on being “bad guys”…

Posted on Monday 29 June 2009

In an action movie, why are the "bad guys" so bad? They don’t care about others and mostly seem driven by evil intentions. "Good guys," however, are just plain constitutionally good. In either case, these movie characters aren’t like real people – people with complex, ambivalent, multifaceted motivational systems. Sure enough, there are people like the movie characters. A lot are in prison. You can, in fact, watch them any night on what I call "bad person t.v." – Dateline, 20/20, 48 hours, Most Wanted. But most people are [fortunately] not like that. If you think about it, such mono-motivated, simplified character are everywhere. They’re in Fairy Tales and children’s stories. They’re in video games. They’re in "guy flicks." "Good guys" and "bad guys" are just part of the human experience.

A very bright Scottish Psychoanalyst [Ronald Fairbairn] made a simple observation back in the middle of the 20th century – these simplified characters are in our minds even if we haven’t seen a scary action movie. They’re in our dreams. They are, in fact, the stuff of dream life. And more, they are the characters in the delusions of people with extreme mental illness – evil characters motivated by nothing more complicated that just being bad. It’s what they do.

But it’s easy to confirm such things. Just think about the scowling guy that cuts you off in traffic while talking on his cell phone. You don’t think, "I wonder what has that poor fellow so upset. Has he just been told that his beloved mother was raced to the hospital?" No. You think, "That asshole!" – a simplification of what might be a perfectly fine human being.

We just saw an example of this phenomenon in recent weeks. The terrible, evil Iranians turned out to be blue jeaned people just like us, longing to be free. Two years ago, Cheney and Bolton almost convinced us that they were monsters in need of a good bombing. Well, we saw that wasn’t true [in spades]. They even twitter.

Which brings me near my point. We simplify people in our minds into good and bad objects. They’re easier to deal with that way. And one of the things one can do when that happens is force people to have an actual encounter with real people. I live in a heavily Republican, mostly white, Religious Right  leaning part of the world. Most of the people here are lovely folks – no demons. I like to think that having some Democrat lefties around with Obama stickers on our cars helps them not simplify and discount people like us [I’m pretty sure it works].

Now to my real point. I’m reading The Dark Side about the techniques used at Guantanamo, some thought up by psychologists, and I’m not only appalled by the barbarism and illegality of it all. It was absolutely doomed from the start – just plain stupid. Those Arab fighters had been given a picture of Americans as the "Great Satan." Had our interrogators acted in a humane and gentlemanly way, it would have undone the whole mystique of their mindset. That was proven over and over by the FBI Agents who used "conventional" techniques.

The sadistic torture resulted in the opposite of its described intent – it confirmed the idea of the "Great Satan" they’d expected – that they were sworn to resist. That is psychology 101, or even just plain old common sense. Really stupid!
    June 30, 2009 | 8:26 AM

    I haven’t found it yet but heard a radio blurb describing the extensive interrogation (over six months worth) of Saddam Hussein. A senior intelligence guy conducted the whole thing and I gather there are transcripts or parts of transcripts anyway. The approach taken was for the two of them to sit in a room with a carpet on the floor and decent chairs to sit in. There were Cuban cigars and an atmosphere that facilitated a rapport to develop. Hussein told the guy everything, bombing Kurds, everything.

    June 30, 2009 | 8:49 AM

    The judge sentence Madoff to 150 years in prison for his white collar crime. What do you think the punishment should be for Cheney, Addington, Yoo, Bradbury and the others for their terrible crimes against humanity? The media still doesn’t seem to want to shine a spotlight on the repulsive treatment of prisoners we are holding in the war on terror. We all know what awful things terrorist did on 911 and some of us were directly affected by 911 but there is no excuse for pouring gasoline on the fire and making all of us less safe with their actions in the excuse of making us safer(which we now know was a lie). To Torture people to get them to tell us things that weren’t true and then take us to war for all the wrong reasons and kill many thousands of innocent people(including our wonderful young men and woman in the service is disgusting.

    June 30, 2009 | 12:52 PM

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