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Strictly Speaking

Opposites Are Not Identical


Once upon a time there was an adjective named bad. In that time it existed to describe people or objects or contracts or social ideas or philosophies genuinely believed by the user of the word bad to be unacceptable, unfavorable, undesirable, unsuitable in use or even unfavorable in consumption. Gary Larsen once drew a cartoon titled “When potato salad goes bad.”

Being deemed bad is generally taken as being less helpful to social mainstream objectives than being good. Good was the opposite of bad as is light and dark, or black and white. Distinctions by contrast were often dramatically useful in asserting simple-minded differences, as in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It is not dramatically implicit even after several viewings whether Lee van Cleeve or Eli Wallach was the bad, or why the guy left over after the tie-breaker was ugly. Nor was it clear why the ugly one, whoever that was, lacked the moral polarity of goodness or badness that characterized the others. It was only clear that when all three men stood squinting like mad dogs in the noonday sun, that distinctions of moral virtue were going to be less important than besting Sammy Davis, Jr. in removing the peacekeeper from its holster and pulling the trigger, assuming you didn’t squeeze prematurely and shoot yourself in the foot.

In that once upon/long ago time, good the positive was related in a family to better the comparative and best the superlative in an identical manner to the way that gunmen were kin to fast, faster and fastest. Usually Clint Eastwood was as close to good as the moral ambiguities of the script allowed. It would be unthinkable to the financial consequences of the production to have an Eastwood character killed. This is why the character that Eastwood played in Absolute Power remained alive in the film version whereas his counterpart in David Balducci’s bestselling novel was killed. In Hollywood you remain faithful to the source material only to the extent that it doesn’t get Clint Eastwood killed.

Okay, in Gran Torino he got killed, but in Gran Torino his character, Wally, was a widower dying of cancer who had two bastards for sons. In that situation there is a certain triumph finding a redeeming way out of a life that you suddenly discover sucks. And so, Eastwood wins yet again.

In terms of the meanings of words that allow people to converse with a clarity of understanding, it is at least perplexing to find several subcultural dialects that has promoted bad to leapfrog good, or to apply the word bad with a certain reverence that confers admiration. Here’s how that happened.

In worlds where sudden violence cleared the playing field of competition in urban gang skirmishes, it is not only the strong who survive, it is the bad, the guys who discard every notion of fair play, decency, or care of collateral casualties in order to accomplish immediate results.

Call them the few, the proud, the misguided. Subcultural icons of this ilk talk the talk and walk the walk and often die the death, so that bad prevails in spades. At this level of drive by free-fire, there are no winners other than the gun.
Yet the legend of the bad triumphant endures. Many bad muthas are rappers, popular vocalists who often cannot hold a key and look interchangeable to a video camera looking straight into their RayBanned eyes, watching their lips attempt to devour the mic while promising their eager fans that it they don’t legally download their cuts onto the i-Pod, they are going to track them down by internet and kill them, too. Jail time is de rigeur for the rapper, sort of like merit badges to the Boy Scouts, who traditionally, in that long ago time, were – like Catholic priests – good. They helped old ladies across the same streets where bad dudes would gun them down.

Of late their has emerged a popular expression that suggests that bad is not even an adjective but a noun designating a condition that can be possessed and exercised at the same time, as in, “My bad.” In that far ago time when Conan the Barbarian stalked the mountains and plains of mythic lands, one knew that this construction required a noun to be modified, as in “My bad haircut in .jpg.” Or more exactly and correctly, “My badness.”

Which, when spoken boldly in the subcultures previously mention would probably be heard, “My badass.” Evidently in these groups, possessing substandard buttocks is cause for alarm. And who could argue that.

Both the irony and paradox of bad becoming good is that it presupposes that in language, which is highly mathematical (a rigid and numerically exact projection of form by agreement of parts), even in sentences as long and complex as this one it is possible for the reader to work out the message, as long as the words themselves are not a source of contradiction.

In a truth as plain as The Pretty is different from The Ugly, if oppositely defined words become identical by usage, the ability to distinguish any gradation of relative identity along the scale previously stretching between irreconcilably disparate conditions like bad and good vanishes. If one cannot be good without being bad, and if being good is relatively bad vis-a-vis urban dominance, then the hope for either condition, whether good or bad, vanishes.

Here’s why. An operative (spoken) identity between previously irreconcilably different opposites devours the useful distinction that created the irreconcilably distinct meanings in the first place. Said another way, bad cannot (is not able to) be good because the previously observed sliding scale of moral merit has been demolished by usage.

As for The Ugly, whichever character that was supposed to be in the film, where ninety percent of impression is imagery, there is rarely any confusion of intent. And there is no confusing concerning what is commonly regarded as The Pretty. Precious aside, you cannot hope for Precious to do a Ricky Lake and eventually grace the cover of Cosmo. Even a subcultural icon knows that, “It ain’t gonna happen, dawg.”

Or perhaps we are not in an age where moral distinctions are the first and foremost item of interest in social interaction. Guys in rut don’t generally ask if a girl is good. They may prefer the bad ones, unless they’re ugly. So, after reconsideration, maybe there is a deeper symbolism in Sergio Leone’s cinema than is clear in a couple of viewings.

But if Leone recast this classic western film with three women, while The Good and The Bad might not be any more evident than in the male version, there would be less question about who The Ugly would be. Images exploit and reinforce latent expectations. Whenever Hollywood tries a film that suggests that a good guy who not is a bit bad should win the pretty girl over a bad guy who is a hunk, they need to reshoot the ending.

This is what happened with Pretty in Pink, test screenings revealed that audiences wanted Molly Ringwald to dump the sweet geek for the handsome jerk. Okay, in a twinkling you’re going object with , “What about Woodie Allen films?”
Hey. Give me a break. That’s not Hollywood. It’s New York. In New York you can do anything you want. Almost. If you go clubbing and don’t know the difference between good and bad behavior, the bouncers are there to teach you that lesson. Be good.
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