Black hat, not handsome, never gets the girl. A stereotype, a Hollywood cutout of a character, that half-crouching paper figure cops shoot at when they take target practice. Not to be found in the real world, or even in a serious movie or novel.

Until recently. Now we hear the phrase from journalists and Congressmen, from talk show hosts and presidents alike. It’s like hearing them suddenly regress to the speech and moral vision of their earliest childhood. We tell our children to watch out for bad people, people who might want to touch them in bad ways or lure them into their cars and do bad things to them. Children need that kind of simplification just as later in their lives (though not that much later) they need to understand a more complex version of human behavior without sacrificing their own safety.

To that older child, a child of twelve or thirteen, to speak of “bad guys” should cause them to look at you twice as if you had just reverted to baby-talk. It’s an insult to speak to them that simplistically, and they know it. Yet we adults now accept that phrase from our highest political officials and most respected media analysts without batting an eye.

Why? Is it just a kind of shorthand, a way of saving time? Or did it start out that way and then start to serve another, less innocent purpose? Its use implies that speaker and audience know who the bad guys are: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, muggers and rapists and anyone who should be dead or behind bars. But now I hear government officials and  journalists (who certainly should know better) use the phrase to designate anyone whose telephone conversation or emails might possibly indicate they intend to do the rest of us Good Guys some harm. And therefore those officials must monitor all our communications to see which of us are in fact bad guys masquerading as good guys.

I get tired of hearing Orwell quoted every day, but isn’t this exactly what he had in mind when he wrote about how language molds thinking, which molds politics? And do we really need to be reminded of this by a man dead more than sixty years ago? Is it not something we can work out for ourselves?

Yet, we don’t. We listen to our senators and mayors, not to mention our police commissioners, refer to “bad guys” as if there really were such a sub-species of humanity instead of individual persons who do what they do for reasons as rational and, from their point of view, as moral as anything we ourselves do. And then we applaud a pope for saying he doesn’t condemn homosexuals, i.e. for no longer referring to them as bad guys — “sinners,” to use the term of art in that world.

Go figure.

About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on July 30, 2013, in Other Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I share your sense of weariness that somehow we keep having to fight the same battles. But I wonder if this has always been the case, Your post reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s observation that freedom is something we always have to keep fighting for. It’s just that when we were young the issues seemed so newly-discovered. Remember the battle for civil rights? We thought then that the war was over. At least I did. But look at history – when economic times get rough, racism and ethnic discrimination seem inevitably to re-emerge.

    Maybe it’s a good thing the young don’t have the wisdom of age. If they did, they might give up in despair rather than try to make things better.

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