Black and White and Grey All Over

The country is politically very polarized, seemingly more so than ever.  You can see it in the town hall meetings, in the blue vs red electoral maps, and in the very people we hang out with.  For instance, an application has been going around Facebook which shows statistics about your friends.  It is very interesting to see that most people’s friends are very strongly either Democrat or Republican.  There aren’t many people with a relatively even split.  So, not only do we limit our news to sites and channels that we agree with, but we surround ourselves with people we agree with, locking our viewpoints even more rigidly on one side or another.

There has been a lot written about this already.  I’ve read, for example, that people who are religious tend to see more connections between seemingly unconnected events, while less religious people do not.  This is in effect a function of brain chemistry and wiring.  And, there does seem to be a correlation between how religious you are and which party you more strongly identify with.

I also wonder if it might also have something, at least a small part, to do with the stories we tell as a culture.  The cartoons I used to watch as a kid always pitted the “good guys” against the “bad guys”.  But, in retrospect what seems to define most of these stories is that the bad guys had no motivation, they are simply bad, or evil.  For example, the bad guys in “GI Joe” are Cobra.  Their only motivation is to rule the world, but they never say why.  They are just evil.  The same with Skeletor in “He-Man”.  And the Decepticons in “Transformers”.  Even in the “Smurfs”, Gargamel is an evil old man, who doesn’t seem to have any real reason for why he is after the Smurfs (except he wants to eat them).  Each story needs a bad guy, and that bad guy is simply bad.  The universes in which these stories take place are completely black and white.  There is no grey.  This is perhaps epitomized in the games that were popular at the time, such as Dungeons and Dragons and the like, and the fantasy novels that fleshed out these types of worlds.  Evil is an inherent part of the fantasy genre, where evil exists explicitly and simply to destroy.  Again, there is no grey.

Our religions, at least how they are interpreted today, also embody this dichotomy:  God is good, Satan is evil.

I wonder how much these black and white views of the universe, or even those universes in which our stories take place, color our perspectives of the real world.  If everything is black and white, good and evil, are those that disagree with us necessarily bad or evil, since we ourselves certainly are not?  Does that mean, if I’m a Democrat, that the Republicans are bad, and vice versa, leading to the polarization we see today?  Or are our stories a reflection of deeper down hard wiring within our brain to view the world in black and white?  Is that a survival mechanism, an evolutionary advantage that helps us more easily determine friend from foe?

I personally do not believe in absolute good nor evil.  I do not believe that there is some ultimate source for either.  Rather, I think that both good and evil are defined by society, by the norms that society creates within which to moderate itself.  And those norms are typically a result of instincts evolved over many generations.  I think that those we typically consider evil — those that live far outside societal norms — have different brain wiring that does not inhibit their base instincts as much as the general populace.  That is, I think it is essentially a different brain structure that makes it so that these people do not see good and bad in the same way as the rest of us.  Unlike the movies and books, I don’t think anyone views themselves as evil, not in an evil for evil’s sake way, hysterically cackling while committing their foul deeds.  Rather, they view the world differently, most of the time, and cannot distinguish right and wrong in the same way.  Either that, or they are like the rest of us, but get caught up by the situation, the power, the moment, to commit “evil” acts but either in the heat of the moment or for some perceived greater good.

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