‘I am the Sheriff of Carshalton. Are you a goody or a baddy? If you’re a baddy, I’ll shoot you.’ So spoke my 5-year old self, dressed in a cowboy sheriff’s outfit and wielding a plastic pistol.
That was over 30 years ago, but I’m not sure I’ve changed all that much (apart from the cowboy outfit). I still like a simple tale with proper goodies and baddies; I crave real storybook villains you can get your teeth into, who are irredeemably evil and look it. These are baddies who you know will get their well-deserved come-uppance at the end, and you can vindictively but self-righteously enjoy their downfall to the full. At the same time you can rejoice wholeheartedly with the uncomplicatedly noble goodies as they receive their ultimate vindication.
I do wish the world were as satisfyingly simple as that, but we all know (in theory) that it isn’t. I’ve met people I’ve found it almost impossible to like and others who I love and admire, but I’ve never met an out-and-out baddy, still less a thoroughgoing goody. Yet deep down I suspect that many of us still operate on an only slightly more sophisticated adult version of the goodies-and-baddies model. We still seek to categorise people and groups into basically good ones who we can like, approve and support, and basically bad ones who we can dislike, disapprove of, vilify or ignore.
Take my recent post ‘John Calvin – hero or villain of the faith?’ When I set out to write it, I was firmly convinced (on fairly flimsy evidence) that Calvin was an utter baddy, and scouring the internet I found a lot of others who believed the same. I also came across an equally vocal group for whom Calvin was a great hero and saint, and very definitely a goody.
In the end, reading the fuller story I had to concede that Calvin was neither out-and-out villain nor unqualified hero. He was a human being with profound strengths and equally major flaws – like the rest of us, though perhaps a bit more so. But the fact that I had been so keen and ready to dismiss Calvin as a baddy, and that others were so quick to exalt him as a hero, did give me pause. True, Calvin is a particularly polarising figure. But it did at least suggest to me that most of us are more inclined to divide the world into goodies and baddies (and to stereotype people) than we might care to admit. It also made me realise that our own baddies may be someone else’s goodies, and vice versa.
Of course, there is some empirical basis to such a villains/saints division. We could all reel off a list of historical leaders whose atrocities have put them in most people’s utter villains category – Herod, Nero, the Borgias, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot; currently Presidents Mugabe and Assad. And on the other side, we could all name some (slightly more disputed) heroes and saints – Francis of Assisi, William Wilberforce, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi for example.
These are exceptional extremes; both Hitlers and Gandhis are relatively rare. Yet even with such characters, I suspect that if we looked more closely at most of them we’d still find troublingly good features in many of the villains, and definitely some major flaws in all the saints. No-one in this life is entirely a monster or entirely an angel, and certainly no-one was born either one or the other.
Why do we crave goodies and baddies?
Why then are we so keen to divide the world into goodies and baddies? Perhaps it’s just more convenient; a craving for simplicity in a complex world. Perhaps it’s laziness, a disinclination to think deeply or in a nuanced way. Maybe it’s partly ignorance, or lack of empathy; an inability to understand people who aren’t like us (or who don’t like us); perhaps a fear of that which is different or strange. Maybe it’s immaturity, a failure to question and challenge our parents’ prejudices.
Perhaps too it’s part of some deep human need to see things in terms of good and evil, or friend and foe; to know who’s on our side and who isn’t. This could be part of our evolutionary make-up, perhaps a hangover from days when our tribe had to fight for survival against a hostile world. It might also be a religious legacy from a view that the universe is locked in a battle between good and evil and everyone is on one side or the other.
Of course, we all necessarily have things we dislike and disapprove of, things we see as wrong and bad and dangerous. Those people who by their behaviour or values seem to represent or espouse those ‘bad’ things we will tend to see as bad people, often not looking beyond the surface level to see if there are deeper things we share – or indeed if we ourselves share some of the ‘bad’ things they represent.
Psychologically, I suspect that one of the main reasons why we want people to be goodies or baddies is so that we can identify with the good group and thus bolster our own sense of being okay – which often requires that we see some others as being bad or worse than us. It’s also unsettling and inconvenient to admit that people who we wish to see as utter monsters may actually be humans like us; worse still that we ourselves may have some of the same traits as them, albeit hidden or dormant. So we separate out those nasty, unacceptable parts of ourselves and let others be the scapegoats for them.
Whatever the cause, it’s fairly obvious that on the whole our ‘good’ people will mostly be people who are broadly like us or else are like we’d like to be. They think like us, they share our cherished values and beliefs (political, religious or other) and either belong to our group or to a group we aspire to. We feel that if the goodies (our group) had more say in things, the world would be a far better place. Conversely, our ‘bad’ people will mostly belong to a group we despise, or will display characteristics we dislike or disapprove of. And it’s generally their fault that the world and society are in such a parlous state. Put simply, we want both people we can look up to and people we can blame.
So for many evangelical Christians, liberals are the baddies and vice versa. For many left-wingers and socialists, right-wing Republicans and Tories are the baddies and vice versa. And for many Christians, atheists or Muslims or pagans are the baddies, and vice versa.
Of course, we may get to know some individuals who belong to our despised group(s), and find them to be likeable, reasonable human beings – perhaps more so than some of our own group. At this point we’re faced with the choice to change our worldview, or else just to find a way to accommodate them as an anomaly. Being human, we generally opt for the latter. We decide that so-and-so is okay despite being a Republican/atheist/liberal; they’re a basically good person with some misguided views, which are probably their parents’ fault. We then pat ourselves on the back for being enlightened and tolerant, and we say things like ‘Some of my best friends are gay/right-wing/acid jazz fans’.
Stages of the goodies-and-baddies model
The simplistic goodies-v-baddies model is essentially a child-level understanding of the world, suitable for a 5-year-old. I’d equate it broadly with the ‘Stage 2’ fundamentalist or pre-critical phase of faith development; a need to see things in simple black-and-white terms of good or bad. It contains some basic and valuable truths, but as we grow up we need to adapt it to our growing understanding of a far more complex world.
A more nuanced version of the model is reflected in older children’s stories and teen fiction. This has some goodies misbehaving a little but in basically acceptable, forgivable ways; and some baddies showing good qualities and getting a chance at redemption. The later Harry Potter stories – which I love – are broadly in this category. You still get some satisfyingly simple good and bad characters, but in between are a range of less stereotyped characters who begin to challenge aspects of the goodies/baddies model. And as the series progresses and the protagonists grow up, the complexity and nuance increases. Crucially, by the end, heroes like Dumbledore have revealed their human flaws, while some long-term baddies like Snape have shown their better humanity.
This approaches the next level of complexity in our understanding, when we see that on the whole no-one is wholly and consistently good. We start to see flaws even in our greatest heroes; we may feel let down by them and respond by becoming cynical, feeling that no-one and nothing is any good. I’d equate this with the critical ‘Stage 3’ phase of spiritual development, when our earlier certainties start to unravel and we’re not sure what to believe any more. It’s easy just to give up at this point and assume that there aren’t really any such things as good or evil; that such a view of the world is just a childish fantasy. In truth though, we just need to increase the complexity of our models.
Perhaps a challenge at this point can come from a realisation that if our heroes weren’t as good as we believed, neither are our villains as bad as we imagined. If no-one is completely good or heroic, so neither is anyone completely evil or hopeless. Crucially, everyone is human, with all the messy complexity that entails. To expect anyone to be a perfect hero is to set them up to fail. And to write anyone off is a complete villain is, I believe, a sin.
(By the way, I’m rather pleased to notice that my 6-year-old son has a more sophisticated view than my own 5-year-old self ever did. Alongside straightforward goodies and baddies he identifies ‘goody-baddies’ – baddies who have some good – and ‘baddy-goodies’ who are good but flawed. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings can take a lot of credit for this, with their mixed characters like Snape and Smeagol/Gollum.)
In the modern west, for all our sophistication we live in a celebrity-dominated culture where today’s popular gods and heroes may rapidly fall from favour to become tomorrow’s villains, and occasionally vice versa. This is probably more a reflection of the shallowness and short attention span of our media and popular culture than anything else, but it still largely represents a childish goodies-and-baddies view of humanity.
Perhaps a more mature understanding of the world and people holds a belief in the reality and possibility of goodness and evil, but in tension with an understanding that in this world nothing and no-one is fully either. Both good and bad run through every one of us; if redemption is possible for any, it’s possible for all, and it’s also needed by all – our heroes as well as our villains. And us as well of course.