Overcoming John Wayne Syndrome with New Stories

By Barry Clemson 2-04-2009

090204-john-waynePeace actions often evoke disgust, anger, and fear from the uninvolved bystander. Epithets are hurled at the demonstrators, with coward and traitor perhaps the favorites. Why should advocating peace evoke fear from the bystander?

John Wayne is the classic American hero. He always came through and the bad guys got what they deserved. John Wayne's world has three main character-types: the bad guys, the good guys, and the victims who need to be saved from the bad guys. The storyline is that evil men threaten and John Wayne swings into action, guns blazing and fists flying, and saves the day. In this world there are two possible responses when the bad guys show up: you meekly submit to the bad guys or you fight.

This storyline covers everything from the crazed psycho killer threatening a lone victim all the way up to a Hitler threatening the entire world. In all these cases the plot is essentially the same: Evil threatens and your choices are the way of the coward or the way of the warrior. There are no other possibilities.

This mindset is the John Wayne Syndrome.

The John Wayne Syndrome has a number of attractive advantages. It is simple and it provides explicit guidance for behavior. Much of our entertainment (books, TV, and movies) reinforces this syndrome. Even the church, with the just war doctrine and cheerleading for particular wars, tends to reinforce this mindset.

If our responses to evil were truly limited to the way of the coward and the way of the warrior, it is clear that the way of the warrior would be better. Even Gandhi said the way of the warrior is preferable to the way of the coward.

A person operating within the John Wayne Syndrome can't comprehend why any reasonable person would advocate nonviolence. The nonviolent person is clearly against fighting, so they must be in favor of submitting. Or perhaps they are traitors. Either way they are contemptible and a dire threat. The natural reaction is loathing, anger, and fear directed at the "peaceniks."

The question for those of us advocating nonviolence, then, is how do you deal with a mindset like the John Wayne Syndrome that denies the very possibility of nonviolence as a principled, brave, and effective strategy?

Data and rational arguments work slowly if at all.

Literature, TV, and movies might work. A good story seduces us and great stories often change us. Literature or a movie doesn't need to make a frontal attack on the syndrome; it can gently subvert it.

My own approach was to write a novel that begins with the Nazi invasion of Denmark in 1940. In this novel the Danes prepared a campaign of total resistance using strategic nonviolence. The main theme of the novel is a deadly chess game between the brutal Nazis and the stubborn Danes. The point of doing such a novel is to educate our imaginations on the possibilities for nonviolence. This sort of novel, if it is done well, should replace the John Wayne Syndrome, and the reader should finish the novel and say to themselves something like, "Wow! I didn't know you could do that. Those nonviolent folks were pretty rough

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