At the end of the first chapter, Jetstream Sam defeats Raiden in a swordfight on top of a moving train, inside a tunnel, because action tropes. Sam, like a perverse teacher, explains why Raiden is losing the fight: “Now I see. You deny your weapon its purpose. It yearns to bathe in the blood of your enemies… but you hold it back.”
Sam proceeds to beat the justice out of Raiden (“This is what happens when you bring a tool to a swordfight”), cutting off his arm (“Oh shit… not again”) and almost killing him.
Now, we haven’t seen enough of Raiden at this point in time to say whether he was really holding it back or not, but by the beginning of the next mission (just a few months later) he’s definitely not holding anything back anymore. See: slicing his enemies open, taking their spines, cutting off their hands, having no mercy whatsoever, we’ve discussed this in the previous chapters.
I’m not sure what the purpose of this scene is, other than to, again, legitimize Raiden as the good guy whose violence is just: we never see him holding back, we never see him making things more difficult for himself by trying to spare his enemies. It’s just a cliché that we’re used to from so many other films and games, and so we tend to accept this received wisdom, even though it doesn’t even apply to MGR. In popular contemporary entertainment it goes at least as far back as Star Wars: the dark side of the force is more powerful on paper, the good guys do not use part of their powers because that part is ‘evil’.
The moral intuition at the base of it all is that in order to be good you have to be responsible, you have to control yourself, deny your animal instincts, be civilized, respect the law etc. (Freud) Being good means holding back from what you’d actually want to do. Which, I’ll admit, can occasionally feel like an accurate description: sometimes we do want to shout at someone, or punch them, and we simply hold back because we know it’s not right, i.e. we obey our Super Ego. But as the defining characteristic of goodness, it’s more problematic, if only because it overlooks the genuine joy that can be found in being good, in helping others, in sharing and being generous. (Mudita, happiness in another’s good fortune, is a word of Buddhist origin, and the opposite of the more popular Schadenfreude) Framing goodness as pure sacrifice isn’t healthy either, because it immediately engenders envy: the dark side has cookies and more toys to play with, and suddenly becomes a more desirable state. In short, this trope forgets that, although we may have an instinct that pushes us towards actions that we’d define as evil, we also have positive feelings and moral intuitions (and not just Super Ego, shame and guilt) that push us towards goodness and reward us for it. The existence and popular acceptance of this trope tells us a lot, I feel, about the mindset of a society that considers selfishness as a ‘natural’ attitude and goodness as holding back.
Some weapons are worse than others, on that I think we can agree. And the subject of how to resist violence and respond to violence in a way that doesn’t turn you into the same kind of person as your aggressor is complicated. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a satisfying answer to this question. Making coercive force an exclusive right of the state is the best we have, for now, but I don’t consider it a satisfying solution.
In “The Fragility of Goodness”, Martha Nussbaum argues that the ‘good’ person will feel remorse over a bad action, even if it was the best possible course of action, and even if it was necessary to avoid something far worse. She uses the Greek tragedy of Antigone to make her point (Creon would embody this fault: even if we accept that his decision was the best possible decision in those circumstances, he should feel a degree of regret over it that he doesn’t feel) but to make a simpler example: killing one person to save a thousand may be the best course of action, but the person of high moral sensibility will still feel a degree of guilt and regret over it.
I think Sam is right: a weapon created with the purpose of killing will always tend to be used that way. In this sense, the morality at the base of this trope is almost a necessary code of conduct: if both good guys and bad guys use the same tools and the same methods, this is almost the only way we can tell them apart. But, does the omnipresence of the “holding back” trope mean we want to feel justified in the violence we do perpetrate, even if only out of necessity, even if it’s not as much as it could have been? Or does it mean that we want an excuse, in case we lose? And also, does it encourage us to look at (controlled?) violence as the only appropriate response to violence (i.e. using the same tools), instead of addressing underlying concerns, like: what drove the aggressor to use violence in the first place? Or: isn’t there a better way to solve things?