Last weekend Miranda and I watched Captain Phillips, the movie about the 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates.  It was excellent and very intense.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, a large portion of the story takes place on a lifeboat where Captain Phillips is kidnapped and held hostage by the pirates.  At the end of the movie (I won’t ruin it by saying what happens) I had all of the feelings of relief that I had anticipated.  However, I also felt something much less expected: I kind of felt bad for the pirates.

The pirates were supposed to be the villains of the story, but the movie spent ample time developing their characters and explaining their perspective.  In one sense they were playing the role of the “bad guys,” but I didn’t fully see them in that light.  I actually kind of liked the pirates.  I was able to understand their difficult economic and cultural situation, and for a quick moment I was able to see the world through their eyes.

Let’s step back for a moment and contrast Captain Phillips with another film that’s near and dear to my heart: Die Hard.

In Die Hard, the hero (played by Bruce Willis) single handedly vanquishes a group of foreign terrorists that have taken control over a skyscraper in downtown L.A.  The villains are all purely one-dimensional and anonymously evil.  In the end, Willis’ character is able to dramatically defeat the bad guys, save the day, and reunite with his wife: what a crystal clear triumph of good versus evil.

However, since Die Hard was released in 1988, the world has completely changed.  The Internet has allowed people all over the world to tell their stories and be heard by a global audience.  The world has become smaller and much more connected.

Entering 2014, the age-old narrative of pure good versus pure evil just seems less realistic.  The real world is much more complicated than that.

Don’t get me wrong: there are people in this world who do truly terrible things.  There are sociopaths, maniacs, and killers.  However, the Internet has given us the ability to understand that well over 99% of all people in the world are truly reasonable, rational people, albeit occasionally driven by desperation to do things that harm others.

One of the truly magical things about the Internet is that it breaks down the physical barriers to global communication that once prevented us from knowing the people of other countries.  Now able to fully tell their stories, we can no longer blanket foreign nations with the simple label of “good” or “evil.”  We can now get to know them, to understand them, and maybe for a brief moment even see the world through their eyes.

The Evolution of Good vs. Evil
  • The word “evil” is interesting. It’s not just antagonistic – an enemy is not evil per se – but describes that which is “not good.” Generally, it seems actions that are against e.g. the social good.

    I’m not sure I’d call the bad guys in Die Hard evil; don’t think I ever saw them as evil per se. They were not needlessly cruel, did not retaliate against defiance by killing or torturing an increasing number of hostages, even when their situation worsened; they did not take (unnatural) joy from harm, etc.

    They were professional mercenaries, doing a job. Faceless, largely – we weren’t meant to care too much about them – but not evil in the same way that e.g. the Saw series depicts evil acts.

    It’s interesting to look at good/evil through the lens of psychology. Consider ingroup/outgroup behavior, and antagonism or hostility between groups.

    Certainly, it’s tempting to dehumanize opponents. It’s a very natural, instinctive thing to do; and group leaders may have a real incentive to push dehumanization (suppresses the desire to be fair, makes it easy to harm / kill them, etc).

    And calling enemies evil is part of that. It might even be true: if you define good in terms of good-for-the-group (or at least individuals in the group) then all actions of an enemy are evil by definition: they are acting in opposition to good of the group you are a part of. That they may consider you evil, in turn, is simply not relevant. They are obviously wrong, because they’re the enemy / evil.

    It’s a particularly banal definition of evil, unfortunately.

    Note: I don’t think the internet helps, really. If anything, the size and scope of the internet means people can find information to validate their opinion, or distort their point of view to be more extreme. With such a vast quantity of information, no one person can survey all of it – so if you survey 5%, do you survey a proportionate mix, or do you survey they 5% that just happens to be extreme? Particularly if it’s easier to find – which it often is, because non-extreme things are boring in comparison.

  • Of some interest – I read this book back in my sophomore year of college. I recall it being pretty good, though it wasn’t particularly relevant to my studies:

    It’s more prescriptive than descriptive – e.g a survey of how good and evil have been presented over the centuries, which would be interesting. I’ve read the Fear: A Cultural History, which is that for fear, but haven’t come across that for good/evil – but this book might be interesting.

  • Good point about antagonism and the definition of evil. I think my take away is that good and evil are quite subjective. I think tv shows and movies are starting to grapple with that very notion, which i find interesting. For instance – Breaking Bad – where the main character is somewhat of an anti-hero. He does bad things, but you still want him to win.

  • Nice – thanks for the recommendation!