On Our Incessant Need For A Big Bad
We do love us some Big Bad, don’t we? Socially, politically, historically, interpersonally…life is just simpler when there is a Big Bad
Depending on which version of the story you believe, a quote that has been used in everything from psychology studies to sermons to Avenge Sevenfold lyrics started with a room full of drunken men and an irritated lady. With the eminent and noted wordsmith Samuel Johnson present, the exasperated woman asked of the great man regarding the state of the drunkards something along the lines of “how can men make such beasts of themselves?” Johnson replied with the immortal and often-quotes “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
It’s a clever quip from the father of the English dictionary, a great retort from one of the founders of what we now know as essay writing. A wonderful opening when M. Shadows snarls it with overlaid emphasis to open up a five minute romp of modern American metal. There’s a lot of truth in it, both practically and upon deep analysis.
It also has a sort of palindrome effect, of being true both ways, backwards and forwards. Truth that — like all great truths — cuts like a two-edged sword. Folks desperate to make sure that they are not the beast get rid of that pain by making themselves better by making others the beast.
We do love us some Big Bad, don’t we? Socially, politically, historically, interpersonally…life is just simpler when there is a Big Bad for us to crusade against. Such crusading forgives one of their own sins, don’t you know, since the Big Bad is so big and so bad that those who sally forth against it by default become righteous just for doing so. If you be for us against the Big Bad, who can be against us the rest of the time, or something…
Big Bad is easy. It is neat. It is simple. It makes sense. It makes life like the video game where you just beat the level, defeat the Big Bad, and win the day.
It is almost always incorrect. Lie might be too strong, more a carelessness about truth than from intentional lying.
For every Hitler and Nazi Germany to put down for the good of all to save the world, there are legion problems and issues and shades of grey between them and the truth to who is the righteous and who is the wicked. In the comfort and excess of our modern age, when we lack monsters to slay, we can just order them up on the interwebs like the latest Door Dash meal. And when the real thing shows up, the genuinely evil and wicked and threatening entity that defies logic and understanding, we are utterly unprepared to process it. So it is that many, far too many, take a horrific event, slam it into the filter of priors, and proceed to shove the round peg of the present into the square hole of the handiest Big Bad sans lube or reason.
This is not new. In our own recent history we like to simplify “the enemy” into a mass Big Bad. We often do this based on existing prejudices of politics, or race, or class, or sex, or a warped view of self. Writing in the long, long ago and before time of 2015 in America, the thought of how we see “our enemies” was taken up by Tod Kelly. In this instance, it was a wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and holding the majority of blameless to account for the radical fragment, and comparing it to what was then a ludicrous notion of holding all Korean Americans liable for the madman dictator of North Korea:
From 2015 here in Ordinary Times, the great Tod Kelly wrote thusly:
Vikram’s take, I believe, is that it is related to the degree of power and motivation we see in our enemies. This may well carry more than a little truth, but I suspect it lacks the above context. In Vikram’s threads, I believe Tim came a little closer by suggesting it’s that in 2015 the thing we Americans truly fear is being called racists. But Tim also ultimately misses the point where that larger context takes us, which is this: If the White House is to be responsible in its leadership, it has to recognize that we can often times be our own worst enemy.
There is, as far as I have ever seen, heard, or read, no instances where Americans are glancing suspiciously at their Korean Americans neighbors and demanding a price be paid for the actions of Kim Jong-Un. Major news networks do not insist that we treat all Korean Americans as suspect and enemies of the state. Korean Americans do not have to worry if their neighbors will have their churches shut down, or indeed burned to the ground by concerned citizens. Korean Americans do not go onto Facebook to see their locally elected officials making light, “funny” comments about how they need to be shot, nor do they have to walk by town-hall Tea Party rallies declaring them “evil.” No pundit one from a major political blog, think tank, or publishing house is rushing to argue that we forcibly intern all Korean Americans. And while it’s possible that in the next presidential election one of the two major parties will choose to tell its brethren that Korean Americans are out to destroy their way of life, call me dubious.
That example cuts a might different with four of the eight victims of the recent Atlanta shootings lying dead having been of Korean descent, and one being a South Korean citizen. While the full investigation of that horrific act of wickedness is as of this writing ongoing, as Michael covered so ably, “if you remove the misogyny and sex worker hatred, there’s still plenty of evil left over to attribute to racism.” The rush was on as soon as the shots were fired to make the story of the shooter’s wickedness fit one concise Big Bad as quickly as possible for public consumption. Big Bad is easy, and racism is an obvious Big Bad with plenty of history behind it at which to recoil. The Asian American community that has living members who were subjected to their own country throwing them into camps because of their race have plenty of right to bring up their feelings on the matter however they see fit when it’s their dead on the ground and no easy answers as to why. It is easy to say “the media” jumped to a narrative and ran with it before all the facts where known, and there is validity to the accusation. But the Big Bad is just too tempting, be it journalist or layperson, since the inner workings of a mind so warped it thought executing innocent people was the way to stop its own temptation — which is the reported claim of the monster that did this — is so inhuman most regular humans cannot even process or consider it. It is a beastly thing, and for a man to make himself that beast there must be an identifiable Big Bad to make the impossible to understand simple.
Now the Big Bad theory will be applied again to the shooting in Boulder, Colorado. When the motive comes out, whatever that motive is, our priors and assumptions will try to shape whatever the known truth is, once again proceeding to shove the round peg of the present into the square hole of the handiest Big Bad, whether it fits just right or not. Once again, the truth of the matter will only come if it fits into the proper slot of what we want it to be. Those who jumped the gun on the right answer will have to walk it back; those who guess correctly will be insufferable. All will enjoy the spectating of yet another news event and the participation in the discourse surrounding it, and then most will move on. Except for the families of the dead, who will remain dead, and the community that will have to pick up the pieces once the satellite trucks pack up and move to the next incarnation of breaking news. But don’t worry; the Big Bad will be established first, since each good news story has a beginning, middle, and end…preferably in the same segment. Once established, that Big Bad can then be duly weaponized against the folks that were — quite conveniently — already opposed to ongoing causes before this latest current event. The Big Bad is so helpful that, way, that the Big Bad can change but the real, true enemy that is revealed by the Big Bad never seems to vary from the folks we were already opposed too.
It is so important to have the Big Bad, to always have that moral righteousness in our crusading through life, that the Big Bad passes from mere existential opponent threatening existence to symbiotic need. Perhaps the famous “beast” quote by Johnson does not fit our times as well as another: “It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying,” the man is attributed to have written, “that there is so much falsehood in the world.” To call our reliance on the Big Bad carelessness is probably being too generous. Regardless, the inability to place truth at the fore is driving much falsehood. There is no Big Bad to blame for that circumstance; It is entirely our own fault. If we are not careful, we come to need that Big Bad, so much so that there must always be one, so much so that we start to see Big Bad that we want to see and fills the gaps, and start to miss the Big Bads lurking just beyond our self-limited horizons.
We’ve made beasts out of everything and everyone we do not fully understand, or are just too lazy to. Instead of understanding that our fellow citizens are equal peers that we are only quarreling with a little in the pursuit of a better country, all must be the enemy. We must all be Sherman making total war and destruction in righteous fury to make “them” sorry they ever dared to wage war on us. Because if they are the Big Bad, we are then blameless as we crusade against them. They, that always perfect enemy. We, the always righteous remnant upon which all that matters rest. Less painful that way, you see. Easier. Understandable.
That way, we can never be the baddies, no matter what. Palindrome be damned.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on March 24, 2021.