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The good guys are always conservative

Published on 2020-07-30 philosophy

Often in movies the villains have a point but then use bad actions to achieve their otherwise legitimate goals. Think of The Dark Knight Rises, the Red Lotus arc in Legend of Korra or basically any Marvel movie. This may seem like lazy storytelling, but I want to argue that this is in fact the only way to tell a story.

I imagine the thought process is something like this:

We need a villain. In order to be interesting, the villain needs to have a compelling motivation. However, in order to have a self-contained story we need the hero to stop the villain and protect the status-quo. Still, the hero (being the good guy) should be sympathetic to the villain’s underlying motivation. Their job is basically to make everyone “calm down and discuss the issue peacefully”. If killing the villain is necessary for calming the situation, that is legitimate. The important thing is that we now all have learned about the issue.

Of course we never actually get to see the “discuss the issue peacefully” part. And I think that is only honest: Storytellers do know about issues, but they do not have the answers either. So instead they present the issue and allow us to skip directly to the point where we can do the peaceful discussion ourselves.

Then again, we never seem to do that. We get numb to all the issues and just enjoy the fuzzy warm feeling of knowing that everything will turn back to normal in the end.

So far I have argued that hero stories are inherently conservative. But is it even possible to break out of that structure?

It is certainly possible to make variations. For example, you could make the hero agree with the villain in the end and blow up the whole city. But that is not really a decision you can recover from. You can only do this once and then your story is over.

Another option would be to start in a bad situation and follow the story of the terrorist organisation. Think of Star Wars.

With both these options we never see the new world order. We will never see a Star Wars where the alliance has won and everyone lives free and happy. That would not be interesting at all.

So maybe stories are not inherently conservative, but they are inherently reactionary: If you have an idea that would change the world for the better you would implement it in the real world, not waste it on a story. In stories, the utopian ideas always have to turn into dystopias and the protagonists have to fight them.

This would be fine if it was limited to storytelling. But I believe the issue is much bigger:

Some months ago there was this tweet (I cannot find it anymore) about how people expect Covid to go away soon because if this was a story it would go away soon. It really struck a nerve with me as I found myself doing that exact thing.

So if we use stories to structure our understanding of the world and if stories are inherently reactionary, how can our politics be anything else?