Being the Bad Guy

imageUku has a good post up called Burst your Buddhist bubble!  It has brought a lot of thoughtful commentary.

He discusses emotional honesty, means of expression and the frustration with the social pressure to conform to  “Buddhist” stereotypes.

Another point that got brought up related to the photo he chose to accompany his post. It is a picture of 2 of his kids playing with light sabers pretending to be the classic characters from Star Wars.

Lauren made an excellent point in the comments:

As I stared at the photo and considered your post, I had a fantasy someone wondered aloud to you how the sons of a buddhist monk could engage in such violent games, imitating killing each other, tisk, tisk [shaking of finger with a frown]. And as I thought of this, some truer (I think) realization came. Children can only engage in these games because they see the difference of “good” and “bad”, Vader against Kanobe, as essentially a show, a charade, a falsehood. Okay, they don’t conceptualize it this way, but they know, (instinctively?, with real prajna) that both beings are the same, equal, both-supposed-to-be-there, even though they are dressed up in differences. And, I think, they assume this of the adults they see. They assume all adults understand that the enemy is their friend dressed up and fighting for the exhilarating energy of the situation. They see us all as equals before they know how to conceive of the question of whether we are.

What an excellent point.

I’d like to take the ideas from the post and the comment on a somewhat different tangent.

When we notice children playing these kinds of games or perhaps when we recall playing them ourselves there is an eagerness to acting out either character. An undifferentiated enthusiasm. Kids will happily become Darth Vader or the pirate captain without hesitation. Playing some villains is often even better and more fun than playing the hero who generally must stay within certain behavioral guidelines and who are usually forbidden to explore beyond well defined boundaries.

In children’s literature there is often some element of the defiant character. The Cat in the Hat being a prime example.

Even in adult popular culture the bad guy as hero is a frequent movie trope. From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise and V for Vendetta to the Jack Nicholson character McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, these characters express sentiments and commit actions that go against the stream of their respective social situations.

On TV there have been similar characters such as Spike and Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dr. House, Alan Shore on Boston Legal and Tony Soprano.

In stand-up comedy the bad boy or rebel who speaks out is a staple. Where would comedy be without the voices of people like George Carlin, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor?

This is even more pronounced in literature. The outcast, rebel, misfit or even villain is given empathetic or in some instances heroic treatment. Consider novels such as A Clockwork Orange, Gormenghast-the Steerpike character or plays by Shakespeare which often contain characters that transgress arbitrary boundaries. image

One can call this acknowledging the shadow aspects of the psychological self or integration of our complete human natures or recognition of hidden desires or impulses. These characters symbolize elements we may be too timid or afraid to confront directly within ourselves.

All of these are about challenging status quo situations whether they are social or psychological or spiritual. These archetypes would not continue to exist and be popular if they did not fill some psychological or emotional need, be easily recognized by most people and have a social function.

“The antihero emerges as a perturber and a disturber, a subverter of things as they are.

For more on the literary value of the anti-hero read John Sutherland’s book review. “Beautiful Losers: A literary critic analyzes the role of European antiheroes.”, The New York Times, May 9, 1999.

That doesn’t mean it is advisable to wallow in nihilism or emotions that are blatantly destructive either. When we get too far toward the ends of the scale of idealism versus cynicism we end up negating much of our own reality as well as propagating an extreme level of social or psychological disruption. If we express all that is within in a manner of complete abandon there are social costs, and if we suppress most of what is within there are psychological costs as well. Neither of the extremes renders anyone fully functional. It is perhaps only useful to indulge in extremes in the creation of fictional works. Art has often been labeled a destructive process.

But that doesn’t mean that these extremes can be left unexamined in real life either.

When we practice Buddhism it may result in “becoming a better person” at some point, but if we don’t know what kind of person we are to begin with then “better” comes to mean more deluded and contorted and confined than when we started. Finding out who we are, in all it’s aspects is crucial to reaching some kind of understanding especially on the Buddhist path.

We can put on the most beautiful and ornate Buddhist mask in the world and please everyone we come in contact with. We can disguise our demons as angels and fill their mouths with marshmallows so they cannot speak. We can deny the substance of our desires by a feigned renunciation. We can bind up any hint of violence the second we sense it’s approach and hide it carefully.

All that can become the role and work of a lifetime. But there’s no life to it. It’s a facsimile of our idealization of ourselves.

We cannot resist against ourselves for the sake of maintaining the complacency and comfort of others. That is a form of slow motion suicide. We can have some amount of discipline in our expressions of ourselves provided we are aware of our own reasoning and motivations. But again without doing the work of the examination of the areas that provide much of our motivation, these being generally the more disruptive and unpleasant aspects, we spend our time living in fear of that which we do not really know. Ourselves.


For more on popular tropes, characters, stereotypes and the structure of fiction of all types visit the TV tropes wiki where a good deal of what comprises popular culture is well outlined and explained. The main index is along the left side of all the pages. You’ll be there for hours.

I know you’ve suffered
But I don’t want you to hide

I want to reconcile the violence in your heart
I want to recognize your beauty’s not just a mask
I want to exorcise the demons from your past
I want to satisfy the undisclosed desires in your heart

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