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Beyond Bad Guys

“I will be the bad guy and you will be the good guy,” I hear my 5-year-old son explaining to his 7-year-old brother. “I will be running away, and you will be trying to get me!” They start chasing each other around the floor, laughing with excitement. Sounds like fun, but I have a nagging concern. The reason is not the possibility that the laughter will turn into crying when one of the kids bumps into a piece of furniture. I am worried that, as they are growing up, my sons might increasingly use the bad/good binary to shape interactions with people around them.

Being able to divide everything we encounter into “good” and “bad” is an evolutionary necessity. Even the simplest organisms distinguish between what they like and what they dislike; this is what allows them to survive. In human society, the good/bad binary takes much more sophisticated forms and sometimes causes problems. It can become especially harmful when overlapping with our perceptions of “us” and “them.”

Scholars studying human behavior explain that people see society as divided into various ingroups and outgroups based on a variety of characteristics (e.g., age, gender, skin color, religion, place of origin, profession, political views, lifestyle). Some of these divisions are fairly harmless. For example, as an immigrant, I often gravitate towards people who have moved countries, but I do not dislike those who never travel.

Unfortunately, the ingroup/outgroup division can become toxic. This happens when we see the “us” team as reasonable, trustworthy, and safe, while the “them” team appears to be irrational, suspicious, and dangerous. When “us” becomes equivalent to “good guys” and “them” to “bad guys,” conflicts are inevitable and hard to manage.

Disputes get more dangerous the stronger the emotions involved are. For example, it is not uncommon for clashes between sports fans to become violent because watching sports can be filled with overwhelming excitement, frustration, sadness, and anger. Strong emotions are related to our social identity, to what we see as our ingroup as opposed to outgroups different from us. If I see my main identity as a fan of one specific sports team, I am more likely to feel strong emotions about them winning or losing.

In my depolarization work, I often encounter people who believe that a dialogue with their political opponents is impossible. Such a view is not surprising when people wear their political affiliations like badges of honor that express their deepest emotions. In fact, the worst kind of social polarization is known as affective. This is when we do not just disagree with our political opponents - we see them as enemies before we get to know them as individuals. “Them” becomes “bad guys,” with whom one cannot and should not reason.

This view seems especially justified when we observe the “other side” expressing their opinions vocally and even violently. It is easy to put the “bad guys” label on individuals whose actions offend or frighten us, and – by association – on all people who share their political position. It is also easy to feel moral superiority: my group would never do anything like that! “Bad guys” deserve contempt and punishment. And so the “bad guys vs. good guys” game goes on, this time on the level of the whole country.

To get out of this toxic situation, we need to see the limitations of the bad/good binary that shapes our thinking.

First, there are no “two sides”; instead, there are many people who hold complex and different opinions on a variety of topics. The groups that emerge in the process of affective polarization are not homogenous. You may have discovered this already when someone on “your side” said something you strongly disagreed with. Such disagreement is natural. Having some things in common does not mean having no differences.

Second, we often judge the “other side” according to the actions of its most vocal and extreme representatives. Commercial media models based on clicks and the fact that outrageous opinions get more coverage than stories told by problem-solvers, explain why the extremes are what we hear. It's important to remember that social groups are not homogenous; we should realize that people whose words and actions outrage us do not represent all individuals with similar political affiliation.

Third, it turns out that we can reach out even to people on the extremes of the polarization spectrum. This is hard work, to be sure, and not everybody can handle it. If you choose not to make this effort, you can still help by exploring the very idea that even violent extremists are not “bad guys” beyond salvation. If you don't believe me, watch this video where a former white supremacist Tony McAleer tells about his journey.

The thought of participating in depolarization might be daunting. Good news is that you can take small steps by paying attention to your own good/bad binary thinking - for example, when you are angry at somebody and automatically think, “What a jerk!” As uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, any “jerk” you encounter is a person like you, with very similar feelings and needs. Imagining people we dislike as “just bad guys” is a mental habit that we can notice and break.

Another thing you can do is explore how often you enjoy stories that embed the “good guys fighting bad guys” narrative. Unfortunately, this realization may diminish the fun of watching certain films and programs. On the positive side, you can learn to find and appreciate stories that offer complex reasons to explain characters’ behavior, narratives that disrupt “bad/good guys” stereotypes and talk about the importance of unity. Three examples that come to my mind are animated films How to Train Your Dragon, Moana, and Raya and the Last Dragon.

These examples provide a perfect segway to my last point: talk about these things with your kids. Watching and discussing the three films that I listed above can be a perfect way to start a conversation about polarization in your family. Remind your kids that nobody is just a “bad guy.” Point out that all kinds of people, including yourself, can make “bad choices.” (This is what I sometimes tell my kids: “There are no bad people, just bad choices.”) Keep in mind that “bad choices” is also a simplification, but it can be helpful when talking to youngsters who will not have enough patience to have complicated conversations about human behavior.

When my kids mention bad guys and good guys, I often ask them, “Why do you think some people are bad and others are good? What does it mean?” Having children notice the limitations of this binary can be a challenge. But I will gently persist, because I want my sons to see the complexities in everyone and not to get lost in the good/bad binary.


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