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Good Guys and Bad Guys

There are no good guys and bad guys.

We’ll start with the punchline.

I’ve tried really hard to divide the world into them. It would be easier if people were all good or all bad. EVIL VS VIRTUE. CRUEL VS KIND. LOVE VS HATE. JUSTICE VS INJUSTICE.

None of these dichotomies are real. Often cruelty comes from kindness. Hate can be born of love. Evil believes it has virtue. Injustice can be just. That is to say…it’s complicated. 

My kid watches these shows where the lines are really clear: good guy, evil guy, helpful friend, backstabbing friend, useful information, irrelevant information. Real life has no such lines. We’re all a confusing mess of both and all.

I searched for a long time for a villain in my story. Even made a few up. But the sad truth is there are no bad people, only bad behaviors. We cannot judge a person. We can only judge their actions. And in those actions, I found many villains who are also…heroes. Depends on how you tell the story. Whose perspective you take. 

I saw a meme recently about how we’re obsessed with bad guys and evil because it’s a mirror to us of what we are capable of if pressed.

I wrote something similar about Tommy Shelby from Peaky Blinders. My take was that we all want to believe we can be saved.

But I think this other take might be onto something.

That it isn’t just about our being redeemed – but our dark sides. How, when pressed, any of us can become the worst version of ourselves. 

We like to believe that who we are is “baked” in. That you sort of cement into your personality at some point. Ben is always angry. Maria is always talkative. Grace is always outgoing. Yuri is always sullen. Levi never listens. 

Psychology has long held that personality is fixed. There are a bunch of folks on team DNA that claim nature trumps nurture. But it doesn’t. Because that dichotomy itself is a false construct. There is no nature without nurture. The two are connected. You don’t have DNA without epigenetics. You don’t know which genes to turn on or off. It’s a moot point this whole ’nature vs nature.” There is no binary. It’s both and.

None of us is all one thing.

I’ve many times been the bad guy. Not on purpose. Sometimes on purpose. I’ve many times been the good guy. Not on purpose. Sometimes on purpose. I’m only always ever: human.

And to be human is to have good and bad, simple and complicated, hate and love (which btw are not opposites – the opposite of love is indifference. The opposite of hate is kindness).

I wish the world was broken up into good guys and bad guys. It would make things a lot easier. A lot more certain.

That desire for certainty worries me.

We divide the world into good guys and bad guys when we feel uncertain. When we need the world to make sense. When we have no footing, no ground. We need an enemy and we need a hero to make ourselves feel safe. 

The reason Fox and CNN can control the minds of so many is that they propagate this narrative structure. It’s a cheap trick, old as time: us vs them. Republicans are good. Democrats are evil. Democrats are good. Republicans are evil. They are bad, we are good. There is no middle ground. No gray. Black and white. Simple. 

It’s not simple.

It’s lazy.

I’ve watched many smart people lose their minds to this craving for certainty. Willing to lie to themselves and others about what is true so they can maintain their worldview – which is always the same one: I’m a good person. It’s not my fault. Having someone to blame for how things are, what you feel, or why it happened is lazy. 

Blame is cheap and self-deception is cowardly.

Honesty, accountability, and introspection are hard. They take courage.

When we cling to a bifurcated model of the world it is dishonest. No one is all good or all bad. No side is all right or all wrong. Blind adherence to a team isn’t loyalty, it’s lazy. And we’ve seen it before.

In Letters to a German Friend, Albert Camus (who was French) called the Germans “helots of the intelligence” which is my new favorite sick burn, second to this one:

“The heart is not all you betray. The intellect takes its revenge.

You have not paid the price it asks, not made the heavy contribution intellect must pay to lucidity.

From the depths of defeat, I can tell you that that is your downfall.” 

I agree.

I challenge us to be less psychologically lazy and more courageous. 

Let’s fight the helots of intelligence and not betray our hearts.

No one is all one thing.



Want to passive-aggressively send this to the person in your family who always blames “those people!” Please do not. For my sake. Those people choose blindness. But you are here and you’ve read this far. Which means we have hope. Hope that the helots of the intelligence will not win. That psychological strength and moral courage can win.

Share this, let’s talk about it.