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Concepts Are Cheap
♫Justice is what he claims to fight for, but it's a mystery - what does this 'justice' mean? He hasn't got a clue!♫
Space Hunt Drake Redcrest's Theme (Vocal Version, English), Chibi-Robo

Can't think of a convincing personal motivation for your hero? No problem. There are lots of useful words out there. Useful words like 'freedom' or 'justice' or 'peace' or 'mankind'! Or 'love'! Or 'hope'! Or ' good'! Yeah! "Freedom" stirs up lots of warm fuzzy feelings in people. Better yet, any villains who oppose our freedom-loving hero must be, by definition, evil. Better than that, freedom is an abstract. If nothing specific is added, a reader can fill in the blank with whatever they want.

Concepts Are Cheap is the natural result of writers stuffing their narratives with lots of glossy one-size-fits-all words, rather than inventing motivations which emerge organically from the character's experiences. Like a cheap meal, it leaves you empty two hours after you've finished the work. Sure, the hero might have just told the villain that 'freedom' is better than 'tyranny' and then struck him with his laser sword, thus (violently) winning 'freedom' for all 'mankind'. But why? Why did he care? Why should we care? And would anyone but a Card-Carrying Villain say that tyranny is better than freedom?

Values Dissonance can hit with some of these concepts. For Science! was a cheap concept in The Fifties (positive or negative, depending on the sanity of the scientist), but these days there are enough people real and fictional who claim that Science Is Bad that taking a stand for it does mean something (again, for good or ill).

Compare Meaningless Meaningful Words, Loaded Words and For Great Justice. Contrast Justice Will Prevail. Unrelated to High Concept.

Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • Gundam 00 skillfully uses this trope as a plot point. As season 2 beings, Celestial Being managed to end war by making themselves the entire world's common enemy, which is not what they hoped for, also everyone is being oppressed by the A-Laws who are an expy of the Titans from Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam.
  • This is a common criticism of Pokémon: The First Movie: the rather forced moral in the English dub is that "fighting is wrong", in a series all about fighting. (It Makes Sense in Context; the fighting in question is to the death and tied to Mewtwo's hatred of humans, while the series' regular battles are usually friendly and result in nothing more than Non Lethal KOs. Nonetheless, many fans agree that the film would have been better off with no such moral.)

Comic Books
  • Back in the day Superman spent a lot of time demolishing substandard ghetto housing, exposing political corruption and standing up for the rights of immigrants and the little guy. He was a New Deal superhero! But politics is bad for sales - even corrupt politicians buy comic books, after all. So Superman started to fight for the magnificent generality of "truth, justice and the American way" (the last part added in the 40s for the radio program), and as long as he limits himself to hitting supervillains in the jaw, it doesn't matter. No two people can agree on what Superman 'really stands for' anymore, but they all agree it's very heroic. "The American way" part is also often dropped in modern stories, although it's usually only Americans who complain about this.
  • Spider-Man fights crime for the grand glorious cause of Responsibility: he has the power to do it, so he has to do it. (It does spin out of his origin story, but still.) This may mean that he was doomed to become a superhero no matter what: he was introduced as a young genius almost on par with the other super scientists of the time like Hank Pym, Reed Richards and Tony Stark. Thus, he had great power, and thus, great responsibility.
  • Inverted by the morally gray characters of Alan Moore. V (V for Vendetta) fights for "freedom" not in the form of a vague generality, but in the form of smashing the Norsefire regime and creating a state of anarchy that may or may not be an improvement. In Watchmen, Rorschach and Ozymandias, in very different ways and results, devote their entire lives to their ideals, at the cost of distancing themselves from the morality (and, in Rorschach's case, hygiene standards) of everyday folk. Ozymandias firmly believes that Utopia Justifies the Means and that a few million deaths to prevent the rest of the global population from dying is an acceptable sacrifice, while Rorschach believes that not even Utopia justifies the means, and that global extinction under the truth is better than peace through a lie.
  • Periodically, Captain America will become disillusioned when he realizes that even he doesn't really know what representing "America" really means. Usually when a Republican's in office.
  • Justice League of America:
    • Villain Prometheus was designed as a sort of reverse Batman, whose parents were Bonnie and Clyde-like criminals gunned down by the police before his eyes. Why did he take on the Justice League? Because his parents' death instilled in him a deep and abiding hatred of justice. It's entirely possible it was meant to be as trite as it sounds, but most writers (and readers) don't treat it that way.
    • In the mini-series "Justice League: Cry for Justice", suddenly, every single major character becomes this. They spend the entire series demanding "justice" without ever bothering to define what it means or how it's different from what the other heroes are already doing. Their actions are also closer to that of another concept altogether.

Fanfics
  • My Little Unicorn's supposed theme: Believing, is constantly being thrown about, however, it's message is ridiculously weak and vague.

Film
  • The Star Wars prequels abused this a lot, which might be forgiveable in a free-wheeling Space Opera story, except that they tried to hang a lot important plot points off it too. Anakin is introduced as a slave: we don't see his performing any slave duties (working in a shop could just be his job for how he's treated), or the effects of slavery on him, or any motivations as a result of his experience, but it earns the tyke sympathy points. Obi-Wan declares his loyalty not to any political party or leader, but to 'democracy'. The Sith are dangerous moral relativists, except when they're rigid moral absolutists, but in the end they only seem to be whatever term the story can hang off them to make then eeeevil. It also goes to show you that a lot of fantasy and Space Opera backstories do not make sense.
  • Evita had a bit of this. Late in the film, when Eva is dying, she and her fascist dictator husband Juan start talking about how their "dream" may never come to pass. It's never really revealed what this dream was supposed to be, unless it turns out it was "Enjoy and abuse the Presidential office" (in which case, Mission Accomplished).
  • The films The Patriot (with Mel Gibson, not Steven Seagal) and King Arthur (2004) threw the word "freedom" around, which just made the weak scripts all the more apparent. Even Braveheart nearly fell into this, were it not for at least a couple of lines giving context they were fighting for ("beg forgiveness for a hundred years of theft, rape, and murder"note ). Although movie-Wallace's crusade just started out as an act of personal revenge against the man who killed his wife, then somehow morphed into "Freedom for Scotland".
  • One of the worst offenders has to be Christian in Moulin Rouge!, who seems to basically think that because he and Satine believe in Freedom and Art and Love, the universe has to bend around them and everyone is obliged to give them stuff for free. Neither does it ever seem to occur to him that these concepts aren't always compatible with each other, such as Art having to make a sacrifice for Love or Satine being free to love someone other than him.
  • Patrick Bateman in The Film of the Book American Psycho gives a monologue on the important problems that we need to face, eventually dissolving into a bunch of vacuous rhetoric. Naturally, he doesn't actually care about these things, so his speech is just a huge Lampshade hung on the use of this trope.
    Bateman: There's a lot more important problems than Sri Lanka to worry about. We have to end apartheid for one, slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and end world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. But most importantly we have to promote general social concern, and less materialism.
  • After the Big Bad Zorg in The Fifth Element is failed by a group of warrior aliens and forced to compromise on a deal, he launches into a monologue about his dislike for warriors and their causes.
    Zorg: I don't like warriors. Too narrow-minded, no subtlety. And worse, they fight for hopeless causes. Honor? Huh! Honor's killed millions of people, it hasn't saved a single one.
  • Batman usually fights for an ill defined "Justice" like many of his contemporaries but in The Dark Knight Saga much of the plot is about Bruce exploring, discovering and refining his concept of justice and his boundaries (for example, Lucius challenges him on his decision to implement a nigh-omnipresent security system throughout Gotham and Bruce decides to retire it after the current crisis.)

Literature
  • Discworld:
    • Remarked on in Interesting Times when Rincewind explains why he doesn't support "worthy causes".
    • Night Watch, wherein a rant by Sir Samuel results in the rebels fighting for truth, justice, freedom, reasonably-priced love (the seamstresses objected to the inclusion of "free love")... and a hard-boiled egg. The egg, at least, can be had by morning.
    • Reacher Gilt in Going Postal loves to talk about freedom, but he really means "freedom for me". He certainly has no intention of letting Moist be free to run the post office while he has anything to say about it. Moist reads Gilt's statement to the Times and is awestruck at how Reacher has made the Concepts be Cheap.
  • Don Quixote is a deconstruction of this trope: In the first part of the novel, he wants to be a Knight Errant For Great Justice. In reality, he is The Hedonist and all his efforts are really guided to live his dreams, but he doesn't accept it because he is a Hypocrite. In the second part of the novel, his motivation changes For Happiness. But this time Don Quixote is an honest man who must admit at the end of the novel that his efforts didn’t help anyone and his Chivalric Romance dreams were shallow.
  • Discussed and invoked in Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel. Robophobic detective Elijah Bailey scoffs at the notion that law-enforcement robot R. Daneel Olivaw has a "justice circuit," saying that justice is too abstract a concept to be programmed into a robot. When asked to define justice, Daneel says "That which exists when all laws are enforced." While that would not be any human's concept of justice, it is perfectly adequate for a law-enforcement robot to function.
  • Generally averted in works by Brandon Sanderson, particularly The Stormlight Archive and Mistborn. The heroes are frequently forced to grapple with what their high-minded ideals actually mean in practice, and implementing them tend to have all manner of unforeseen consequences.

Live-Action Television
  • In Robin Hood, the main character would often use King Richard as his rallying cry, but opposed the Crusades. Therefore, the storylines ran on an odd paradox: King Richard was good, but his actions were bad. Many of the storylines revolved around trying to bring King Richard home, yet when the outlaws travel all the way to the Holy Land, Richard is revealed to be a rather weak, misguided King, raising questions as to why Robin was so slavishly devoted to him in the first place. The King even tries to have Robin and the gang executed, but by season three, everyone has reverted back to the mind-set of King Richard = good, peace, justice.
  • Mohinder's voice-overs at the beginning of each episode of Heroes can be summed up thusly: "Destiny, blah, blah, fate, blah, blah, life and all its mysteries, blah."

Music
  • While Nickelback isn't among the most highly esteemed of bands, their song "If Everyone Cared" draws particular ire for its vague, feel-good message; what everyone's supposed to care about and do as a result is never explained.
  • Michael Jackson:
    • As popular as "Man in the Mirror" is, the "change" we need to make within ourselves that will "make the world a better place" for the homeless/poverty-stricken isn't specified, and the video makes matters vaguer by bringing up issues that aren't even discussed in the lyrics (nuclear war, pollution, etc.).
    • "Heal the World"'s vague message — "There are people dying/If you care enough for the living/Make a better place/For you and for me" — is reflected in the music video for it: Kids go up to soldiers occupying some territory and give them flowers, which immediately convinces them to throw their weapons away. Huh?
    • "They Don't Care About Us" does such a poor job of deliniating who they and us are that its use of anti-Semitic slurs in the lyrics, which according to Jackson was not intended to be racist, was interpreted as exactly that! Another song on HIStory, "Earth Song", is at least much more specific about what needs to be addressed — environmental destruction and war — yet offers no suggestions as to how.

Tabletop Games
  • In third edition Dungeons & Dragons, clerics can choose to devote themselves to some broad concepts rather than a deity. This allows the cleric to act pretty much however he or she wants as long it can be said to not violate the concept rather than worry about how his or her patron deity feels. Of course, some deity’s concepts can be just as cheap as those of patronless cleric, too.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • Many Space Marines aren't too concerned with the minutiae of any particular war, fighting solely for the "honor" of their Chapter, their Chapter's Primarch, or just The Emperor himself. There are exceptions of course, like in Dawn of War II where the Blood Ravens are fighting for the survival of their Chapter, but they are few and far between.
    • Imperial Guard regiments are fighting for their lives most of the time, but any other motivation is usually limited to just obtaining "glory" for their homeworld: "For Cadia!", "For Valhalla!", "For Tanith!", etc.
    • Subverted with the Tau. You'd think that "For the Greater Good!" would fall head first into this trope, but it turns out the Greater Good is actually a highly defined social structure. Said structure involves a rigid caste system where every Tau is assigned a role they're expected to perform from birth to death, and puts non-Tau members at the bottom of the hierarchy, but it's the thought that counts, right?

Video Games
  • Fallout 3 gives us the DJ Three Dog who spouts off fighting the good fight while simultaneously being really really vague on what the good fight was.
  • This is enormously subverted in Fate/stay night, as the protagonist's dream is to become a superhero who can save everybody. He is confronted about the flaws of this in the Unlimited Blade Works route by Archer, who is his future self who followed this ideal to the bitter end and gained nothing in return but betrayal, misery, and disillusionment. He points out that the protagonist's ideal of being a hero is too vague; there is no reason for it, no feasible plan to accomplish it, and that it is not even his own ideal - only sacrifice and more conflict can result from it. There is nothing in that ideal, as it is one that can only save everybody in his sight - but as one cannot look at oneself, it can't even let him save himself in the end. Angst and turmoil all 'round in this one. Kotomine also points out how Shirou's desire to save everyone is inherently flawed; saving someone requires they be in danger, so Shirou's desire can only be fulfilled so long as people are in danger.
  • City of Heroes, and its sister game City of Heroes, love seeding Heroes and Villains with motivations no thicker than 'Justice' or 'Villainy', and sometimes gleefully rolls characters around in the stuff. With a few exceptions, the entire Longbow faction is essentially Democracy! The Malta Group want you to Beware the Superman and reinstate the Super Registration Act! The Crey Corporation is Capitalism! The Regulators, like Back Alley Brawler, say Drugs Are Bad, m'kay! Positron and Vahzilok are For Science!! Eventually subverted by a bunch of different characters, albeit mostly in the supplemental material.
  • Parodied in Grand Theft Auto III on the Chatterbox radio station. A guy by the name of "Jeff" calls in, advertising a rally at Liberty City Park. However, when the show's host asks what the rally's actually about, Jeff responds with an escalation of otherwise meaningless phrases and appeals, including "for justice" "for the future", and "for hope". The host continues asking, only to be met with more cheap concepts and pleas for attendance, until it turns out the guy doesn't know what it's about.
  • Wild Arms:
    • Played with in Wild ARMs 3. Idealist Virginia is constantly harassed by Goldfish Poop Gang leader Maya Schroedinger, who demands to know why she keeps traveling and fighting. Although Maya ostensibly is only motivated by greed and jewels, in the end she claims that that ideal also includes the planet she lives on - a blue-green jewel.
    • In the original Wild ARMs, Calamity Jane refuses to accept that Cecelia and friends are fighting for some vague "save the world" mishmash and demands they solidify their reasons.
  • Metal Wolf Chaos has propaganda broadcasts from the Policy Promotion Department, making pronouncements like "A heart of Justice is a heart that loves Freedom." This is when they're not promising to execute everyone who's even tangentially connected to Metal Wolf.
  • Abraham Reyes from Red Dead Redemption gives speeches that have him throwing around rabble-rousing buzzwords such as "Freedom" and "For the people!" And while the people drink it up, it's obvious to Marston and the player that he's nothing more than a self-important blowhard. You only get to see how fake he really is in the epilogue, when a newspaper blurb spells out to you that he's become a dictator.
  • Metal Gear:
    • In Metal Gear Solid 2 The Patriots spend roughly a half-hour at the end of the game lecturing Raiden on the failures of "freedom" and how human beings don't deserve it. The Patriots bring up a lot of actually good points about crowd mentality and convenient self-deception, but they jump completely into the bad guy camp the moment they start talking about how bad freedom is.
    • In Metal Gear Solid 3 The Boss uses the word "loyalty" several times in the game to mean very different things, demonstrating her belief that because the friends of today may be tomorrow's enemies (and vice versa), "loyalty" as a concept is completely useless.
  • While "heart", "light", and "darkness" have always been main concepts in the Kingdom Hearts series, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep spams them throughout the script so often that they start to lose their meaning as time goes on.
  • Spoofed on Chibi-Robo with Space Hunter Drake Redcrest, who claims to fight for justice, then admits he doesn't really know what it means. It even pops up in the vocal version of his theme song.
  • In Dynasty Warriors, Wei, Wu, and Shu, all like to go on about "Ambition", "Family" and "Benevolence" in all situations respectively, but Jiang Wei of Shu especially keeps talking up a "land of benevolence" while constantly waging expensive and futile wars.
  • In Dragon Age II, Isabella, of all people, expresses this belief.
    Justice is an idea. It makes sense in a world of ideas, but not in our world.

Web Comics
  • Brought up in Oglaf, when a young man wants to become a paladin and a champion of justice because a hook-handed man killed his parents. The gate guard points out that he's confusing justice with revenge, and should find a definition of justice that is more than just furthering his own needs and goals.

Western Animation
  • The Tick more-or-less Lampshades this trope. "Let's hang ten for Justice!"
  • The Fairly OddParents: The Crimson Chin also uses "Justice!" as his vague but enthusiastic rallying cry.
  • Batman: The Brave and the Bold's version of Batman also loves making pithy one-liners about "justice". This usually fits the show's tone, though it was rather jarring in the "Tornado Tyrant" episode where Red Tornado tried to explain good and evil to his son, when he could have just said "Evil people like stealing trucks and talking about crime, good people like punching those people and talking about justice, the end."
  • Parodied in Megamind with the "You can't trap justice..." riff.
  • Also parodied in the Family Guy episode "It Takes A Village Idiot, and I Married One", where Lois runs for Mayor - she quickly learns that making rational arguments and fully-explained proposals makes undecided voters fall asleep or get angrily confused, and resorts to exactly these kinds of platitudes, including responding to completely unrelated questions with "Jesus" and "9/11".
  • Adventure Time gleefully plays this straight with Finn, who loves to boast about his defence of "honour" and "justice" without actually having any idea what those things mean ("I swear." "Swear to what?" "I swear to justice!") and fighting evil monsters 'cuz they're "evil". Character Development means he's a lot less prone to this in later seasons, but he still won't object to randomly punching monsters.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender :
    • The Avatar must bring "balance" to the world, but every Avatar (and their friends/allies) have their own interpretations of what balance is, and inevitably, some people disagree and try to resist them. Avatar Wan thought it meant keeping humans and spirits separate for their own safety, Kuruk interpreted balance as letting people solve their own problems and not interfering unless absolutely necessary, Kyoshi believed in ruthlessly enforcing peace, Roku wanted total segregation between the nations, Aang eventually decided that balance meant accepting the changing world and encouraging unity and understanding between the nations, and Korra reopened the spirit portals and is trying to rebuild the Air Nomads to heal the world after the War.
    • Then there are the villains and their interpretation of "balance". For Sozin it was a Fire Nation lead hegemony, for Amon it meant bender genocide, Unalaq believed in a unified physical and spirit worlds ruled by him, and Zaheer just wants total chaos.

Real Life
  • More politicians than not, if not all politicians. It doesn't matter whether you're talking to the National Rifle Association or Handgun Control Inc, the American Civil Liberties Union or an attorney general, everyone is for the protection of rights and has no problem with reasonable regulation; those phrases mean exactly nothing. The real fun starts when all sides claim that their politicians back up their meaningless soundbites with actual policy and claim that everyone else's politicians have nothing but soundbites.
    • The British satirist Simon Hoggart came up with a way of measuring the worth of any political statement; take the exact opposite of that statement and see how likely it is that anyone would say it. For example, a politician makes a statement that he is in favour of 'fairness'. Would anyone say that they are in favour of 'unfairness'? No, then why bother saying such a statement?
    • It is possible to figure out politicians are all about by looking at what, specifically, they are planning to do if they get elected - and if you don't trust them to be honest about that (which most people don't), you can at least look at their track record so far. They just count (with some justification) on most voters not looking any deeper than those meaningless but nice-sounding sound bites.
  • While the invocation of "freedom", "justice" and "liberty" tend to be Americans' preference, European, politicians tend to make more understated speeches: they usually don't go further than "social equality", "citizenship", and "the republic" in the worst case (but that's from French Persident Sarkozy's administration, and that guy is very much into "American" methods). However, when talking about other countries, "democracy" and "human rights" pop up very frequently. There was a fad with "change" to try to copy Barack Obama's vibe, but it settled very quickly.
    • On that note, many of Obama's critics contend that his famous slogans of "Hope" and "Change" and "Yes We Can" were a little too vague.
    • In Britain the concepts are fairness and progressiveness. Every policy of the Tory party in government is fair and progressive. Every policy of the Labour party in opposition is fair and progressive. The only way to tell them apart is that the Tories will occasionally throw in "justice" for good measure.
    • On the other hand, Julia Gillard's 2010 campaign tried to adopt the catch phrase 'moving forward'. Unfortunately, it was repeated just a little bit too often, and so it lasted less than a single speech before people were mocking it ruthlessly. Years later it's still parodied as a prime example of overused political vagueness.
  • The Occupy Wall Street movement has been criticized by people from all over the political spectrum for seemingly having little more of a goal than making rich people feel bad. The organizers (and their counterparts all over the globe) stated that they didn't want to elaborate on their stances too much because they didn't want to divide the movement along factional lines, instead opting to unite as many people as possible by getting them all to agree that the rich being greedy was a bad thing that needed to change. The result was very large crowds and very little clarity. Also, if you dug a little you would find that these different factions already existed beneath the surface, they just all found it in their interest (and no doubt belief) to imagine that each of them represented the 99% rather than a tiny proportion of a broad but ultimately not very effectual movement.
  • Many activists for social change (feminism, racial/religious minority rights, LGBTQ rights etc.) use phrases like "Equality for all!" frequently, which leads to a lot of confusion as to what exactly this "equality" is and what it will mean for both people within and outside of the group in question.
  • During the bloody period of The French Revolution, the phrase 'for the people!' or 'for France!' was used to justify repression, mass murder, and ill-thought out wars that sent France's economy down the toilet.
  • Roman writers noticed and discussed it, making this trope Older Than Feudalism.
  • John Stuart Mill supported freedom. G.W.F. Hegel supported Freedom. What is meant by freedom in each case is VERY different from the other. This sometimes leads to leads to political Blue and Orange Morality between the two factions.
  • Quite common for terrorist organisations and freedom fighters; indeed the very act of naming yourself "freedom fighters" falls into this trope. Some cases are arguable, but others couldn't be more blatant. A good example would be the infamous Revolutionary United Front or RUF, who fought against the government of Sierra Leone. How did they try to do this? By killing villagers, raping women and amputating the limbs of their victims to keep them from voting.
  • Less Wrong has an article on this trope as it appears in politics, using "democratic" as a specific example.
  • If the documentary Michael Jackson's This Is It is anything to go by "It's all for love" was a mantra of his while he was working on his concert comeback, but what he specifically meant by that is never explained.
  • The basis for real life People's Republic of Tyranny. If you can't be bothered actual making your government democratic, then naming it so is the next best thing. Whether or not this actually fools anyone though is unknown.

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