Wonder Woman is, of course, a wonderful and extraordinarily powerful movie. I saw it twice I liked it so much, the second time taking my 27-year old daughter and her boyfriend.
If you haven’t seen it yet – spoiler alert – here are the morals of the story expressed as the movie crests:
“It’s what you believe.”
“Only love can save the world.”
Not much of a spoiler. These are the morals of many a morality tale these days, and they work. They inspire and motivate millions as they leave the theater while the credits and glorious music rolling out.
And what do they inspire and motivate us to do?
If you’re inspired by a movie in which the heroes are professionals, for example, doctors, lawyers, soldiers or techies, you might leave the theater inspired to become one too. If you followed through on this inspiration, you’re in for a lot of hard work. You have to learn the profession’s technical language. You have to learn how to make decisions in new ways, many of them counter-intuitive. Your to-do list would grow with the tasks you would have to accomplish in order to approach the heroes’ professional skills.
But suppose you don’t decide to take up the heroes’ professions, only their fight for what you believe, for love and for goodness. What would that commitment do to your to-do list? What do these common, popular inspirational messages inspire us to do?
In most cases, to shrink our to-do lists.
Think about it. For hours in the theater, you’re identifying with heroic saviors. You’re not just rooting for them, you feel like you’re fighting by their side or are actually being them, on the side of good against the forces of evil.
As the movie crests, you’re reminded that being on their side is good, but since you’ve been with them throughout, you already feel like you’re on their side.
You don’t walk out thinking, OK, I better get to work. I have to learn the technical language of moral philosophy so I can be a better do-gooder. You don’t feel like you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and learn how to make decisions in new ways, many of them counter-intuitive. You feel like you’ve already graduated to the heroes’ level of goodness.
Believe in yourself? You already do.
Be loving? You love already. You love the people and causes that you love, whatever they are. You love them because they’re good, whatever they are.
We all think we’re the heroes already, and we all love our fellow heroes, the people who are on our side, sharing our mission whatever it is. ISIS members report that they’re inspired by Hollywood films with their scrappy heroic crews defending good against evil.
We come away from such movies learning the tinman’s lesson from Wizard of Oz: You already have a heart. You only have to believe harder that you do. If it helps, get some artifact that reinforces that impression, a heart-shaped watch for the tinman, but it can be anything that inspires you to believe in yourself because it’s not really about the artifact; it’s about what’s already in you. You’ve got the skills already; you only have to remember that you do.
It’s like the scarecrow’s diploma, not received for graduating from a course of hard work. The hard work isn’t necessary if you just believe in yourself.
No wonder such movies are so popular. They appeal to everyone. They congratulate everyone no matter what tribe or creed. As you file out of the theater inspired, the person next to you is inspired also, reinforced for their belief in the exact opposite of what you believe. Such movies motivate your allies but also your opposition. If you think the Trump administration is a threat to America, that person filing out next to you is someone who comes away inspired to redouble their commitment to the Trump administration. If you believe that liberals are evil idiots, you’re filing out right next to someone who comes away inspired to redouble their commitment to liberalism.
Moral philosophy sounds ivory tower, boring, abstract, impractical and highfaluting. I’m not suggesting that people should leave the theater and enroll in academic courses on it, even though such courses are wonderfully eye-opening if you have the patience and discipline for them. Morality, broadly defined, is simply about trying to make better decisions, big and small, something we should try to do every day.
Wonder woman should make us wonder more but I suspect that it makes us wonder less. It can make you wonder more if you leave the theater with a few thoughts gnawing at you:
Whoever you feel are the worst people in the world, believe in themselves. Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, ISIS leaders, your jerk neighbor, your horrible ex – they all believe in themselves. Apparently believing in yourself is not what makes us good. It often makes us more powerfully bad.
To love anything is to hate its opposite. If you love freedom, you hate oppression. If you love equality, you hate inequality. Whatever mission you love, you hate whatever keeps it from being fulfilled. If you love, love, you hate hate. If you love your partner, you’d hate to see your partner go. You can have a bland, abstract positive regard for everything all at once, like “loving” everything in the universe. But true love takes dedicated work to keep it going, work that you would hate to see wasted. If you love your country you hate whatever would end it. If you love your life, you would hate to get terminal cancer. Love isn’t the answer. It’s the question. What deserves your loving? What deserves your dedicated work?
Good and bad are real but what’s good is not obvious. Values emerge with life. When we say that traits are functional for organisms or that organisms try to stay alive, we mean that organisms have values. Their values may not be conscious or felt. Still, all living beings value their lives. We can tell by their dedicated work they do to stay alive and reproduce. Organisms value different things. Life is a cooperative and competitive negotiation over our diverse values. With language, humans begin to struggle with moral questions, what’s really of value, and beyond what are the good ways to negotiate toward what’s good.
Wonder Woman seems to suggest that good and bad are distinct obvious clearly-defined ingredients or forces, perhaps there in equal measure at the beginning of the universe. You have to fill yourself with obviously good ingredients or forces. Choose good, not bad.
Reality is not so simple. Sometimes what seems good turns out to be bad and vice versa. We would all do well to wonder more about whether the things we do will end up being good or bad. It’s not enough that they feel good, because everyone feels that whatever they’ve chosen – good or bad – is good.
Self-doubt feels bad. It’s not fun to doubt whether what you’ve chosen is really good. But self-doubt is often good. The question then is when to doubt yourself and when to believe in yourself. Or rather whether to believe in yourself because of what you’ve chosen or believe in yourself as someone wondering carefully what to choose so that you can hone in on better, not worse decisions.
That’s the wondering that moral philosophy addresses. Boring name for a worm-can of wonder we all should open, even though it's messy.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Satire Paradox. Revisionist History Podcast, 2016