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
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?
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 they might think the oppressed-oppressor dynamic is too clichéd and simplistic. But that’s usually because these storytellers are privileged enough to view oppression 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.
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