. One lie is that there are 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. The 'good guys' are all good, and the 'bad guys' are all bad.

Another lie is that the 'bad guys' have, in essence, no claim on our sympathies. In fact, they have no right to exist. They should be blotted out of the universe, and we should all cheer when this happens. 'Bad guys' should be terminated with extreme prejudice. And if their demise is attended with a lot of violence and gore, we're allowed – nay, encouraged – to find it entertaining.

But the worst lie of all – the very worst – is that, to accomplish the destruction of the 'bad guys', any and all means can be countenanced. In other words, the 'good guy' is allowed to commit atrocities, acts of unspeakable violence, if the end is the destruction of the 'bad guy'. This lie is a soul destroyer. And it is accepted by far too many people.

An earlier detention facility at Bagram was notorious for the abuse of prisoners by their captors: at least two were beaten to death in December 2002.
The Times

Here is a sample reply to this story on Twitter:

What sort of an article is this? Are you propaganda for the Taliban? This is an extremist, murderous regime who kill people without reason or trial and allow no rights whatsoever to women.


This is what we call 'whataboutism'. You reply to a criticism of 'your guy' with an even more devastating criticism of the 'other guy'. One which usually begins with the phrase 'what about…?' The (lame) implication is that your 'what about' cancels whatever evil your 'side' has done. That, my friends, cannot ever be the case.

Just to be clear: it is absolutely possible for both groups involved in a conflict to be 'bad guys'. Or for both to be 'bad guys' at times and 'good guys' at another. Or, to put it another way: all people have a right to exist. More than that, they have a right to live in peace. The German constitution is right when it says all humans are entitled to the 'free development of their personalities', too.

Humans, in fact, are never 'good guys' or 'bad guys'. They are just guys1. People do terrible things to each other sometimes. We should never tolerate this. We should never seek to justify it, no matter what other people have done.

This is one of the bad things wars do: turn people into their enemies. I remember as a teenager reading a book published during the Second World War. It was in our school library, therefore approved of. After a long paragraph detailing the evil beliefs of Nazism – including, and especially, the hideous tenets of eugenics and false ideas of racial superiority – the author announced that our 'healthy corn-fed Iowa farmboys' would defeat the Germans, not to worry.

The hypocrisy of that statement hit me between the eyes. How can you defeat racism with racism? You can't. You can defeat another group of humans by battering their cities with bombs. You can deal out collateral damages right, left, and centre. But you cannot defeat an ideology by adopting it. I would think that was obvious.

The usual excuse for turning oneself into the enemy is, 'If we don't learn to think like them, we'll never defeat them.' Read that sentence aloud. If you don't hear why it's stupid, read it again. If you're still not sure, ask your cat, who has already figured it out.

Walt Kelly said it best: 'We have met the enemy, and he is us.' This has happened so many times in history that it would weary us to repeat the examples. You can't defeat racism with racism, or sexism with sexism. You can't beat totalitarianism by becoming totalitarian. So don't let anybody tell you that you can.

Beware the seductive attraction of the 'bad guys vs good guys' movies. Goebbels' propaganda films, billed as entertainment, were banned by the Allies for decades following the fall of the Nazi regime. I know, because I was among the first of my generation to get to see them when they were released to student film clubs in Germany in the mid-1970s. With explanatory notes, in case we didn't get why they were so bad. I was surprised when I saw these films, but not for the reasons you might think.

I was surprised because they weren't that different from the US films of the same period that I had seen all my life on the late-late show. In fact, I'd seen worse. Want an example? Try The Fighting Sullivans. Think that sort of thing stopped in 1945? Watch The Big Lift. (Hang on for the scene where the GI humiliates the former camp guard.) It's not surprising at all: Goebbels and Hitler had both mentioned that they got their ideas on propaganda from two sources: British journalism and Hollywood film-making. They'd learned from experts.

Is it bad to tell lies, even in a 'good cause'? Yes, it is. As Robert Bolt wrote, 'For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts.' Inhumanity in the service of moral outrage corrupts the soul. And people who are seduced into committing atrocities in the name of their moral outrage may someday come to find that they have disclaimed their souls.

Deep Thought Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

13.09.21 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Unless you're Sho, because she hates the generic term 'guys' and says it's sexist. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where it wasn't considered sexist because girls used it among themselves, too. But you probably shouldn't say it in the UK. Y'uns just don't get to come over to Pittsburgh and tell us how to talk, because only jagoffs do that, and y'uns aren't jagoffs. You're nice people who can talk however y'uns like to.

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