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THE BAD GUYS

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.

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