Bad to the bone

               I got all worked up about something that’s been bugging me ever since I got married – how the hell can the past define me? I mean I’ve done stupid things, bad things, I’ve sinned and I’ve had impure thoughts about Madonna and Monica Belluci (I still have them, though not for Madonna, not anymore) – why would that be proof I’ll do them again? Short answer, I think it can’t define me, who I was is not who I am or who I’ll be. For the long answer, I’d have to ask my wife, like I always do. Hell, I’m on the verge of donating all my books, that woman knows bloody everything. I won’t ask her, mainly because I’d end up buying a few sexy dessous to appease her but still, how can somebody say I’ll do something bad in the future because there’s evidence I’ve done it before? Which brings several questions into play, none of which are actually supporting my theory. Unless I change my perspective.

              There’s a bit of a problem I know of in the realm of education – in parenthood to be more specific, and it lasts until the day we die. I keep trying to make myself a better person and people keep assuming that’s .. well … bullshit. They (and sometimes I’m included here, apparently) think what we did before is who we are now. I don’t agree, but I may be selective in choosing what to remember. Hence this text and the current unopened ambrosia bottle I’m considering as today’s food for thought. Well, I’ve decided so we start with a subsonic pop instead of a bang.

               In my experience, we mostly use two antagonistic ways of judging individuals – either we go with judging identity (he’s bad) or we go with judging behavior (what he did was bad). I said antagonistic because, well, they are – either his identity is bad or his identity is the opposite of his behavior. I also said mostly, but so far I’ve seen very few cases where the third option is considered, even if it’s the logical approach. Blaming the identity of somebody is used when we want to include that person in a group, like when we say bankers are bad or bikers are violent. It’s called generalization. Blaming the behavior is used when there’s a dissonance between what we want to believe and what we experience – that priest is a saint, even if he did some bad things. Or maybe we do it to reinforce a belief, to create an identity, without knowing anything else but the behavior (he did bad things so he’s bad and he should feel bad). Both ways are equally stupid at defining morals, they disregard the obvious individuality of individuals. They also disregard what I call the big question (we’ll get back to that).

               Ever watch American History X? Is the main character good or bad? Well now, son, take a seat and we’ll think it over together. We’re both idiots. I’m an idiot for even thinking I could make a difference and you’re an idiot for thinking my question matters. The real question you should be asking before answering me would be “What is good and what is bad?”. And then, “who gets to define what is good and what is bad?”, whose definition do you get to use to answer my question? You see, nobody is either good or bad, it’s a red herring placed there with a specific outcome in mind. If you think about somebody as either good or bad you judge identity, not behavior. You won’t question the definition. You won’t think about a bad guy being capable of good deeds and the good guy being capable of bad deeds. Because they’re totally capable of that.

               Ever watch Hero? Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy there? The good guy does bad things and the bad guy does good things, right? Or do they? How would you define good or bad? The good guy, if you decide saving lives means he’s good, tries to teach his kid about real life, saves people from an airplane crash and demands nothing in return but also steals the reporter’s purse and sells the content (credit cards, etc.). The bad guy, if you decide impersonating the good guy is bad, does none of that but takes the credit for saving people and all the advantages that come with that and effectively lies to everybody for personal benefit. The main point is – you are the one labeling them. You get to judge behavior and label people as good or bad based on that. What if I were to tell you the fellow who saved lives also took them in the past? Or that the fellow impersonating the savior was one hour short of killing himself because he was hungry and miserable and the only way to get out of the shithouse was to lie his way up? Would that make any difference? Why?

               Both of them are good movies, one of them was even nominated for an Oscar. They both fail at delivering the message or maybe that was the whole point. They’re supposed to make you think but fail at that, so my guess is Hero was the better picture simply because it was a comedy. Why do they fail? Because they give you only two choices – to judge identity (American History X) or to judge behavior (Hero), which is sort of equivalent of not having a choice at all. Remember the big question I hinted a few paragraphs up? It sort of blows them away. They are both biased which is ok, they’re both films and not documentaries (and those fail at it even harder, because dot dot dot expectations) so they’re not supposed to be accurate. American History X wants you to judge the main character as a bad guy at the beginning and then show you why that’s bad – but it’s doing it by telling you to judge him as a good guy at the end. It tells you bad guys can change, they can become good guys. Hero shows you a bad guy with a heart of gold (he cares about his kid, he wants what’s best for him) and then proves him a good guy by having him save lives, and shows you a good guy (a war hero, a tormented soul who just got deeper in the web of lies by accident and escalation) who proves himself a liar even if he has a heart of gold (and proves that by trying to jump off a window, but really doesn’t try, because he’s saved). It shows you how judging people can be wrong. Both of them make you judge, jury and executioner – even if they’re proving you wrong at the end. Brilliant screenplay, fun all around. But then, here comes the big question.

               Why are you supposed to believe you should judge the characters anyway? Because that’s what the film makers want from you. You’re supposed to connect to the actors. You’re supposed to choose – from a set of two options, and they provide you with those options. It’s not a real choice. It’s a con. It’s a trap, says the friendly squid. Good guy/bad guy duality doesn’t exist, like at all. The thing we forget, and it’s a trap every single one of us falls into, is the fact nobody has a good or bad identity, not ever. Not even criminals. We’re being tricked into believing what we choose, what we do is what we are, and what we are is what we do, that it also defines the moral judgement of our identity. Bullshit. We have none. Our identity has no moral component.

               I keep saying good and bad – it’s more likely good and evil but for the sake of the argument (and also my sanity) I’ll equate bad to evil. The moral attribute of an identity is good or evil, while the moral attribute of behavior is right (good, correct) or wrong (bad, incorrect). However, the main truth is there is no moral attribute, no moral judgement of identity. Identity is just assumed to be the consequence of behavior when in reality it’s the other way around. I keep saying bad when you think I should be saying evil – let it go. Here, have a glass of wine, on me. You’ll be paying me back a full bottle. I’m doing it on purpose. Identity is not subject to moral code – only behavior is. That’s the biggest truth you’ll get to hear from me this week. Identity is what I think of myself (invisible), behavior is what I let others see of me (visible). Think about it. We just invented that shit, just like we invented original sin. My special little theory of that is we invented original sin to make misery more endurable – to give people who feel miserable believe it’s not their fault. After all, it’s easier to blame than to fix.

               Let me make it easier to understand – I might believe I am a killer. I may have thoughts about killing people, or defenseless little kittens, like all the time. If you knew this, you’d think I was a bad person. Or evil, here, I’ll let you have this one. What if I told you that I’ve never harmed a soul? What if that was a verifiable, undisputable truth? What if I kept my impulses in check and died after 100 years of not harming a single soul? Or kitten, depends on who you ask if kittens have souls. Would I still be a bad person? Shouldn’t you be asking yourself if you’re the correct choice of judge? You can’t have all the information about me, you can’t know all the deepest fears or experiences, you can’t know everything there is about my life, basically you aren’t me. I’m not you, either. Nobody has all the information, but we still choose to judge people. We’re expected to do it. It’s something we learn. And that’s a bad thing. Even behavior as a whole can’t be judged. What we can judge is choice. Action. Decision. Think of the moral attribute of behavior as the net value of good minus absolute net value of bad – that’s the thing. And when I say net value I mean the moral value minus the value of expected reward.

               It’s crazy, innit? But it’s true. It’s also complicated. Doing a good deed is not important per se, if your only possible choice is to do it or if you’re pressured into doing it because the reward is significant. Like acting like a gentleman until you get her into your bed. That sort of thing. You’re not a gentleman, you’re just faking the behavior of a gentleman. So the logical thing to do is to consider the net value of good from the receiver’s perspective. Think of the accounting definition of value – which is satisfaction minus price, but in this case look at it from the other end of the stick – that the amount of good you do is satisfaction for others and the reward you get is the price others pay for that satisfaction. I like my definition better (value is what you get, price is what you pay), thank you, because I don’t think satisfaction equals value (as in something I can actually use instead of a feeling). If you’re doing something good without expecting a reward you get maximum points, but if you’re doing something good because you expect to benefit from that you get some of the points deducted from your final score. The points that get deducted go up the bigger the reward you expect is. Yes, it’s exactly like that. Or it should be. You can’t judge a choice if you don’t know the circumstances of that choice – otherwise a thief who stole some bread because he was starving would get the same amount of prison time as one who steals it for fun. Wait, the law doesn’t work like that? Eat your heart out, Robin Hood!

               The only way to teach a kid to know better would be to teach him to take ownership of his choices, either good or bad. To show him which behavior is socially(!) accepted (good) and which is not (bad) and then make him evaluate his identity with every choice he makes – do you want to be the sort of person who does bad things or the sort of person who does good things? Or maybe the sort of person that does only good things but they sometimes end up bad? Do we do that? Nope. I’ve never seen it done, consistently. Ever. Even I can’t do it to my kid all the time – I fail at that, at times. Either I get angry at what he does, or I get angry at him (because sometimes he’s more stubborn than even his mother). Granted, he’s not an adult and I’m no saint, but it does make me wonder. If I can’t do it all the time, can he do it all the time when he’s older? Should he be expected to not fail at it? I think not.

               The other part of the dillema is that since identity is not really good or bad and behavior (I mean each single decision, choice, action or inaction) is one or the other, how accurate can past behavior be when predicting future behavior? If I were an ex-thief looking to change my ways – if I really am trying to become a better person, can past behavior predict the future? Here’s the thing – sometimes it can, sometimes it can’t. I can’t put my finger on the exact mechanism determining the probability of success of a prediction but I’d wager my half-empty bottle I’m currently nursing into oblivion that those trying to do just that (for example, my wife) can’t, either.

Post scriptum:

               Could it be that the reward part of the behavior is what’s missing in the equation? If I have to choose between doing something I’ve done before with a certain known consequence and not doing it – but the not doing it part comes with a reward greater than the absolute value of the known consequence, I’d choose the greater reward, I think. Or would I? It rather makes me question the traditional “be good for Christmas” way of thinking, unless whatever good for Christmas I do significantly outweighs the bad. It doesn’t work that way, you say? I call bullshit then and there. Saying you’re faithful to your wife means nothing if you’re straight and there’s no other women around. It’s like saying Adam (the supposed first man) didn’t hate his mother-in-law… It’s quite true, meanwhile there was no mother-in-law to begin with.

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