It’s a curious feature of American culture that moral ambiguity is considered inappropriate for children. Websites that rate the family-friendliness of films, for example, give high marks for having a clear contrast between good and evil, and having good triumph in the end.
I suppose the goal of that sheltering is to make sure your child doesn’t have any doubts as to what’s right and what’s wrong. This would make sense if the primary distinction between villains and heroes is the commission of a moral wrong. But that’s not how stories work. The primary distinction in any story boils down to, which side are you more sympathetic to? Yes, often this is achieved by a real differential in moral character, but there are plenty of other ways to achieve it. If we emphasize the hero’s flaws and chalk up the villain’s to necessity, it will be fairly easy to reverse the roles in any story. Even The Lord of the Rings, with a blindingly clear divide between the good guys and the bad guys, can be plausibly rewritten this way.
In a “family-friendly” story, the villain’s motivation is plainly rooted in vice and easily dismissed. Lust (Gaston, Frollo), vanity (Cruella DeVille, Snow White’s queen), greed (Smaug), desire for power (Scar, Ursula, Darth Vader), or heck, just being a dragon (Maleficent). Especially when the villain is drawn with exaggerated or deformed proportions (orcs, and really, any of the aforementioned), the lesson is not that we should not do these things, but that these are vices that other people succumb to. Despite the intention, bringing up children with these stories does nothing to strengthen their resolve to do right. Instead, it stunts their ability to recognize evil in themselves. And judging from today’s political and cultural debates, many people never gain that ability. We reassure ourselves with flatteries – of course I’m on the side of right and justice. Being trained never to sympathize with the villain, we find it all too easy to dismiss conflicting opinions as a moral failure. When both sides feel this way (and they usually do), constructive dialogue becomes impossible.
In any disagreement, the justification for charitably construing your opponent’s position is not that he is probably honest. It’s that you, unwittingly, are probably not. All the family values in the world will avail nothing for a society brought up never to consider this possibility; never to ask, “are we the good guys after all?”.
Exposing children to moral ambiguity isn’t a path to moral relativism, that old bogey of the cultural Right. Sympathy does not have to diminish judgement. There’s a reason completely unsympathetic characters are called cartoon villains: it is a childish mind which cannot at the same time understand the motivation of a villain, even see some of it in himself, and yet declare it to be wrong. Such a sympathetic judgement demands introspection, with fear and trembling; to see the three fingers pointing back at himself whenever he points his finger. It is this introspection by which the child avoids becoming the villain himself.
Here’s an exercise: can you come up with a story where Judas was genuinely loyal to Jesus to the end, where greed for silver wasn’t the driving motivation for his betrayal? Richard Whately has one (h/t Nathanael Snow).