Commentary

How Our Stories Abandon Morality for Gray-Colored Lenses

An alien woman sits in sickbay looking angry in The Orville

The Orville episode Krill lets the angry member of a genocidal alien species get the last lines.

Many of us grew tired of conflicts between absolute good and evil a long time ago. These conflicts often reduce antagonists to caricatures, include dehumanizing stand-ins for real groups of people, and feel too simplistic to be interesting. So, instead, many storytellers have depicted conflicts where the audience can understand and sympathize with the antagonists. These stories can hold valuable lessons about resolving differences, but many are told without regard to their real-world impact. The result is a glut of twisted stories that excuse evil and enable injustice. How did we get here?

Giving In to the Both-Sides Fallacy

Two men fight with two ghosts in Civil War uniforms behind them

In their search for nuanced conflicts, many storytellers are trying to force conflicts that aren’t morally gray into a gray mold. They can get away with this because people have a natural tendency to assume that whenever there’s a conflict, all parties must be at fault.

Sometimes that’s true. For instance, World War I is well known as a conflict where everyone involved wanted to expand their empires.* However, World War II had a clear aggressor that committed terrible atrocities. Any story that suggests the Nazis had a point, the Allies should have felt guilty about fighting back, or that Hitler was a sympathetic figure is committing a grievous moral error. Thankfully, I haven’t seen any well known story do this with World War II, but similar errors are regularly committed with other conflicts.

For a historical conflict that’s been twisted to appear gray, look no further than the American Civil War. There is clear historical evidence showing that this conflict was fought over whether to continue enslaving Black people. Unfortunately, many people argue otherwise to hide the entrenched legacy of racism in the United States. Storytellers are then tempted into ignoring the moral implications of the war because it gives them a juicy drama instead of a black-and-white conflict.

One example is in the episode And A Town Called Feud of The Librarians. In the episode, two of the male protagonists are getting overly competitive with each other. The group heads to a town that does Civil War reenactments, and to parallel what’s happening with these protagonists, the town is haunted by the ghosts of two brothers that fought on either side of the war. The episode focuses heavily on the brother-versus-brother angle, ignoring the fact that one of the brothers was fighting to enslave people.

Later, the episode reveals that the Confederate brother stopped fighting after marrying a Black woman. However, the writers wouldn’t leave it at that because they wanted both brothers to have to work to reconcile. So the brother fighting against slavery stops doing it after his son dies on the battlefield. This treats the war as an unnecessary tragedy, when it was the only way to stop the South from continuing slavery.

When not misrepresenting history, many storytellers are happy to invent fictional conflicts with a clear aggressor and then pretend they’re neutral. In fact, storytellers may prefer this game of pretend. With a conflict that’s genuinely gray, protagonists might have to take questionable actions. With a black-and-white conflict dressed up to be gray, the protagonist can be unquestionably right, and the storyteller just presents the story as though it has a nuanced conflict with moral dilemmas.

This is clearly what happened in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. The showrunner told the media that the Klingons would be a complex and nuanced people, but in the show, they attack the Federation without provocation, torture their prisoners, and even eat their fallen enemies. Unsurprisingly, Captain Lorca wants to develop new weapons to fight the Klingons off. Even though the Federation is merely defending itself, and losing, the show depicts weapon development like it’s unethical. This parallels the treatment of the main character, Michael, who everyone insists is responsible for starting the war, when a plain viewing of the premiere shows that her efforts had no effect.

A similarly twisted black-and-white conflict appears in The Orville episode Krill, named after an antagonistic species. In the episode, two protagonists sneak onto a Krill ship, and they discover the ship is about to deploy a weapon that will annihilate an entire colony. Since the protagonists are greatly outnumbered on the ship, their only option for stopping deployment is to change the environmental systems in a way that will kill all the Krill aboard. However, the protagonists take special pains to make sure the children on the ship are not harmed, which is not easy given their situation.

As the episode resolves, the lone surviving adult Krill acts as though the protagonists are the real aggressors. The scene is framed as though she has a point; she even gets the last lines of the episode. But this viewpoint is ridiculous. If you send a vessel to attack a colony, the destruction of that vessel is a reasonable response. If the creator of The Orville actually wanted a moral dilemma, all he had to do was give his characters an option for saving more Krill that was much riskier. Instead he gave his characters only one option and then pretended they did something wrong.

Looking at stories like these, I have to ask: Have we really forgotten that massacring people is an evil act that should be stopped?

Demonizing Victims

Two vampires pose in a doorway, showing their teeth

When storytellers genuinely want gray conflict in their worlds, they’ll look for ways to make both sides at fault. That’s not a terrible impulse, but it becomes a problem when storytellers take persecuted groups and invent reasons those groups are to blame for being persecuted. Storytellers love this because they think it turns convention on its head, but all it does is demonize people who are suffering from injustice.

Take the Star Trek: Voyager episode Living Witness, where the Doctor finds his holographic program activated in the far future on an alien planet. He’s part of a history display about a war that happened when Voyager visited. However, not only is this history inaccurate, but also it makes his crew into villains. He decides to set the record straight.

It would have been simple to give this episode a black-and-white conflict. In that case, the antagonists could be powerful people on the planet who are invested in this false history. But the episode’s writers wanted a moral dilemma, so instead the falsehoods benefit a group that’s been oppressed since they lost the war. These historical lies give them hope in a dark world, and that makes the Doctor doubt whether it’s worth telling the truth.

This gray conflict may seem deep at first glance, but it’s as illogical as it is morally twisted. Since when has any society let their most marginalized people write the history books? Why would a powerful group allow fancy museum displays that spread toxic falsehoods about them? In real life, marginalized groups have to fight every day to keep their histories and experiences from being erased. It’s disgusting to depict a fictional conflict where those experiences are a lie.

The show True Blood also delves into edgy gray washing with its vampires. In the show, vampires are treated like they’re oppressed. The term “coming out of the coffin” is even used to refer to them, making a direct analogy to queer people. However, not only do vampires have superpowers that they can use to get whatever they want from humans, but also most of the vampires in the show are comically evil. I hope I don’t have to tell you that queer people do not casually murder and eat their straight fellows. Queer people also don’t move so fast that they can tear down houses like tornadoes. Unlike privileged people in real life, the humans in True Blood have every reason to be concerned about these supposedly oppressed vampires.

Another story that provides justification for oppression is the movie Bright. In it, the Orcs are an oppressed group that are obvious stand-ins for Black people. However, the movie clarifies that, long ago, the Orcs used to work for the forces of evil, and that history is used as a reason to oppress them. In the real world, white supremacists do use narratives to justify oppression, but those narratives are absolutely false. Black people did not do anything to provoke white people; we just colonized their lands and enslaved them because we could. Oppression requires no logic other than hatred and selfishness.

Storytellers often look to make their conflicts more interesting and nuanced, and storytellers often think the oppressed-oppressor dynamic is too clichéd and simplistic. But that’s usually because these storytellers are privileged enough to view these conflicts as remote and solved, when marginalized people are currently fighting uphill battles everywhere.

Why We Need to Stop Gray Washing

The false assumption that two sides are equally at fault always benefits the aggressor at the expense of their target. Oppressors, abusers, and predators of any type target people who don’t have the power to fight back. If aggressors can make it look like their targets are as guilty as they are, bystanders won’t intervene, and the aggressors will win.

That’s why stopping evil requires identifying who is doing it. A woman who accuses a powerful man of sexual assault is often treated as an aggressor when she’s actually asking for bystander intervention to stop an aggressor that she cannot stop alone. How can we expect people to respond to that appropriately when we keep selling them narratives where evildoers are just misunderstood and fighting back is immoral?

Correctly constructed, gray conflicts can be satisfying and insightful. But if that’s what we want, we must use conflicts that are gray by nature. We shouldn’t be pretending that black and white are the same thing.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about ,

 

Comments

  1. Jenn H

    I suspect this keeps happening because this is how writers think morally ambiguous stories are supposed to go and/or they keep trying to one-up previous stories with their greyness. There may also be the perception that morally grey situations are somehow always more realistic and therefore always better.

    Writing a genuinely morally complex situation takes a lot more effort, it is easier just to take the trope and try and shove it in the story where ever it will fit.

    • Cay Reet

      I think you’re on to something there. Forcing grey morals on a story which is clearly more black-and-white just because you think it’s either more grimdark or because you think it’s more realistic – or a must.

      Personally, I’m a fan of pulp stories and those are usually black-and-white, so I have no problem with that. If the story has the necessary setup, though, grey morals do make it more interesting. Unfortunately, quite some stories try to be grey, but can’t pull it off.

    • Arix

      I think it’s like the article says – writers want to have their shades of grey because they think it’s more compelling (which, in all fairness, it usually is), but they don’t want to risk their heroes coming off as unlikable.

      • Star of Hope

        It isn’t more compelling, it can be, but it doesn’t have to.

        • Arix

          That’s why I said ‘usually’. There are exceptions and situationals.

          • Star of Hope

            “Usually” isn’t entirely right, since the most successful works often than not are Black and White. Maybe I will be more direct in the future.

    • Rose Embolism

      I think it’s not THAT difficult to write up a morally grey situation, if one is sufficiently distanced from the situation in time and space. Take a look at the English Civil War: an arrogant idiot of a king vs. an authoritarian religious zealot. From our perspective, are ANY of them good? Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys in the War of the Roses or the 30 Years War? And then there was the Three Kingdoms of China period, where stories focus not so much on the good and evil of kingdoms, as the individual heroes of the kingdoms.

      Of course one of the big things is the people in those times had radically different beliefs then our current culture. The difficulty is actually immersing oneself enough in the era enough to understand why people fought. What authors tend to do is to infuse their settings with modern morality and culture, and so one side has to be “good” and one side “evil”. The difficulty is being able to step outside of one’s own culture enough to actually create a setting where people think differently.

      • LeeEsq

        “The past is a different country, people did things differently” E.L. Hartley in the Go-Between. People in the modern European and derivative countries have a real difficulty grasping how people in the European past really believed fully in religion, the Great Chain of Being, and other stuff. It’s why so much historical fiction, set in our past, has characters that think surprisingly modern. That and they don’t want their readers angry that our hero finds cruelty to animals, like bear baiting, a way to have a good time.

    • LeeEsq

      It also happens because most writers alive today have been trained or trained themselves to see any good vs. evil conflict as an inherently simplistic way of seeing something. Simplistic morals lead to simplistic writing or something like that and that is bad from their point of view. They want to be known for their complexity and nuance, not their simplicity. So they see everything as grey vs. grey morality. A non-fiction version is how the Cult of Savvy prevents a lot of American journalists from telling the truth about the Republican Party. It is case of people being too cynical for their own good.

  2. Erynus

    There is nothing as grey as a war. Any war. A war is essentially killing people until you achieve your goals, usually to increase your lands or obtain resources. Killing people is a moral standard that any leader would loophole to begin with.
    The point in the WWII simplification is to blame just Hitler. Hitler, as any other leader in history would never achieve anything by himself. He took advantage of his fellow germans, appointed an “enemy” and used a mix of reasonable arguments and biased falsehoods to make a war.
    The atrocities that the nazis did where in the same page of the atrocities that the allies did. USA had their oriental population in concentration camps, but they don’t talk about it too much. Stalin used gulags to punish enemies and allies alike, and Churchill wasn´t a saint either.
    The fact that a nazi scientists were gladly accepted into the american research effort tells you all you need to know about morality on times of war.
    Every war in history is immoral, and there is always hidden reasons to fight them, but propaganda is a powerful tool.
    I bet that if the nazis would just deicmate the jews without invading other countries, it wouldn’t be WWII. As it happened for ages on the Balcans or in 1995 on Rwuanda, there was a lot of ethnic “cleansing” but the war happened when other factors came to the front.
    One can have a black and white war in the Middle Earth where the orcs are objetivelly evil and to kill them is the right thing to do. It is an explanation for all the ancient (and modern) war where the enemy is labeled as a non-person. They are nazis, or botches, or fritzs, or charlies, or infidels, or devils… anything but people. And for that it is ok to kill them.

    • Star of Hope

      Wars can be grey, if both sides have sufficient Flaws to make them compatible and in the case of the Cold War, it was grey. WW2 was not grey, because the war was caused by a bunch of Racist lunatics who are up too much Antisemitic propaganda and toxic ideals of Nationalism. Hitler also didn’t simply wanted to get rid of the Jews in his own country, but rather the whole of Europe and the World, since he believed, like his followers and colleagues that the world is run by evil Jews. He would have started war because of that and because of all of that, he is evil.

      Do you mean the Medical experienments or the Rocket science? Be specific.

      • Tony

        I don’t know how much useful medical knowledge the US got from the Nazis. They did grant JAPANESE medical scientists amnesty for their crimes in exchange for information, though.

    • Jeppsson

      I agree you can find complicated aspects of WWII. You could have a smaller story that focuses on terror-bombing of German cities or something analogus. You could have a character contemplating whether it’s okay or not to cooperate with someone as horrible as the story’s Stalin analogue to stop the story’s Nazi analogues going through with a holocaust. But I don’t think Chris objects to the possibility of making stories like this complicated and grey.

      I understood Chris as saying that it’s ridiculous to make a WWII story where “Is it right to fight Nazi Germany? Or will fighting them make us as intolerant and bad as them?” is treated as a complicated question.

    • Cay Reet

      First of all: war is bad, that is true. No question whatever about it.

      Still, not everyone who enters a war is bearing the same fault in it. Those who start the war are to blame for it, not those who defend themselves or come to the defence of allies (which is the point about having allies – you help each other).

      As far as both the Sovjet Union and the US accepting German scientists after the end of WWII: that only happened for one reason – Germany was in a good state in rocket technology. Without the Cold War starting up, without the need for both powers to be able to transport their nuclear bombs a long distance across the planet, that wouldn’t have happened.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Editor’s Note:

      The idea that “The atrocities that the nazis did where in the same page of the atrocities that the allies did” is not only untrue, it is literal Nazi propaganda to paint both sides as the same.

      I’m not deleting this comment because it’s generated some good discussion, but I’m making this comment now as a warning. No further attempts at false equivalency with actual Nazis will be accepted.

      If you want to know more, I suggest these links to get you started:

      1: A Dangerous Nazi-Soviet Equivalence: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/sep/29/secondworldwar-holocaust

      2: What People Get Wrong About the Bombing of Dresden: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kS2_YFbzAVs&t

      • Prince Infidel

        Thank you Oren.

      • Star of Hope

        Mister Ashkenazi, the link to the video isn’t working for me. Is the video you are linking us to the one from Three Arrows?

        still thanks for the Guardian article.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          You’re right, for some reason it was giving a “video not available” message. I replaced the URL, this one seems to be working, let me know if it isn’t.

          • Star of Hope

            It works! Thanks for the video, Daniel is very knowlegeable, when it comes to Nazis.

      • Tony

        Yep. Stalin was a horrible motherfucker, but the war was still Hitler’s fault, and I don’t think any of the other Allies WANTED to team up with Uncle Joe. I also get the impression that Hitler committed most of his atrocities during WW2, while the bulk of Stalin’s crimes were directed at his own citizens and not committed in war. (That’s not to say the USSR didn’t commit war crimes–they did–but I think Germany committed more.)

  3. Star of Hope

    Yeah I remember when I got into an argument with a person who claimed that the Jews and Nazis were objectively the same because both are minorities, when they are very different and with Minorities we mean Ethnic Minorities. This person also then came to BLM and called them racist for allegedly not supporting African blacks, while shouting the N-word and calling them racist. The tendency to blame both comes mostly from the Horseshoe theory that claims the far left and far right to be the same thing and Radical Pacifism that falls apart at the slightest scrutiny, because fight against evil and dangerous faction is always good.

    Personally Black and White Morality is not bad, because it still teaches good from bad behaviour and as OSP put it in, it’s good when it works.

    • Tony

      I’ve also heard redpill types say crap like “I used to love women, but then one was mean to me. Now I see the truth and I realise that they’re a bunch of heartless b*tches!”

      • Star of Hope

        Yeah, they come with this huge sense of entitlement and when they see these Minorities expressing hatred for the White, straight, cis men, instead of trying to analyze where it came from and if that is a feature of that group, they lashing at them and and calling them Racist, because allegedly one Black guy said “Ghostface”. They don’t even try to understand them and think that they are the true racist and wonder, why people think of them as racist. A bunch of entitled nutcases.

  4. Brian

    I think with Bright, they were trying to mix two things together – which always gets in a muddle. Firstly, there is the obvious orc-as-black-people analogy that is referenced here. The prejudice towards them because they were on the side of the Big Bad Evil years ago is a different thing altogether, like the way some people (especially in the UK) view Germans badly due to WW2, despite the fact that the German people they are dealing with were all born afterwards. News articles making thinly veiled comparisons between Angela Merkel and Hitler during the Brexit showdown is a good (i.e. bad) example.

    Mixing the two things together could have worked, and emphasised the shades of grey element, if it had been handled differently (e.g. the “good guys” enslaved the orcs after the war and the prejudice originated in the view that deserved it for being pawns of the Big Bad).

    • Tony

      I think it might also parallel groups being blamed en masse for something bad that INDIVIDUALS from their group did. Think of queer people getting blamed for sexual offences committed by an individual who happened to be queer, African and Latin Americans getting blamed for gang activity, Muslims getting blamed for fundamentalist terrorism, and Jews getting blamed for (supposedly) killing Jesus. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve also seen men who had a bad experience with individual women and then use that to rationalise their misogyny. Bright still could’ve handled this one better, though.

      • A Mysterious Turtle

        Ya, groups getting blamed for things individuals do is probably the most common source of Racism in the world today. I think a very important example you forgot is blaming white people as a group for the bad actions of individuals, past and present.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          So, with white people, it usually ends up being the opposite. You can see this whenever there’s a white mass shooter (in America, most of them are white), and news reports go on about how they’re “troubled” or a “lone wolf” while if there’s ever a Black or Muslim shooter, it’s a terrorist conspiracy.

          This dynamic holds up for just about any privileged group, but it’s most obvious for white men. To the extent that white people are held responsible for anything, it’s the colonialists systems that were set up centuries ago and that we white people still benefit from, even if we don’t actively support them. That doesn’t make us bad people on an individual level, but it does behoove us to do what we can to address the problem.

        • Bunny

          I’d argue that your example doesn’t count as racism, though. Prejudice and racism aren’t the same. Racism is a system; I’ve seen it described as “prejudice plus power,” working in tandem to create unequal systems, which seems relevant here. Never (in the US, at least) has there been a system that oppresses white people based on their skin color; prejudice against white people can exist, but it’s not racism because it’s not backed by the institutionalized systemic inequality experienced by people of color. That’s also why “reverse racism” doesn’t hold up – which your argument bears an uncomfortable resemblance to. I’m not sure whether that was intentional or not, but I’d push you to think harder about why that could be.

        • Julia M.

          I don’t think most people are “blaming” white people, I think they are just making the point that white people have the power to make reparations in the world, because of an uneven power structure, which we caused. The more privlidged people are in a better position to make changes.

          However, whites are judged on an individual level, whereas people of color are judged on a group level. White people are also given way more of a free pass. You can see this when people humanize white shooters (like the recent Kenosha shooter) and dehumanize black victims (like the ones who lost their lives to police brutality). Whenever a Christian, for example, does something bad, it is an “isolated incident”, but if that same person were an atheist or a Muslim, then it would be because of “moral failing” or “a larger problem” in the minds of many people.

    • Bellis

      I don’t think germans being viewed badly due to our history is comparable to what they did/tried with Bright. We’re not being discriminated against.
      Making Hitler/Merkel comparisons is obviously in bad taste and factually just wrong, but it doesn’t actually hurt us germans in a way that’s like discrimination or oppression. When I’m in the UK visiting, I never feel prejudice or discrimination for my obvious german accent, I’m just treated like any other visitor/tourist (I think they got a laugh out of me not being able to count £ coins properly ;)).

      I think with stories about oppression (or enslavement) of whole groups of people, it doesn’t work to put in a justification a là “they did wrong in the past”. Not only does this uplift bigoted views in the real world, there’s also a reason why that’s not what (to my knowledge) ever happened in the real world: Oppressors can only oppress others because they abuse power. They have to be powerful and they then usually become more powerful through the process of oppressing/exploiting others. Yes, they can and will eventually be overthrown, but a group that was this powerful for presumably a long time (can’t build up a state capable of systemic abuses of power in a couple of years – Hitler for example built on the already powerful, militaristic and also antisemitic germany he took control of).

      Therefore ex-oppressors don’t make easy victims. They don’t end up as the next oppressed or enslaved group for this and related reasons, including that people (overly) sympathise with them due to decades or centuries of media influence showing this group in a positive light.

      When tackling this issue, it’s also important to be clear about the differences between justice, punishment and oppression. There are definitely gray areas to explore here, the question what punishment is justified and what goes too far, whether there are alternative ways to achieve justice, how to implement measures meant to prevent a repetition of history in a way that doesn’t unjustly impact innocents (including those born after the atrocities were committed) and so on. But there is a difference between making someone* face consequences versus oppressing them.

      Yes, oppressors will use the language of justice and pretend their victims deserve it, but that should be shown for the blatant lies that they are even in stories that explore gray morality.

      *admittedly, punishing a group collectively will always be tricky at best and usually unjust. Like I said, there are gray areas to explore here!

      • Bellis

        OK, I realised I’m wrong about ex-oppressors never ending up as the next oppressed group (unless I wanted to play semantic games which I don’t feel is appropriate to the topic). Sorry about that.

        I still think if one wants to adress this in storytelling, it needs to be done with extra care to avoid justifying oppression. And to not mix French revolution-type persecution of nobles with American-style racism for that reason.

  5. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I have deleted a comment for equating the struggle of marginalized people to make the truth known with “letting them write the history books.”

    The struggle of groups like Native Americans is not to force their version of events on us, it is to bring to light truths that were deliberately covered up. More fundamentally, truth is not relative. What happened is what happened, the goal of historians is to uncover it as accurately as possible. It is not a zero sum game between different political groups.

  6. LizardWithHat

    I have often found that this happens when the author what’s to make a point and convince the audience of something but don’t wanna admit it – at least that’s how it felt.
    It seems to me that some creator do put much of their own believes into a story and then wanna frame it as neutral.

    I found grey stories (most stories actually) work best when the audience is given room to draw own conclusions.

    Deep-ness and meaning are also treated as a must have – even if the creator does not care or the stories can support it – thats sad and exhausting because good work is lost.

    Hope this makes a bit o’ sense
    Thought-provoking article. Good Job.

  7. Petar

    Not sure if WWII demonstrates your point that well. I mean sure, WWII is the closest approximation of black-and-white morality we have in real life. But what if we measure it by the standards of fiction? Would a mainstream Hollywood movie be considered black-and-white if they had the Soviet Union as one of the good guys?

    As a side note, I believe that concepts such as “good“ and “evil“ (if not metaphorical) are inherently problematic when applied to real-life conflicts. Unlike similar distinctions (such as friend and enemy, oppressor and oppressed, or criminal and victim), they imply some sort of metaphysical theological framework by which actions are judged (by contrast something like “aggressor and victim“ just describes a state of affairs).
    We know that fiction has such a metaphysical framework while real life is more chaotic, by comparison. Which is where the heart of the problem lies. Those who want grimdark realism want to make said framework as subtle as possible.

    I believe the trick to making this work is to realize that frameworks like black-and-white or grey-and-gray morality are just that, frameworks. A conflict can be black-and-white on a macro-scale, but grey on the micro scale.
    ATLA doesn’t leave much ambiguity about the Fire Nation being in the wrong, but not all its members are evil and neither are all opposing it.
    Alternatively, one could expand their scope of frameworks. There isn’t just black-and-white or grey-and-gray. There’s also white-and-grey or black-and-grey. Maybe WWII isn’t 100% black-and-white by fiction standards, but is it black-and-grey?

    P.S. I agree that there are way too many stories that force moral ambiguity into places where it doesn’t belong, BTW. I recently read a book where an SS officer was the villain and the author tried to make him sympathetic by having him be unaware of the Holocaust (which makes perfect sense for an SS officer).

    • Cay Reet

      There’s always different levels and conflict that is clear on the top level can be grey when we get down to the actual people fighting it. The problem is trying to bring that grey view into an area where one is clearly, to use your diction, the aggressor and the other is clearly the victim, but claiming that it’s still a grey situation and both sides did something to make this happen (which can then pretty much come down to victim blaming as it can be seen in cases or sexual harassment and rape).

      P.S. I hope you were kidding about it making perfect sense for an SS officer not to know about the Holocaust – the SS controlled the camps.

      • Rose Embolism

        All this is very true- there’s no justification for the aggression of the Nazis, or their authoritarianism, or their many hatreds, or the Holocaust, or anything they did. Still, I can’t help remember the argument I had with an activist from Asia who shrugged and said (paraphrased) “So two sets of genocidal white colonialists got in a war with each other. As far as I’m concerned, they are both evil.” (Yes,”are”; she didn’t consider their evil a past tense thing.)

        It was such a radically different perspective that bringing up the facts of the war- the racial hatred, the Lebensraum, the nature of fascism didn’t help- she argued they were industrialized extensions of long-term policies Westerners had already performed against non-Westerners. I mean, I didn’t even know where to begin with dealing with her perspective.

        • Cay Reet

          From her perspective, she was right. To someone who suffered from colonialism, all colonial powers are equally evil. From her perspective, if she was Asian, the Germans would actually be less evil – they never had colonies in Asia, only in Africa. I wonder, however, how she dealt with Japan’s entry into WWII … they weren’t a white colonial power.

          • Tony

            I think Germany did control a sphere of influence in China, and they also had colonies in the South Pacific. But in the early 20th century, the “sphere of influence” system ended when China’s Qing dynasty collapsed, and then WW1’s victorious colonial powers took Germany’s Pacific colonies along with the African ones.

            And yeah, Japan did some fucked-up shit in their Asian colonies. I think some locals (including the Indian National Army) did collaborate with Japan against European colonisers, but that quickly turned into the same kind of “frying pan/fire” situation as after various Mesoamerican states helped Spain defeat the Aztec Empire. Nowadays, I don’t think many Asians outside Japan itself would consider the Japanese Empire preferable to European colonial powers.

          • Maria

            Well… she might have argued that, while Japan were by no means the good guys, the were also the only country to be nuked. Twice. One might wonder if the decision to drop (the second)(hell, even the first) bomb was made easier by the “non-whiteness” of the enemy.

      • Petar

        I’m sorry if the context didn’t make it clear, but I was indeed kidding.

    • Maria

      Well said. Real life is trickier to judge in absolutes. But we are the absolute gods of the stories we tell, and tell a “based on real facts story” often enough, it passes for history.

  8. LeeEsq

    Did the writers of True Blood realize that they were writing the vampires as basically evil murderers? I’ve never watched the show but my understanding was we were supposed to sympathize with the vampires because the special and so much better and cooler than us regular humans because reasons. The reasons being vampires rule and humans drool or something like that. This might be a case of severely bad writing.

    • Tony

      Harry Potter did something similar with werewolves, who are portrayed as a persecuted minority but are also mostly on Voldemort’s side except for Lupin. It doesn’t help that lycanthropy is supposed to be an HIV/AIDS analogue, and that the guy who bit Lupin (and who’s the second most prominent werewolf in the series after Lupin) is a creepy predator who deliberately infects kids to recruit them.

      • LeeEsq

        The basic lesson is that tying supernatural creatures to real world minority groups as an exercise in tolerance never really works even with skilled writers.

        • Tony

          I feel like problems tend to arise when creators try to blatantly map fictional groups onto specific real groups. Parallels work better if you don’t get that particular.

  9. Gwen

    I see the issue with grey washing, but what are some good examples of an actual grey conflict?

    It sometimes feels all grey conflicts either have a false equivalency or both sides are so bad you can’t seem to care about the stakes.

    Maybe situations like “All Quiet on the Western Front” where those involved in the conflict are victims of it and don’t want to be part of it but have little choice. Survival stories where you survive the fight between two morally grey forces?

    The protagonists are still mostly good then, though and the morally grey forces become bad ever present forces.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You’re right that it can be difficult to create a gray conflict that doesn’t make both sides out to be totally awful. One option as you suggested is to make the story about people caught in the middle.

      If you want to make the story about the conflict itself, then you’ve got your work cut out for you. You’ll need to show why two non-evil sides would get into conflict without one clearly being in the wrong. For an example, you could check out Thud!, a Discworld novel about conflict between dwarves and trolls.

      It’s also important to note that there can be shades of gray, rather than 100% parity. Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series is like that. *minor spoilers* At first, it seems like the humans are the overall good guys, but with the aliens having some points. Later, you find out the humans are the overall badguys, even though they have some good points.

      • Tony

        Some other good examples that I’ve seen are The Underland Chronicles and a lot of Miyazaki’s work.

        And Avatar: The Last Airbender did a good job of presenting a GENERALLY good-versus-evil conflict (with the good guys needing to stop the Fire Lord) while still humanising some people from the Fire Nation and criticising some of their opponents’ willingness to hurt innocents.

        • Star of Hope

          About Avatar, the first Episode with Jet was cool because of that. Jet stylized himself as an saviour of his people and a freedom fighter with him charming both Aang and Katara(something she would come to deeply regret later on) and he seems cool. There is a problem of course, namely that Sikka sees for what Jet truly is, when he saw him attack an old weak man, who cannot fight even with Bending and Jet just mugged him and Sokka defended that poor dude, even though he was from the Fire Nation. Later he figured out that Jet wanted to destroy an village full of Innocent people and one that has no strategic value and Sokka, the militant guy he is, opposed him and saved the village. Fighting against the Fire Nation was not wrong, just the way they went with it.

          • Tony

            The worst part about Jet’s plan is that he intended to destroy an EARTH KINGDOM village just because the Fire Nation happened to be occupying it.

            I also like how Jet was framed as something of a genderflipped femme fatale, using his masculine wiles to blindside Katara to his willingness to harm innocents. That’s a genderflip we need more often.

      • Rose Embolism

        One problem is, that to the people involved, the conflict is unlikely to be grey. The people who fought in the War of the Roses, or the 30 Years War, or the English Civil War had very strong notions of right and wrong, and how they applied to the sides..

        Which leads to the all too common problem in that taking an enlightened “Neither side is right, neither side is wrong” viewpoint easily leads to a patronizing “Look at those fools” stance. In fact I would say that any morally grey perspective on a war either has to come from the uninvolved, or from the trauma of those too involved.

        It is possible to take a historian’s neutral stance of “these were the beliefs on all sides, these were the stakes, and this is what happened”, given enough time and distance. But it’s not easy to translate that into the drama and close-up viewpoint of a fiction work.

    • Rose Embolism

      From a sufficient distance in culture and time, a lot of conflicts look grey. I mean, look at the Trojan War. Or the Cold War for that matter. The problem is portraying a conflict as grey, while also investing in the characters involved.

  10. Tony

    Another issue I’ve seen is when fiction makes the PROTAGONIST “morally grey” (i.e., overly brutal) while keeping the villains cartoonishly despicable so the hero can do whatever he wants to them. That’s not legitimate moral ambiguity at all. It’s not even that different from your stereotypical heroic fantasy that presents a black-and-white narrative by also making the bad guys uniformly despicable so heroes can do whatever they want to them (a problem that some D&D players have noted regarding inherently evil races like orcs). In both cases, the bad guys are so bad that the heroes never have to question what they’re doing at all (a narrative that feeds uncomfortably well into hateful authoritarian mindsets), and making the lead a thug doesn’t change that one bit. Even some classic “good versus evil” narratives like Star Wars and Harry Potter have humanised at least some of their baddies.

  11. Joseph

    Something I have noticed in many ‘Grey’ works is that they are not just morally ambiguous, they are morally nihililistic.

    The effect is most conspicuous in apocalyptic and survivalist fiction, like The Last of Us, and to an even greater extent, its sequel, The 100, Battlestar Galactica and any others. The main characters are not just ‘grey’ in the sense that they do bad things for good reasons. Any character showing any moral compass is depicted as being ‘naive’ and either gets killed as an example or ‘grows up’. In the moral universe of apocalyptic fiction, the ideal ‘hero’ is one who cares deeply about their friends, family, and their ‘circle’, but care not at all about anyone outside that. Joel and his climactic antics in TLoU pt 1 is an extreme example of this, going to an extreme that would be comical if not portrayed so chillingly straight, but the rest are not that far behind. The characters are not ‘morally ambiguous’, they are not even ‘evil’ the the normal sense, but AMORAL. The core message, if there even is one, is that ‘morality’ is a lie, and humans are inherintly bad. Ick.

    In the moral universe of apocalyptic fiction, the dictum of ‘humans are the real monsters’ is taken as absolute, and depicted as being the natural, true state of humanity when they do not have the gun of society to their head. Most of the time, ‘morally grey’ fiction just means ‘all humans are bastards’, including the protagonist, and, implicitly, the audience as well.

    Pop culture in general has, in the last decades, said some of the most unflattering things I have ever heard about human nature and the human spirit, and the sad part is that I am not sure how much of it is even wrong once you get past the shock of having it put so bluntly. It is… disturbing, to say the least.

    • Tony

      Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of this in grimdark spec fic and in post-9/11 action media. Then again, it goes way back to stuff like Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness and Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, both of which I enjoyed (though less so HoD, since–as radically anti-imperialist as it was for the time–it still veered into some unsavoury stereotypes of Congolese people).

    • Prince Infidel

      Joseph. Consider this my thumbs up/like/heart of your comment

    • Jeppsson

      At their worst, these stories come off as downright preachy.
      It’s like the author goes “Hey there, audience! I bet you too are NAIVE, blissfully IGNORANT, and have yet to see the li… eh, darkness, I mean. Once, I too was like you. Then I gained INSIGHT and UNDERSTOOD, and now I’m here to SHOW YOU THE WAY!”.
      Like they think they have reached this very special and unique INSIGHT about the badness of the world and the depravity of human nature, and now they’re gonna PREACH it to you, the supposed ignorant one!

      There are dark and nihilistic stories that are good, but the preachy ones, just ugh…

    • Erynus

      In the book i’m writing, my MC is a soldier/spy/mercenary that is morally grey, that means that don’t have a black and white view of the world. For him, most of the time is bad to kill someone, but there are occassions where the damage of not killing someone will be greater. He is a bad person, and he knows it, but it is at peace about ending up on the other side of the barrel. He is an hero, not a saint. And arguably to some, he is a devil.
      The reason he became a mercenary is because that way he can choose what jobs to accept and how to do them, based on his own moral compass. As a soldier he was forced to follow orders wether he like them or not.
      In fact, my story is about revenge and how devoting your life to it can leave you without anything else.

      • Cay Reet

        Sounds like a traditional anti-hero. He has his own moral compass, but it’s not a case of black-and-white or good-and-evil, so there’s nuances, there’s cases where something is acceptable and cases where it’s not. This kind of character is well-suited for morally gray stories.

  12. AlgaeNymph

    Extra Credits made a video titled “Stop Normalizing Nazis.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCj8llyzfWo). The gist was that false equivalence is bad, and that’s it. They did elaborate that they weren’t worried about playing as Nazis turning people into them, they just considered it socially irresponsible to have Nazis treated no differently than anybody else. Furthermore, they said that there wasn’t any problem playing a Nazi so long as the situation wasn’t considered no different than playing anything else.

    Viewers *hated* it, resulting in a *18K/284K* like/dislike ratio (with probably still more dislikes over time) as of this posting. Compare this to “Games Should Not Cost $60 Anymore” (21K/19K), “The Loot Box Question” (13K/8.3K), and “Designing Ethical Lootboxes: II” (16K/4.6K). In addition to the high proportion of dislikes were the videos attempting to rebut EC’s claims, if not calling for an end to EC entirely.

  13. Jeppsson

    Just watched a clear example of stupid grey-sauce being poured on a conflict that should be black-and-white in Star Trek Discovery yesterday… The episode where we learn more about Saru and the Kelpies!

    Up until this point, I think the Kelpies were really interesting. Disney’s the Lion King had this horrible set-up where antelopes, zebras and other prey animal WORSHIP the lions, and are HAPPY to be killed and eaten by them, because it’s all one big circle of life yada yada. I think most people don’t realize how messed up this is, because we’re asked to identify with the lions.
    But Saru on Star Trek Discovery isn’t a “lion”, he’s an “antelope”. It’s clear how messed up it is that on his home planet, the Kelpies are brainwashed since they’re very young into accepting their “natural destiny”, to be killed and eaten by the Bau.
    Late in the game we also learn that Saru wasn’t quite an adult this whole time; the Bau has constantly killed the Kelpies before they reach mental maturity (pretending, though, that the Kelpie life span is this short, and the Bau kill them when they would be about to die anyway), since doing so also makes them easier to control.

    So far, pretty black and white, but it’s an interesting story!

    THEN we find out that thousands of years ago, the roles were REVERSED: The Kelpies killed the Bau in such large numbers that the latter were on the verge of extinction. As they were about to go extinct, they managed to develop technology far superior to anything the Kelpies had (HOW??????), and then they fought back and… created the current system to protect themselves against the Kelpies (WHAT. THE. F::::)

    Pour some grey-sauce on the conflict, and immediately it’s a hundred times more stupid than before.

    • Chris Winkle

      When I watched that episode, I was so sure the Kelpies and Bau were actually going to be the same species, with the Kelpies turning into Bau when they got older, and the Bau only pretending they were killing the Kelpies as a cultural rite. The show was even hiding what the Bau looked like. I was so disappointed when I got that WTF reveal instead.

      • Jeppsson

        I also thought the Bau would be the same species when I first watched this, although I thought they really did kill the Kelpies. I thought they pretended to be a completely different species because it fit their “this isn’t oppression, it’s all naaaaatural” narrative better.

        Then it turns out the Bau look like the hypothetical offspring of the slime demon in the Netflix horror series Ares and some (take your pick) Japanese horror movie ghost.

    • Bellis

      haha, oops, this makes me (die-hard star trek fan btw) glad I stopped watching Discovery…

      If we wanted to be generous, we could assume the writers wanted to pay hommage to HG Wells’ “The Time Machine”, where something similar happens with two species decendant from humans who oppress and “farm” each other and where that relationship reverses over time. But even when paying hommage, if that’s what they did, the discovery writers should adjust the concept to a) make sense and be a satisfying story and b) avoid sending horrendous messages…

      In general it would be nice if people stopped thinking that they’re clever by “subverting” expectations/tropes (in reality just playing already overdone tropes completely straight) when all they do is sending harmful messages like “victims actually deserve oppression! Twist!”

      • Jeppsson

        I actually love the Time Machine, but there are a bunch of important differences compared to Discovery.

        I think the novel makes more sense with regards to in-universe history. For starters, it’s not a couple of thousand of years into the future, but hundreds of thousands of years, during which time both the Eloi and the Moorlocks have evolved from human into new and different species.
        The Time Traveller never believes the Eloi are unjustly oppressed by the Moorlocks, and later on he’s like “oh, I guess they did something to deserve their oppression after all”. Instead, when he first discovers the Moorlocks, he thinks they’re the Elois’ servants (since the Moorlocks do all the work) – but he later learns that the Eloi are essentially cattle, and the Moorlocks farmers. So his initial observation is subverted… but not in the specific way of “look at these poor oppressed people – oh, wait, they did something to deserve it way back”.

        Also, as I said above, the Eloi is a new SPECIES. It’s not merely that the present-day Eloi are innocent of their ancestors’ capitalist wrongdoings; they’re INCAPABLE of such acts themselves. They’re far less intelligent than average humans, they’re physically weak, but most importantly, they’re extremely passive by nature.
        In Discovery, we’re explicitly told that the Bau fear the possibility that the Kelpies grow up and become more active, aggressive and powerful adults (so WHY do they keep the Kelpies AROUND like this? Why didn’t they either genocide them out of existence, OR just fight them until they surrendered completely, and then tried to work out some kind of deal with them for a more normal co-existence?). But the Eloi are completely harmless, no matter their age.

        Finally, “The Time Machine” is intentionally super bleak and tragic. Sure, Star Trek Discovery keeps slathering “very serious”-sauce on everything, but not to this nihilistic extent… In the end, the Time Traveller thinks there’s nothing he can do about the situation, so he just leaves it as is and travels on.

        Haha, sorry for my H.G. Wells fangirling! I know he had some nasty views, at least later in life, but I love a lot of what he’s written.

      • Jeppsson

        Forgot to add that when people figure out how things work on Saru’s home planet in Discovery, we find out that the Kelpies and the Bau are NOT descended from the same species (at least it doesn’t seem like that’s the case). They were always two different species, but it used to be that the Kelpies ate the Baru and almost gobbled them up to extinction, but then the Baru fought back and started eating the Kelpies instead… ????????????

        Also, I didn’t mean to contradict anything in your post, just further elaborate.

        • Bellis

          You’re right about the Time Machine, I love the book too and the message is indeed bleak because it’s a warning. The message isn’t primarily “oppressed people deserve it” or “giving oppressed people freedom is dangerous because they’ll end up oppressing their former oppressors”. I read it more as a condemnation of inequality.

          Not sure what the message with Discovery is, or if they were inspired by HG Wells at all. It was just something that popped into my head while reading those comments ^^”

          Anyway, The Time Machine falls into actually thought-provoking gray morality in my book, it’s not my favourite gray-morality-tale, but it’s solid in that respect and it avoids the pitfalls outlined in this article.

          Star Trek can do gray morality too, some of the time. But they’re very hit-and-miss imho. A lot of the time I watch an episode and just go “…they tried…”
          Then again, there are about a bazillion episodes so it’s no surprise that some are better than others.
          One superb episode I can think of off the top of my hat that tackles some gray morality with extremely good dialogue and acting is Deep Space Nine’s “Duet” which – spoilers –

          asks questions about how much responsibility low-ranking beaurocrats have for war crimes.

          DS9 is probably the best Star Trek show overall when it comes to gray morality. And also just in general

          • Jeppsson

            Agree on DS9 being the best!

  14. Jeppsson

    Star Trek TOS episode Conscience of the King:

    Captain Kirk: I know who you are: You are Kodos the Executioner, eugenic mass murderer who killed four thousand people!
    Kodos: Look who’s talking! You have several computers! Isn’t it sort of inhuman to rely so much on machines?
    Kodos daughter Lenore (who’s also a serial killer): Also, Kirk, you’re really JUDGMENTAL, aren’t you? Being judgmental is a bad trait!

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.