Why we like characters who battle institutions

David Brin’s “Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled With Idiots… or Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools” is great, and you should read it. He observes that novels, TV shows, and movies routinely depict heroic individuals standing up to corrupt or evil institutions or organizations. This tendency is “a reflex shared by left and right” to associate villainy with organization. Moreover, “Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted.” Brin notes some exceptions (Contagion is another, and the link goes to an article titled “Bureaucratic Heroism”), but those exceptions are exceptionally exceptional.

Nonetheless, I’d like to posit a reason why institutions and organizations are often portrayed as evil: they behave in ways that are evil enough with shocking regularity, and few of us have the means or fortitude to resist broken, evil, or corrupt institutions. The most obvious and salient example, much taught in schools, is Nazi Germany; while some individuals fought against the state murder apparatus, the vast majority went along with it, leading pretty much everyone who learned afterwards about the Holocaust to ask, “What would I do in that situation?” Most of us want to think we’d be heroic resisters, but the push to conform is strong—as the Milgram Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s research shows. The Soviet Union murdered tens of millions of its own citizens.

Other examples exist closer to home: the Civil Rights movement fought corrupt institutions in the U.S. All the President’s Men exposed criminal actions, cruelty, and simple mendacity at the heart of the White House. The Vietnma War got started based on the invented Gulf of Tonkin. More recently, the Bush Administration made up evidence (or incompetently accepted made-up evidence) to justify the Iraq War. On a smaller basis, many of us have gotten caught in various nasty government bureaucracies in schools, universities, or elsewhere. Here’s one example from Megan McArdle’s struggles with the DMV.

Brin observes:

Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They’d call for help and expect — demand — swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well.

He’s right. I called the cops when a random asshole pounded on my door and threatened to kill me. They did show up (albeit later than I would’ve hoped!) and did arrest the guy. I’m grateful to them and for the police in that circumstance. But a lot of us are less grateful to cops, as reading Alice Goffman’s amazing book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Police as an institution have largely failed inner cities. Ask black people about their interactions with the police, and you’ll get a very different view of police than that of many white Americans.

So we may be getting stories of (exaggerated) institutional incompetence both due to history and due to everyday experience with institutions that (sometimes) don’t work well. Nonetheless it’s worthwhile for those of us who write stories to contemplate the truth of Brin’s observations about cliché on the level of plot, because we should try to be aware of our own dependence on cliché and to break that dependence whenever possible.

4 responses

  1. Though I have no hope to be understood, in fact, I prefer your simplistic exaggeration to the opposite one… blindly accepting authority… that inflicted and hampered 99% of civilizations. Critical accountability toward authority is what my book The Transparent Society is about. It moved us forward and remains essential. But all by itself, as a reflex, it is not much saner than the opposite reflex.

    Alas, you read my article with foregone intent and zero curiosity about what it was actually about. Even the possibility that there might be layers never seems to have occurred to you.

    That’s no insult, since you are only behaving as society taught you to behave, skimming in order to reinforce a pre-existing bias. Had you actually been gifted with the trait of curiosity, you might have actually been interested in what I was actually saying, intrigued by the actual possibility of getting a fresh perspective.

    Sigh and alas. A pity. But it reflects what is happening to us all. An indignant lobotomization, when subtlety is called for.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin
    http://www.davidbrin.com
    blog: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/
    twitter: https://twitter.com/DavidBrin

    Like

    • I prefer your simplistic exaggeration to the opposite one [. . .] Alas, you read my article with foregone intent and zero curiosity about what it was actually about. Even the possibility that there might be layers never seems to have occurred to you.

      You’re right—given my limited reading comprehension skills and inability to think, it’s amazing that I function at all! Until now I didn’t know that I’m contributing to the intellectual “lobotomization” of the entire world. Alas that I can’t understand what you or anyone else says or writes.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Links: The power and beauty of design, the great software revolution, sex workers, Minneapolis, and more! « The Story's Story

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