There are few more quote-worthy subjects out there in the big wide world that patriotism. From Clemenceau who remarked that “a patriot loves his country and a nationalist hates everybody else’s” to Samuel Johnson’s witty aperçu defining patriotism as, “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” there are no shortage of brilliant and occasionally scathing opinions on the subject.

However, for me, the bizarre commentary on patriotism comes from the act of defining what is unpatriotic. This reversion to the negative in order to positively define an idea has become increasingly prevalent – and quite worrying – in our modern society.

If you were to toss a container of non-dairy creamer onto a busy street in any major North American city I contend it would be likely to fall at the feet of someone who could tell you, in tremendous detail and with the appropriate hand gestures, exactly what makes a person unpatriotic, evil, anti-social or otherwise anti-insert-a-good-cause-here. However, ask those same people to define what makes a person patriotic, good, socially-conscious or otherwise dancing on the side of the angels, and they struggle. Peculiar.

Humans are of course a comparative species. We’re incapable of taking anything at face value without judging it in comparison to something else. Mathematically, this makes a certain degree of sense. In order to understand the size of an object for example, we must have some frame of reference, something with which to compare. The literary concepts of simile and metaphor were born from this idea.

These correlative distinctions can be quite subtle. For example, I personally make a distinct differentiation between films and movies. Superficially they appear identical – projected moving images on a screen – but to my perception they’re quite different. Not better or worse you understand, simply different. The Seventh Seal, Mulholland Drive and Citizen Kane are films. Blade Runner, The Bridges of Madison County and Pirates of the Caribbean are movies. A subjective and even subtle distinction to be sure, but you’ll find that every such argument – book vs. movie, black vs. white, patriot vs. terrorist – is both subtle and deeply personal. And therein lies the point that we all seem to miss.

There are very few issues that can be clearly defined as right versus wrong, black versus white. At this point you may be thinking, “What about murder? That’s pretty clearly ‘wrong’ isn’t it?” True, unless of course we’re at war with someone. In the words of Gloria Steinem:

“From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence – and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.”

There’s an old concept in fiction which may be of value here, a method for writing antagonists that are more believable and developed as characters: Treat the “villain” as a good guy for the other side. Someone fighting what they truly believe is the good fight against their implacable enemy.

We all have very clear ideas of what we don’t want, what we consider negative or evil. What we’re not so clear about is what we do want. Perhaps if we focused on a positive outcome, we’d begin to see better results. With over 6 billion different perspectives on the world, every one of them valid, I’m not sure we have much of a choice.

Before you label someone as a villain or unpatriotic, make sure you understand what a patriot is, beyond the blind rhetoric spewed forth in the name of a piece of cloth. Villains are the most skilled at conjuring up enemies – often from nowhere.

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