Playing Vincent Baker’s “In a Wicked Age” brought something to mind, that kind of drives me a little bonkers. Now, I want to start by saying that this is in no way a statement about the game or Mr. Baker. The game is really, really fun. I really enjoy the game, but there’s something in the way the world of the game is explained that makes my hackles raise, and it isn’t the fault of the game itself. It is, indeed, a part of the background of many, many fantasy games, novels, short stories, comics and films. It’s the assumption, whether IRL or in fiction, that there was this time without law where people were just completely wicked and horrible. That without laws handed down by some all-knowing Sky Father, we would just fuck, kill and thieve our way into oblivion.
It is an overly simplistic fantasy trope that really needs to just freaking go. It belies an arrogance in modern, usually Western, culture (or insert religion of your choice) that without ( fill in the blank) we’re just simple-minded savages with no concept of (fill in the blank here). It’s also a concept that’s been used to justify the subjugation of innumerable peoples through the ages. And, if we ever get off this mudball and start colonizing space, I’m sure it will be used again. In fact, H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzy novels (Little Fuzzy, Fuzzy Sapiens, etc…) explore this concept beautifully.
In the Fuzzy novels, the intergalactic standard for a sapient race (not to be trifled with) is “Do they talk and have fire?” Because language is a precursor to law and society. When the Fuzzies are discovered, cute little critters who look like tallish marmosets, the only audible noise they make is a high-pitched squeak, which sounds nothing like speech to the humans who discover them, nor do they make fire. So people start colonizing their world, and so begins a conflict. Then a malfunctioning hearing aid allows the main character Jack Holloway to hear their ultrasonic speech, and then there’s a big to do about getting them declared sentient and an evil corporation, etc… Which is sort of off-topic.
So, back to the idea of a time without law. One reason that this sets me off so, is that it is real similar to the whole anti-Atheist idea that morality is dictated/created by religion and that if you don’t have a religion, then clearly you are an amoral beast. Quite frankly, I am far more afraid of someone whose good behavior is motivated solely by their desire to please or avoid the anger of their Sky Father, than by someone who is a good person because they know for themselves that it is the right and good thing to do. I mean, really what the Anti-Atheist people are saying is that “Without the threat of eternal damnation and the anger of the Sky Father, I would do horrible shit. Ergo, I believe that since you don’t believe in the Sky Father you MUST be doing horrible shit.”
Quite frankly, these people scare the daylights out of me. I much prefer folks who are actually good or who have fully internalized the idea of goodness as it’s own reward, as opposed to people who are being good solely to fend off an external threat.
And that’s why that trope bugs me so much. “See, we were all amoral grubby beasts who stole, killed, raped and beat everything in sight until the Sky Father came down and told us what’s what.”
Seriously, it makes my skin crawl.
I’m not a fan of Evolutionary Psychology by any stretch, especially since the majority of its proponents seem to be obsessed with keeping me barefoot and pregnant, but you have to think, just maybe being a decent human being evolved or was a trait selected for because it makes it so much easier to build a society if you’re not killing, raping, stealing from and beating everyone around you.* Granted, as a rule historically this sort of thing only extended to people who looked like you, but that’s an entirely other kettle of fish, and I only have an hour to write this.
So, please, if you’re writing a game, book, comic, etc… give the “It was a TIME BEFORE LAW…” trope a rest, ok? For those of us with even a basic knowledge of history (ancient or otherwise) and human nature (a lot of those folks trying to please the Sky Father do some really fucked up shit to other people), it’s annoying. I almost didn’t play In A Wicked Age because of it. I’m glad I can usually shrug off stuff like that, and went ahead and played it, because it is a super, super fun game. But if the plot of a book, comic, movie, whatever, doesn’t grab me, and this trope figures largely in it, it’s the kiss of death.
*Yes, as someone who has taken loads of Women’s Studies classes and who is a lifelong Feminist, I know. Women in all societies are raped, most frequently by those who look like them (know them, are related to them). However, I will also state something that I shocked an entire class into silence with: “Why does everyone act like no woman anywhere orgasmed prior to 1974 when Roe -v- Wade happened?” Seriously, not all men were raping, horrible brutes through time. Some of them (I might even argue a majority) were probably decent guys who treated their wives, daughters, etc… very well.