We Are Not Descended from Monsters: the Illusion of Moral Clarity


At one point not too long ago, I had to ask myself: Why are so many dramas that examine social evils set a generation (approximately) before they were made? From Auntie Mame to Mississippi Burning to comedies like Ruggles of Red Gap, the easiest way to talk about systemic social problems is by looking at the ones you can see in your rear view mirror. Criticizing your parents (or grandparents) is way easier than taking a careful look at your own flaws.

We’re all familiar with people who imagine themselves heroes of the past, saying exactly the sort of thing this comic mocks. (I encourage you to click that link. It’s great.) But would we have been paragons of progressive virtue? Or would we have accepted the status quo with a shrug and an unconvincing rationalization?

We all like to imagine ourselves to be good people, and to be on the right side of history. Of course, when we look back we see that the ones on the right side were often killed for the cause. For people who think they would have joined the righteous protest back then, it’s important to ask if you’re doing it now. Getting tear gassed by NYC cops after they stick you in an enclosure? Getting shot with rubber bullets for marching in the street? Getting arrested at a demonstration because you flinched when a police officer reached for you? No? Hmm.

And, as mentioned above, the people on the wrong side of history were not monsters. They loved. They did charity. They worshiped with sincerity. They had strong ideas about good and evil. They acted with honor and kindness.

But they also bought into a corrupt system that was so pervasive they couldn’t even recognize another way to be. That doesn’t make them monsters, and it doesn’t make them mustache-twirling villains.

It doesn’t help that the narratives we tell are full of Evil Baddies of Evilness, who are irredeemable assholes rewarded with a bullet at the denouement. Hell, right now I’m reading Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and I plan to reread a one-volume edition of Lord of the Rings right after, to see if I can get through it without skimming.

That book is the archetype of othering your enemies and making monsters of them, and I’m going to read it again (right after I rewatch the movies).

Obviously, there are real villains in this world, just as there are real heroes, but everyone thinks they’re one or the other. Most aren’t. Most are caught up in the cultural assumptions around them, and are living their lives the best way they know how.

To make note of the “fossil fuel” comment by Ta Nehisi-Coates, I want to tell a brief story: Earlier this week I took my family to see INSIDE OUT. Not having a car, we walked six blocks to the bus stop. On the way, a neighbor who lives in our building drove by and parked right beside the stop. He and his girlfriend (both young and healthy) were running an errand and instead of walking on a hot June day, he drove. Six blocks. And it’s not like he was picking up a mattress or something huge.

I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on the guy; if I sold more books, I’d have a car, too. But driving six blocks? Hey, maybe he was in a hurry. Maybe he didn’t want to get all sweaty. Maybe he had another errand to run across town (it’s possible!) But getting into your car and going is how Americans live. We know the damage it does, not just to the environment but to our bodies, too, and yet we still build cities to accommodate them. Those cities that predate the car get retrofitted for them. That’s how our world is designed, from getting to work to shopping to school to everything. Going against that is hard. I know, because we’re doing it. I waste a shitload of time, comparatively, just to go to the library. I walk for an hour to take a trip that is less than 15 minutes in a car. It’s good for me, but I know the time I’m giving up is writing time, and that sucks.

But I’m not an anti-climate change hero. I’m not fighting for a better world, or setting a good example. I’m just poor. When future generations look back on our wasteful choices, I hope my descendants don’t try to defend me by saying I’m not a monster. I hope they know better.

It’s easy to look back at the moral failings of past generations and pretend that we’re different. We aren’t. The fact that they did awful things, or fought to sustain evil institutions, or turned a blind eye to injustice doesn’t make them any different from us. Most of us do the same.