Good versus evil. That’s the narrative we hear over and over again in media and entertainment industry. We’re in love with the battle that occurs when the hero is pitted against the villain. The typical hero vs villain narrative makes things simple; black and white, good vs evil, us versus them. We don’t often sympathize with “evil doers”, “terrorists”, or “bad guys”. We don’t care to know them any deeper than the label we give them, we just need to know who to point the finger / gun / bomb at.
However, believing in the simplistic motives of villains and outsiders prevents us from understanding what really drives them. It causes us to see them as less than human. Just watch any Michael Bay movie (don’t though), and search for the human motives and messages behind the villain’s actions. You’ll find nothing more than bad for the sake of bad, good for the sake of *yawn*. Our media has morphed the villain into a literal representation of evil, devoid of meaningful motive or symbolism.
This over-simplification of us and them can be found at the heart of all conflicts, real and fictional.
Take Ferguson for example. The sheer volume of blanket statement and general blaming for the state of affairs in Ferguson is astounding. Rather than let the story remain about a couple of individuals, we’ve allowed it to polarize us, infuriate us, and fuel us to begin picking sides in a so-called “race war”. We’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by our class, race, and income, thereby turning anyone outside of those groups into “the bad guys”. I want to tell every person on this planet that it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, if you’ve chosen your side, you’re on the wrong one. People are just people, they are not their group, race, religion, sexual preference, or career choice. When we believe in “us” and “them”, we rigidly place ourselves under the sigil for our group, and it does nothing more than to reinforce the problems and stereotypes of that group. It all comes from our natural desire to define and compartmentalize one another, to give an external source to the pain we feel inside.
This in-group / out-group mentality has roots in our evolutionary past. As we evolved as a species, competition was necessary for our survival. It was and still is built into us to get bigger, stronger, and faster than the rest. It is built into us to take care of our families and our communities and be selective about who we allow into our groups. Only those with similar characteristics may apply. All those who were different from us automatically got lumped into the outsider category.
Until now, we’ve never had the ability to create things and distribute resources and information on a near-instantaneous and global level. Physical life is no longer a struggle. In today’s world of abundance, our brains are running on outdated software. We need to train ourselves to think about the global community as our in-group. We need to think beyond our tiny little social groups and see the bigger picture. It’s no longer us and them, it’s just us… all of us.
But, like any great social movement that came before, a change in thinking requires a change in our cultural narratives. When Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, he created a new cultural narrative for blacks and whites all over America and the world. His story caused us to redefine our ideas about equality. A new social narrative requires individuals to change direction from the herd. It requires well-meaning people to stop defaulting to a script and lazy group-thinking. In terms of our cultural narratives, it requires that we rethink the archetypes of our heroes and villains…
There is no such thing as a villain, only a hero, fallen.
Every villain believes he is doing the right thing, or is justified in his actions. In the mind of someone who commits violence, though it may seem absurd and unlikely, the act is actually a solution or a morally justified course of action. This fallacy of ‘bad for bad’s sake’ is reinforced in nearly all of our cultural narratives: TV shows, movies, books, news, and especially in ads. News media is a repetitive cycle of searching for the bad guys in order to assign blame. They incessantly direct our attention to external forces and away from internal ones, which is exactly what motivates us to do the things that keep the wheels of capitalism and materialism turning.
Broadcast media is designed to keep you blaming people or circumstances for your problems, and solving them with products. They need you to be agitated, confused, and always chasing shiny objects.
That’s the key point: external solutions = money to be made. Advertisements attempt to magnify our pain in order to drive us to solve internal problems with products. The external battle gives us easy targets and easy solutions: “You’re not pretty enough — go buy more makeup, you’re not sophisticated enough — go buy cigarettes, you stink — go buy perfume.” We’re trying to buy good feelings without realizing that the power to feel good rests entirely within ourselves. It’s like marketers and news organizations have caused us to be stuck in the bottom levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs; perpetually chasing ways to feel pleasure and avoid pain.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
We need to learn how to manage the fears created by media messages, and begin facing our inner demons. We need to look inward to find out what we’re doing to get in our own way and how we are holding ourselves back. Maybe that means practising meditation, maybe it means taking psychedelics, maybe it means reading books in the self-improvement category… but it definitely isn’t something you’ll find at the end of an aisle.