These are the roots of modern storytelling, intertwined among the deep bones of older storytelling, formed from the atoms of ancient storytelling. The tales we pursue, the heroes we celebrate, and the moments we cheer often involve someone getting the tar kicked out of them, deservedly or not. It’s true that many stories pretend to sigh with pleasure when some Prince and Princess embrace in the final act, but don’t be such a sap. More accurately observed, the thing that really makes audiences happy is when the bully, whomever that character may happen to be be, gets his comeuppance in a duel, or crashes his hot-rod before the checkered flag, or ultimately looks like a dork on the dance floor when the band starts to play.
I’m not getting into more intimate power dynamics here; I’m leaving my Foucault at the door. Nonetheless, this is to say that we’re all basically liars. We: the supposedly mature, ethically stable grown-ups of contemporary culture are hypocrites of the first order. Do we spend our precious non-working time pursuing stories about good behavior, about well-functioning marriages, countries that get along with their neighbors, or “…one man who sets out to discover the secrets of…”? No. We do not. We tune in to stories of murder and mayhem, cities getting smashed, tough guys kicking ass, corporate bad actors, and lovers acting badly.
What happens in the last moments of Star Wars, Episode IV? (Nothing sneaky here; I’m talking old-school Star Wars, going right back to the franchise’s core DNA.) What happens is all fanfare and cheering, toothy aw-shucks smiles and celebration. I’m not immune to the cathartic relief of vanquishing villainy, nor immune to the need to extol the virtues of successful struggle and resulting survival. I am, however, aware that thousands—thousands— just died, on both sides of the battle. Friends, fathers, mothers, families: dead. We cheer when John Williams’s score swells. I’m counting myself, even as I stand outside myself, wondering what’s going on with me. Friends now dead: ho-hum. Let’s party!
The new hotness in modern on-screen binge-ability is HBO’s Westworld. Now there’s some transgressive tweaking if ever there was! And guess what? Audiences love it. It’s water cooler conversation and online blog-fodder. Don’t pretend otherwise: one of the show’s biggest appeals is that thinking people looking for escapist yet smart, thought-provoking storytelling can simultaneously get private thrills from endless carnage and nude bodies. How to justify? People tell themselves and, through their hours watching, tell the creators and sponsors, that this is smart, honest, daring storytelling. (Mostly it is.) Audiences feel safe in the thin fiction that there’s nothing to worry about when the only people being mistreated aren’t real people in the first place! Who cares if we bash in people’s skulls on screen? They’re not really people!
The challenge, especially for narrative experiences like books and movies and television and video games, is that what we do for fun is simulate or vicariously pursue the worst behavior possible. A person does not need to be a prude to immediately wonder if fantastical desensitization begins to creep into ordinary life. (This is an argument that people have been making against violent video games for decades.) In fact, it’s not too far of a stretch to say that “good” behavior, with all of the flexible, fungible, subjective aspects that term connotes, has become the cultural anomaly outside of our fictions.
For example, separation of powers in government is really a charlatan’s shell game we all know about. We wink, claim that we’re shocked, shocked! and essentially decide that since the behavior is ordinary it’s therefore exculpatory. The most commonly accepted, widely rationalized lie is that political power affords unique access and opportunity, so long as certain fictions of decorum are maintained. We accept that politics are not about playing fair. Politics are not about rules that really, truly apply to everyone equally. Politics are about how well successful practitioners can cajole and convince everyone that what they’re doing is okay, amplified by a collective agreement to enable and institutionalize the process. Politics is all about people slinking around halls of power, giving lip service to ethical behavior that we all know to be—how perfect!—a house of cards.
I’m not suggesting that we have any real chance of making politics better. I’m not even suggesting that we should. I’m simply suggesting that we should not pretend there’s an ethical gravitational constant applying equally to everyone. The pretense to truth is more damaging than the false declarations themselves.
Corporate power, especially at the multinational level, concerns movement of capital that operate ab extra the rules most of us must follow. We collectively admire the muscular expressions of corporate power even as we objectify it as an intangible other, something about which we have—or believe we have— no control. Even celebrity culture has become a strange hagiographic ouroboros, extolling special privileges granted to people by virtue of their celebrity. Considering the popular, vicarious soma that so many ingest about celebrities acting badly, we should not pretend to be better than we are.
These are all, essentially, creative acts we’re talking about, these demonstrations of transgressive behavior. The stuff we applaud, celebrate, pursue, and often emulate is not the ethical stuff we so piously claim to believe in when asked. Behavior says otherwise. We claim to care about ethics and values, we say we want to teach our children to share and to care, but we’re duplicitous en masse. We tell our children to be honest and ethical and care about others, yet we rapidly abandon those tropes and teach them by example how to “look out for number one”, to connive to get ahead, to yell at the referees rather than agree that someone has to have the job for making tough decisions.
The transgressive aspect of what we do is not the violence or the lying, the malfeasance or the lack of mutual regard. The most transgressive act is the failure to be honest with ourselves about what we like. Do we want the kind of violence in our world that we see at the theater? Probably not. Do we want our romantic relationships to be endless duels of wits, grudge matches soothed by dangerous substances and dangerous affairs? Probably not. Therefore, it’s impossible to consider the merits of our purported ethical beliefs until we, as individuals and as a culture, unpack the most honest reasons we pursue dark themes.
Consider this: are your narrative interests simply ways to convince yourself that your own life isn’t as dire as the stories you consume? After all, when zombies eat characters you care about on The Walking Dead, you can immediately take heart that at least you don’t have flesh eating corpses in your life. Therefore, The Walking Dead must be okay, culturally speaking. Tuning in to the rot and squalor and thundering violence of it all makes sitting in traffic a little more tolerable. It makes our laments about the condition of our decaying public schools, for example, seem less onerous. After all, consciously or not, every time we tune in we’re telling ourselves that it’s just a thought experiment, that it’s all just for fun.