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Lazy Moral Ambiguity

Have I complained about some trivial thematic cliche lately?  No?  Oh, good, that means I have something to talk about today.

The other day I was thinking about Once Upon a Time.  Not sure why.  I'm about as far removed from a fan as you can be.  It's not even that I hate it - I just care so little about it that I barely even acknowledge its existence.  But there it was, at the forefront of my brain, anyway, because I was contemplating the nature of good and evil.

I'm not going to pretend to be so wise that I have anything terribly inventive to say on the topic of morality.  Better and smarter people than me have failed.  The duality of good and evil is right up there with love, death, sex, and all the other huge topics to which I can't possibly contribute meaningfully.  That's probably why I spend most of my time writing bullshit instead.

Anyway, I know at least one thing: morality's pretty complex.  Good and evil are never absolutes, and depending on the perspective, they can be one and the same.  No matter how despicable their leader's politics might be, a soldier is always a national hero to somebody, right? Naturally, it's a good subject for story-telling.  Literature exists at least in part so we can take complex, weird-ass concepts like morality and take different perspectives in order to understand them better.

And I think that's why Once Upon a Time was all stuck up in my mental craw.  It's such a waste.

It's a show about forces of good and forces of evil who used to live in a fairy tale land, and now try to live ordinary lives in our world as three-dimensional human beings.  Consequently, there's a lot of halfhearted attempts at moral ambiguity.  Virtually any time I've caught a minute of it out of the corner of my eye, somebody is agonizing about how one of them "used to be evil" or "doesn't want to pick sides" or has some tragic back story explaining why they became a bad guy.

OUaT is hardly alone.  Lost Girl and Grimm do the exact same thing.  For that matter, so do Supernatural and G vs E.  You know what, I'll go out on a limb and say that any television show that explicitly addresses some entities as "good" and others as "evil" is inevitably going to have the protagonists grappling with the realization that good and evil are vague concepts as they struggle to remain on neutral ground.

I understand what these shows are going for.  Moral ambiguity is great fodder for story-telling.  Aside from the inherent drama and suspense, it's also a good hypothetical exercise.  It's dangerous to go through life arbitrarily lumping people into strict "good" and "evil" groups and reacting to them accordingly.  So, I genuinely do appreciate that the shows are trying to elevate that conversation.

The problem, though, is that these shows are never actually ambiguous.  They still devolve into binary good/bad plot devices or decisions, so it's all basically a bunch of nonsense.  Possibly entertaining, sure - but still nonsense.

Ambiguity isn't simply doing something bad for empathetic reasons, like enacting violent revenge after your spouse was murdered.  Ambiguity isn't simply looking for a third option when presented with two equally unappealing choices, like overzealous angels versus sadistic demons.  Ambiguity isn't an either/or scenario.

Ambiguity is when the morality is ambiguous.  It's a situation where the merits and the drawbacks virtually cancel each other out.  It's both good and bad, something you can't neatly divide into mutually exclusive little parcels.

Ambiguity is when one social service that saves people's lives is discontinued in order to fund another one that saves different people's lives.  Ambiguity is when a soldier kills a child suicide bomber who's been brainwashed by religious extremists.  Ambiguity is when you buy nice things for your kids because you want them to live a better life than you, but in so doing, you fund really nasty mega-corporations who are spreading toxins into the air.  Ambiguity is when China ousts a totalitarian regime.

The lesson you learn from actual moral ambiguity is that none of us are individually capable of or entitled to judgment. None of us are smart enough to know the exact right decision(s) to make, and so none of us are morally superior to any other.

By contrast, the lesson you learn from the not-actually-ambiguous-ambiguity that TV loves so much is: good people who do bad things are actually bad people.  Huh.  Go figure.

I know it's kind of a dumb thing to get riled up about.  I can't help it.  I hate it when simplicity masquerades as complexity.  If you're going to be a straightforward adventure story, then go for it.  Just don't pretend to be weightier than you are.  That shit drives me nuts.