Democracy, patriotism, internal and external wars, all political tactics based on factional conflict are supported by a worldview which I call the manichean worldview (“manichean” referring to an ancient religious dualist movement, but nowadays applied to any polarizing, black/white belief).
Government propaganda, Big Media and Hollywood lead the way in promoting this worldview, and have contributed to its insinuation into public discourse. A few principles can be isolated from it.
1. There are “good people” and “bad people.”
People can be divided into two general camps, “good” and “bad.” “Good” means: anyone who is on our side. “Bad” means: anyone who is against our side. There is zero consideration of morality whatsoever in those evaluations, as they denote one’s faction exclusively. “We” (the side with which the person is assumed to identify) are never “bad.”
2. “Good people” are pretty, smart, happy. “Bad people” are ugly, stupid and ill-tempered. “Good people” are the “light side,” “evil people” are the “dark side.” No “evil person” believes that he is doing the right thing: “evil people” are always corrupt and angry.
3. Anything a “good person” does is “good,” even if it consists of actions which are universally condemned, like theft, murder or torture. In the manichean worldview, the end completely justifies the means, no questions asked. In the “good” world, there is no moral responsibility whatsoever. Just belonging to the “right faction” gives you total free reign.
“Bad people,” on the other hand, bear full moral responsibility for their actions. If a “bad person” steals, kills or tortures, he should be punished for doing so, unlike “good people.”
As a part of that, we also have a tendancy to generalize positivity and particularize negativity towards members of our in-group (e.g. “atheists are great people,” “Richard Dawkins stubbed my toe), and do the reverse to others (e.g. “Pat Robertson came out for pot legalization,” “Christians are stupid”).
There can be times when the distortion between what the manichean perceives as “good” and the actions of the “good person” becomes too great: the “good person” is then either called an “anti-hero,” or everyone denies that the person was on their side to begin with. No “bad person” or “bad” label can ever, ever be pinned on the “good side.”
[D]uring the 1980s the United States was the main factor in blocking two major international peace processes, one in Central America and one in the Middle East. But just try to find that simple, obvious fact stated anywhere in mainstream media. You can’t. And you can’t because it’s a logical contradiction- you don’t even have to go any grubby work with the data and the documents to prove it, it’s just proven by the meaning of the words themselves. It’s like finding a married bachelor or something- you don’t have to do any research to show there aren’t any. You can’t have the United States opposing the peace process, because the peace process is what the United States is doing, by definition. And if anybody is opposing the United States, then they’re opposing the peace process. That’s the way it works, and it’s very convenient, you get nice conclusions.
Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power
4. The world is a struggle, which can only be won by violence. The “evil people” must be subdued by force, because they are on the wrong side by definition. When victory is achieved, “the end” has been met, and nothing could possibly go wrong from that point on.
All of these premises, which are held to a certain extent by the vast majority of people, are very, very dangerous because they distort our view of social and world problems, as well as our proposed solutions.
Premise 1 introduces the distortion that creates all the subsequent errors. Morality does not apply to factions or individuals, but to actions. There are no “good people” or “bad people,” just people who do good or bad things, and have a temperament to do good or bad things. But once we allow for dividing people based not on what they do but who they are, we introduce the capacity for mass pre-judging and demonization, which the State needs in order to divide-and-conquer society.
Premise 2 is perhaps the most dangerous of all, because it renders us incapable of recognizing actual evil. A somewhat trivial example of that is the surprise that people have when they learn someone is a mass murderer: “oh, he seemed so normal and calm, it’s hard to imagine he could have done all that.” People expect “evil people” to take an “evil form.”
When we look at the State, this is all the more prevalent. People refuse to believe that policemen and soldiers are agents of an evil ideology, because they are ordinary people, they are “on our side,” and therefore cannot be guilty of such atrocities.
Premise 3 is an open attack on the principle of universality, and therefore it is perhaps the most fundamental moral error and the one that causes the most damage overall. The first two lay the ground rules for the third to be accepted.
Premise 3 is what makes war acceptable for people, makes taxes acceptable, makes the torture and murder of innocents acceptable, makes the War on Drugs acceptable, makes eminent domain acceptable, makes the FDA acceptable, in short everything that is morally repulsive about the State stems from that single premise: that the crimes of the State are done for “good” goals (because they are on “our side”) and therefore must be embraced. Premise 3 is what makes the truth unspeakable, is why we cannot call our current government what it is (a fascist, imperialist regime).
Premise 4 is the standard “the end justifies the means” premise that is used to rationalize the actions committed on the basis of premise 3. We’re killing each other for the “greater good,” for “peace,” to “become secure,” to “protect our interests” (the interests of the ruling class, of course). It’s the result of an invitation to shut off our brains and think of people as pawns in a greater game, a premise common to all collectivist systems. If you can’t think of individuals as individuals, people with their own values and lives and desires, you’ll have no qualms killing them. And that’s the sad truth of the matter.