Good Guys, Bad Guys, And The Ethical Problem Of Nationalism
Good Guys, Bad Guys, And The Ethical Problem Of Nationalism

Good Guys, Bad Guys, And The Ethical Problem Of Nationalism

We are all humans first and every other distinction minimizes that condition.

Driving across town recently, I was unexpectedly diverted off my path by yet another episode of unending road construction. In order to get where I was going, I was detoured through a neighborhood that has, to be generous, seen better days. The red bricks holding up porches were cracked and sometimes missing. Paint was thin and bare. What grass there was had turned brown and strewn with various pieces of life’s clutter. I was glad that my vehicle’s doors lock automatically so that I didn’t have to obviously reach over and lock them. I instinctively felt less safe.

Yet, in that moment of realization acknowledging I felt something short of secure, I immediately felt the guilt of judging, not just the quality of the houses I was passing but, inherently, the people who live in them. After all, the houses themselves didn’t pose any danger. None of them were likely to leap off their crumbling foundations and start shooting into traffic. No, any sense of imminent threat I might have felt was because I made the unfair conclusion that if the houses were less than ideal, so were their occupants. Without any information beyond superficial observation, I had deemed this a “bad” neighborhood.

Before you judge me in the manner I have judged me, let me remind you that I am not alone in making such unfair and unqualified determinations. Remember when the 45th President degradingly referred to “shithole countries?” Or that other time when he said that Mexico and other Central American countries were not “sending us their best people?” If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all made those assertions at some point, usually without even thinking about what we were feeling.

The fact is that the greater majority of people with any discernable level of privilege regularly, often subconsciously, make judgments about who is “good” and who is “bad” based solely on scant, fleeting, visual information without regard or consideration as to how accurate that information may be. We see someone leaving a nice house with a well-manicured lawn and think they must be a nice person. We see someone leaving a house that likely has mold in its walls and we check the locks on our doors. Should either of those be people of color, we almost instinctively downgrade our opinions, even if we’re people of color ourselves. 

We know it’s wrong. We feel guilty when we catch ourselves doing it. Some of us even make efforts to forcefully correct that initial judgment. Were we raised to be biased? Are we incapable of changing our base behavior?

I don’t believe in excuses inappropriate behavior. When we’re wrong, we need to correct ourselves and apologize where necessary. However, understanding why we continue to struggle with behavior and responses we know are wrong might help us to more easily correct ourselves. 

The truth of the matter is that there are no “good people” or “bad people.” There are no “best neighborhoods” or “worst neighborhoods.” People are just people. Humans. Homo sapiens. We group ourselves largely according to our economic means and, on a larger scale, our occupations, not our behavior. As people, we sometimes make bad decisions that lead us to do bad things, but that doesn’t necessarily make us “bad” people any more than helping an elderly person across the street makes us “good.”

Nationalism As A Matter Of Judgment

To begin correcting this behavior, I think it might help if we look at why we tend to think in terms of “good” versus “bad” in the first place. No, it’s not a religious bias, as one might tend to think, though some religions happily jumped on the bandwagon where it suited them. Rather, it’s the influence of Nationalism that has played a larger role in shaping our behavior and it has often done so through influences as subtle as fairy tales.

If we’re going to talk about Nationalism, though, let’s first set a clear definition so that we’re all on the same page. You are free to hold to your own definition, but this is the one I’ll be using for the remainder of this article. I’m quoting from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The term “nationalism” is generally used to describe two phenomena: (1) the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and (2) the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination. (1) raises questions about the concept of a nation (or national identity), which is often defined in terms of common origin, ethnicity, or cultural ties, and specifically about whether an individual’s membership in a nation should be regarded as non-voluntary or voluntary. (2) raises questions about whether self-determination must be understood as involving having full statehood with complete authority over domestic and international affairs, or whether something less is required.

At first glance, for many people, Nationalism sounds like a good idea. I love my country (patriotism). My country is the best (national pride). Superficially, there may not appear to be any problems with either of those concepts. 

However, where we run into problems is with that whole idea of defining a common origin or ethnicity. For some people in Northern Africa and what we now refer to as the Middle East, that factor of ethnicity is a strong one. People inhabiting many of those countries can trace their common ancestry for millennia and their fundamental religions are based on that shared history and texts written about it. For almost every other region in the world that identity is more troubled because for people to exist in those places, from Asia to the Americas and across Europe, mass migration had to take place. While most of those migrations occurred millions of years ago, the continual and necessary process of migration has created many different cultures and sub-ethnicities.

Factoring at a more difficult level are countries such as the United States and Australia whose dominant culture overwhelmed the indigenous peoples of the land and replaced native cultures with their own. This presents a constant, persistent question as to who belongs and who doesn’t. Shameful issues such as slavery and ethnic genocide also color National identities and throughout the history of Nationalism have given rise to severe bouts of bigotry and racism. Nationalism bristles at the concept of inclusiveness because the philosophy requires hard boundaries and definitions. People who are legitimate members of this nation hold x ethnicity, y genetic background, and z belief system or else they don’t belong here. Inclusiveness muddies those waters and makes defining the nation frustratingly challenging.

Romanticism Is Not All About Love

We are not the first generation to deal with the perils of Nationalism in a dramatic fashion. Open social media to any politically-oriented source and chances are high that one soon comes across a reference to Nazi Germany, the rise of Fascism across Europe during the early part of the 20th century, and the resulting World Wars. Modern Nationalism goes even further back, though we tend to reference it under another name: Romanticism.

Yes, I know, Romanticism is considered as more of an art movement. When someone mentions Romanticism we tend to think of artists such as John Constable and William Blake, poets such as Byron, Keats, and Shelley, and composers such as Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and late-period Beethoven. Any humanities student knows the five principals of Romanticism as imagination, intuition, individuality, idealism, and inspiration. 

While the music of the period was big and emotional and the poetry was deeply profound and personal, and the paintings were dramatic and colorful, what mattered more at the time was that their creators held a nationalistic identity that made their work a matter of national pride. Tchaikovsky was honored in St. Petersburg not merely because he was a great composer but because he was a great Russian composer. Liszt, similarly, was loved or hated not because of the challenges of his compositions but because he was Hungarian and as such to extol the greatness of his music was also, by extension, a proclamation of the greatness of Hungary. 

Nowhere was Romanticism more heavily embraced than 19th century Germany. One of the most influential definers of Romantic philosophy was August Wilhelm von Schlegel (Sept. 5, 1767, Hanover – May 12, 1845, Bonn) who created strong distinctions between Romanticism versus Enlightenment and Nationalism versus Cosmopolitanism. He found it necessary that German artists needed to make their works expressly German so as to not dilute their national identity. He felt quite strongly that it was through art, music, and literature that the cultural definition of a nation was formed. [I’m condensing severely. Schlegel’s essays were more nuanced on the subject but I don’t have the desire to delve deeply into those at this juncture.]

As nationalistic identity grew within the arts, there came an exclusion factor. If German music, for example, contained the qualities of A, B, and C, then it could not contain qualities X, Y, and Z. A, B, and C were what made the music German. Anything else was not acceptable because it was not German. The same happened in almost every other European country. Rossini’s operas were demonstrably Italian. Berlioz was unquestionably French. Poland celebrated the success of Chopin. Bruckner was unquestionably Austrian and in that period one didn’t dare equate that in any way with being German. The differences were quite distinctive. And at this same time, American composer Stephen Foster was defining the sound of the United States. Even the quintessential band composer, John Phillip Sousa (1857), falls into this category (barely), creating a sound so Nationalistic that some people actually get upset to hear his marches played outside the US. 

Getting The Backstory

Where the effects of Nationalism may be most noticeable is in literature, specifically the folklore that has been handed down through hundreds of years in oral traditions. What happens through the influence of Romantic Nationalism is a shift toward a “good guy/bad guy dichotomy” that strips tales of their complexity in order to present characters based on an imposed morality. How this takes effect on literature, especially as it develops into the early 20th century, is that characters respond to situations not based on emotion or personal history but more because they’re either the “good guy” or the “bad guy.” The character defined as “good” can do no wrong. He wears a white hat. They are honorable. She holds a strict moral code. Conversely, the “bad” character can only do good if they have a transitional event that turns them “good.”

In her essay, “The Good Guy/Bad Guy Myth,” Catherine Nichols explains:

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

Nowhere is the shift more noticeable than in the stories penned by the Grimm brothers. Ms. Nichols relates it well so I’ll defer to her words again: 

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

As a result, the Grimm brothers wrote their tales in a way that was significantly more moralizing than the oral versions of the stories had been. Always telling the truth, keeping promises, and fighting against evil simply because it was evil, not because the character had committed any specific crime, became primary plot motivators. 

Other authors took note, given the popularity of the Grimm’s tales, and made similar alterations. Before Josef Ritson’s retelling of the Robin Hood myth, there was no “robbing from the rich to give to the poor.” The earliest versions of the stories simply recount a group of “merry men” frolicking in the forest (make of that what you will). The legends of King Arthur did not define him as British until the 19th century. Much of the ancient poetry concerning the character is French.

What happens then is an inseparable association between being the citizen of a certain country or a given belief system and one’s morality. If one is from country A or is a believer of B then one is good. Everyone else is bad. This attitude spreads all across Europe and the United States so that by the 1930s a problem has developed that no one saw coming. 

Nationalism’s Harsh Consequences

In her book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, Andrea Pitzer makes the argument that the concentration camps employed by the Nazis and others wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for “the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.” What caught hold and decimated Germany has never gone away.

As I’m writing, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is having that country’s military attack Kurdish villages in Northern Syria because he believes the Kurdish people who live there are inherently bad and deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth. While other world leaders stand off to the side with toothless declarations of disapproval, no one is making any active attempt to stop what is likely to be an extinction event for the Kurdish people. The same has already happened in Sudan, Dafur, Rwanda, and Bosnia. International response has consistently been the same: verbal disapproval but no interference. No one stops the genocide.

When we create a hardline system of good versus bad, people inevitably die, often in large numbers, simply because their identity falls into the category of “bad” as defined by whoever is in charge at a given moment. The United States is not immune. In fact, we’re consistently battling against those who consider eliminating those they think are “bad” people. Let me give you some examples.

This past June, a Tennessee pastor publicly called for LGBT people to be killed.

Last November, the current administration authorized the use of force against immigrants as the President has consistently stopped short of advocating shooting immigrants.

When comedian Ellen DeGeneres sat next to George W. Bush as a Dallas Cowboys game last Sunday, some people objected because, “Tens of thousands of people are dead because his administration lied to the American public about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and then, based on that lie, launched a war that’s now in its 16th year.” In other words, he’s a “bad guy” and should, therefore, be shunned.

The argument here is not that people don’t do bad things. We all know such a statement is ridiculous. What matters, though, is whether we allow those actions to wholly define a person or an entire group. 

Wait, I’m Feeling A Bit Uncomfortable

Let’s return to Ms. Nichols’ essay where she writes:

Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.

Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

If Ms. Nichol’s assessment feels slightly uncomfortable it may be due to the fact that we’ve seen some of these Nationalistic methods utilized in public rhetoric. When a member of Congress is called a traitor, for example, because they dare to challenge the authoritative misdeeds of the President, that’s Nationalism rearing its ugly head. When the President removes troops from Northern Syria where they might protect Kurds against Turkey’s invasion because, “They didn’t help us in the second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy for example,” that’s an example of historical ignorance presented through a Nationalist filter. When the President tells four members of Congress to “go back to the countries they came from,” he’s being unvarnished and unapologetic in his Nationalism.

In fact, the US President is proud of being a Nationalist, though one might argue that he doesn’t fully understand or comprehend what that means. He has stated on more than one occasion that people who agree with him should embrace the word and use it often. Such a declaration resonates with those who are deeply patriotic. However, it also resonates with white supremacists, anti-Semitism, and lingering segregationists because the philosophy supports the good guy/bad guy distinction necessary for racism to thrive.

The rub in this conversation is that if we allow ourselves to label Nationalists as the “bad guy,” we’re playing into the exact same methodology and entrenching the problematic philosophy even further. We cannot wholly discount an entire political party because of the actions of their leaders. That in no way means we excuse deplorable and illegal actions by the President, but neither do we deride our neighbors simply for being Republicans. 

Solutions Aren’t Always Easy

To overcome the whole good guy/bad guy ideology one must alter how we assess people both individually and as groups. The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was on the right track when he talked about judging people not by the color of their skin by rather “the content of their character.” Perhaps we should “drill down” on his concept and include some of these alliterative qualities:

  • The frequency of their forgiveness
  • The measure of their mercy
  • The appropriateness of their attitude
  • The genuineness of their generosity
  • The honesty of their helpfulness
  • The tenderness in their truthfulness
  • The consistency in their caring
  • The abjectness of their apologies
  • The certainty of their sincerity

When we take away the concept of someone being either good or bad, we accept the reality that the people we admire most don’t always make good decisions, or use the best language, or check their facts before speaking, or think about how their actions might affect others. Honorable people can curse when they stub their toe in the dark, throw something in a moment of frustration, vehemently argue the wrong side of an issue, trigger someone’s PTSD, and drive irrationally. What matters is their willingness to admit to an error, apologize to anyone harmed, consider the opinion and feelings of others, make amends where appropriate, and adjust their actions in the future; not that they’re going to be perfect and never make the same mistakes again, but recognizing their own failings and attempting to address them.

Judging people against a strict good/bad ideology removes the humanity that is inherently fallible, unstable, and unpredictable. One action, or a set of actions, does not define the entirety of a person’s soul. The external perspective of what someone does may lie in complete opposition to the truth.

A near-perfect example is a child who is angry with their parents for not giving in to their wishes. I once told a young one that she still had 20 minutes until the appointed snack time. I was instantly the bad guy. She called me names, said I was a horrible father, and expressed a desire to not be a part of the family. We laugh at the absurdity of these moments because we understand that a child’s ability to reason and make appropriate judgments is not yet fully developed. Once the situation is calm, we discuss more appropriate ways to express our frustration.

As adults, though, we rarely offer each other the same generosity of understanding. Someone does something that in our perspective seems cruel, harmful to someone else, thoughtless, or without regard to the consequences. We fly off the handle, call them names, question their integrity, warn all our “friends” on social media that X is a bad person, and all without pausing to even ask that person what their motivation was, considering their emotional state, or the prevalence of external pressures when making that decision. 

Another example comes to mind. A young mother of two, single and without a substantial support system, is barely making ends meet when the variable-rate college loan she has suddenly takes a payment from her checking account that is three times more than she had expected. She no longer has enough funds to pay rent or buy food. She’s confident that if she can just make it through this month everything will be fine but for this one moment, she’s desperate, knowing how little is left in her cabinets and refrigerator. So, when the opportunity presents itself, she “borrows” a few hundred dollars from her employer without their knowledge. She legitimately intends to pay it back as soon as she can, but then one of the children gets sick and her copays are more than she makes in a month so she “borrows” a little more.

When she finally gets caught, she’s fired and charged with fraud and embezzlement. The state takes her children and puts them into the foster system. She goes to prison. She now has a record and society labels her as a “bad” person so no one wants to take a risk on hiring her after she’s done her time. Yet, she still loves her children, her apologies were honest and sincere, her regret genuine, and every other aspect of her character is unimpeachable. Still, we want that label to stay on her as a consequence of her acts of desperation and in doing so dramatically increase her chances of recidivism because all society has done is underwrite her desperation. Being desperate does not make one a bad person, but it can leave them with the perspective that taking inappropriate action is the only option for survival. 

Opinions Of Another Guy Named Martin Luther

What we must realize is there are no “good people” or “bad people.” One’s nationalistic or cultural heritage does not determine their character. Whether one wears a dark hoodie and sneakers or a suit with polished shoes doest not speak to their level of honesty. Being American doesn’t make one a damn bit better than being Sudanese or Iranian. Being Southern Baptist holds no more sway over one’s spiritual standing than being Hindu or Buddhist. In fact, for those who might scream that the religious texts quantify good vs. bad people, consider how Martin Luther explained the 8th commandment in his Small Catechism.

Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God in such a way that we should not tell lies about our neighbor, slander them, or hurt their reputation, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest way possible. (translated)

[Thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber for the timely heads up on that one.]

Response to 8th commandment and to Luther thrusts one back to the millennia-old question of who is our neighbor? Multiple texts from the world’s varied religions are uncompromising on the fact that the term “neighbor” is a universal metaphor for personhood. Every human being is sacred. If one claims any level of spirituality, that fact can never be up for debate.

This is not a concept of lawlessness, either. When someone does something harmful to themselves or to others then there are consequences both natural and social. Some crimes demand a person to be removed from society in order to keep society safe. I wouldn’t think of arguing otherwise. However, we must realize that even those incarcerated for the worst crimes against humanity never lose their personhood. We are all homo sapien first. We all share that common bond.

Kat Armas recently related, “… just as poor doesn’t mean lazy, uneducated doesn’t mean stupid; to be vulnerable in society doesn’t mean to be helpless; and while the marginalized are often silenced, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice.” I would add to her statement that just because someone does something anti-social or illegal or even immoral by some universal measurement does not separate them from their humanity.

Uncomfortable Apologies To Christopher Columbus

What concerns me at this juncture is that as citizens of this Western post-industrial society, Nationalism has been so deeply ingrained in our basic understanding of the planet that suggesting we break away from the good guy/bad guy mythos feels too wrong on an emotional level. Intellectually, sure, we can perhaps wrap our heads around the concept a little bit, but to not label some people as “bad” forces us to deeply examine the depths of our hidden bigotries and that never makes us feel comfortable.

We were standing at the counter in Kat’s salon late this week when the question came up as to why the banks are closed this coming Monday. Her father, who tends to have an aggressively anti-liberal bias in his opinions, said, “Oh, Monday’s Columbus Day, or for those intolerant of Columbus, Indigenous People’s Day.” He laughed. He was making a dig he considered playful. The moment was inappropriate for argument so I rolled my eyes and continued with my day. 

However, giving the matter more thought, I have to admit that I am intolerant of Christopher Columbus. His actions and activities in the name of converting the world to Catholicism and furthering Spanish economics were deplorable by my 21st century standards. I refuse to celebrate anything honoring him because of the lasting damage he caused. 

Does that make him a bad guy?

As much as I have previously argued otherwise, I have to swallow my pride and admit that no, he’s not a bad guy. His actions are not worthy of celebration, his perspective was warped by unenlightened religion and what appears, from the distance of a little over six centuries, to be rampant narcissism, and he introduced diseases that led to the annihilation of millions of indigenous peoples. Yet, none of that separates him from his humanity. He was still a person. He was married to Filipa Moniz Perestrelo and perhaps she loved him. He had a son, Diego, who apparently thought enough of his father to follow somewhat in his footsteps. After the death of Filipa, Beatriz Enrique de Arana was his mistress and the mother of his second son. Ferdinand. There were relationships and domestic activities that belie the horrible reputation he has for wrecking the rest of the planet. Columbus was not a bad guy; he was a person who, at times, did what we now consider horribly bad things, but when he did those things his perspective was one we are incapable of fully understanding today. Be sure, he did not consider himself a bad person.

Emotionally, that entire paragraph feels wrongfully apologetic. Yet, it is accurate. It is defensible. 

When we finally separate ourselves from Nationalism and the binary good guy/bad guy philosophy we find ourselves in a better place of acceptance, a place where we can genuinely see the positive qualities of people with whom we disagree, people whose philosophies and lifestyles we are challenged to understand, people whose language seems incomprehensible, people whose cultures may appear threatening, people whose skin color reminds us that our species was not created any shade of white. We see people, not an improperly moralistic judgment of those people. 

And when all we see are people, we can begin to see peace. Rejecting Nationalism isn’t easy, but it is absolutely necessary because none of us are the good guys we think we are. Always remember, there are no bad neighborhoods.

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