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With all due respect, sir, I was not trained to murder the innocent.
Things are not going well. Everyone around you gets more cynical and less caring for each day: It Gets Easier
. What started out with good, or at least neutral, intentions, ends up more self-serving or antagonistic. The descent has been so slow and so drawn out in time that it has just crept up on everyone.
Then! Someone says "Enough!", usually surprising everyone around them, and makes them remember why they are really there, or what they used to be. This can be in a confrontation with someone in a position of authority, who finally is coming too close to dragging themselves and everyone else over the Moral Event Horizon
, but it can be triggered by other factors as well. The Sudden Principled Stand can of course also be done with only two people present, the one giving the order and the one refusing.
The Sudden Principled Stand takes parts of its drama from its suddenness — it might very well be planned, but its execution comes as a surprise for the people around it, who earlier had been given no hint about it.
One common variation is that the principled stand hinges on a very minor technicality, in which case it is a Reconstruction
of a one-off Obstructive Bureaucrat
. Can also be combined with a Heel-Face Turn
, especially if late in the story. Earlier in a story, it can be used as an Establishing Character Moment
, to establish a moral center, or establish a later conflict. The variant where the principles invoked are evil
is of course possible, but likely uncommon.
Compare Everyone Has Standards
; Even Evil Has Standards
; Neutral No Longer
; Not What I Signed On For
; Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right
; Spanner in the Works
; Rage Breaking Point
(where anger is handled this way).
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Anime And Manga
- In One Piece, in a flashback, Dalton is moved to tears by Hiruluk's Obi-Wan Moment, and after the latter kills himself, he sees Wapol laughing his ass off over it. With the last person to try and save the country in crisis now gone, Dalton decides that this is the last straw, and chews him out for his assholish behavior over the years, Finally declaring no matter how advanced Drum Kingdom is in medicine, "Medicine cannot cure [Wapol's] stupidity". Unfortunately, in a deconstruction of the trope, this leads to Wapol being furious with Dalton, and soundly defeating him, before sending him to prison.
- In the Black Orchid miniseries by Neil Gaiman, the second Black Orchid, after one of Lex Luthor's operatives, Sterling, tracks her down to the Brazilian rainforest, refuses his ultimatum to accompany him peacefully to Lexcorp for anatomical study. Sterling orders his two Mooks to kill her with herbicide. However, awed by her beauty and that of the surrounding ecosystem, they refuse ("I—we've killed for you before. It's what we do. But not her. Not here."), and he returns to Metropolis empty-handed. Foreshadowed in that one of the mooks, en route, discusses what he's read about the endangered Amazon rainforests.
- The later continuation of Black Orchid by Dick Foreman retconned this to have been the result of Black Orchid using pheremonal control on the two mooks, but it's clear that wasn't Gaiman's original intention.
- From the Exiles comic from Marvel comics the character of Mimic resolves to no longer kill after their 'setting right what's gone wrong' had descended into his having to kill a number of alternate universe versions of people he's known. This unfortunately ends up backfiring leading to his death as he hesitates in killing Proteus, a body-snatching reality warper, resulting in his own possession and death as his body burns out from the possession.
- Captain Atom reaches this point in issue 50. Issues earlier, Dr. Megala had arranged for a video recording revealing all the dirty secrets of the Captain Atom project to go out on national television after his death as insurance against his being eliminated by Wade Eiling. In issue 50, Megala does die, albeit not at the hands of Eiling, so Eiling has Cap go on television to claim that Megala was a supervillain and that everything that he was going to say were a bunch of lies. Just then, Megala's recording breaks in, and it turns out that all Megala had to say was that "Wade Eiling wears combat boots." When the regular broadcast resumes, Cap starts to go ahead with his rehearsed statement, but then decides he has had enough, and instead comes clean about how he is really a government agent who has been masquerading as a superhero.
- The Enclave from Fallout: Equestria repeatedly fall prey to this, especially since their troops have been trained all their lives to believe they’re the ‘good guys’ and bastion of civilisation in a barbaric world. One trooper immediately deserts when his commander shoots a defenceless filly (accidentally, but he wasn’t sorry about it), and later a whole battleship outright refuses to continue firing on a civilian target, and is eventually shot down by their own side.
Films — Animated
- Phoebus against Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as quoted above.
- In The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, Vitani refuses to attack the Pridelanders even when ordered by Zira, because she was convinced by Kiara's speech. In response, Zira threatened that Vitani would die as well. In turn, the rest of Zira's followers refused to attack the Pridelanders. In fairness, most people would agree that threatening to kill your own daughter is a pretty clear Moral Event Horizon.
- In Kung Fu Panda 2, Boss Wolf refuses to fire upon the heroes with his own men in the crossfire. Shen responds by killing him on the spot.
Films — Live-Action
- In The Apartment there's Bud's climactic refusal to let Sheldrake use his apartment for a tryst with Fran after her suicide attempt.
- Scarface (1983): Throughout the film Tony has been a drug lord, a murderer, generally getting worse and worse. But seeing Sosa's hitman about to kill the target while the man's wife and kid are in the same car makes him draw the line.
- Two of the Democrats in Lincoln pull this off on the day of the vote, Yeaman in particular.
- Near the end of The Elite Squad, during the final search for Baiano, Renan expresses doubt when they start breaking down the doors of the innocent. Nascimento lets him take some kids out of the area.
- In the opening of The Shadow of the Lion, Abbot Sachs has, with the help of several Knight Templar, apprehended some children in a church, that he claims are enacting satanic rites. Erik reminds the knights that the kids are most likely innocent, have sanctuary in the church, and can only be removed by order of the parish priest. This sets up Erik as a moral center for the knights, and a conflict with the abbot.
- The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold has several examples:
- Deryni Checkmate: The day after the Curia excommunicated Morgan and Duncan, its leaders, Archbishops Loris and Corrigan, tried to push through an Interdict on Morgan's duchy as well. The previously neutral Bishop Cardiel spoke against the measure, precipitating a schism within the Church. Cardiel argued that it was unjust to punish the people of Corwyn for the actions of its duke and left open the possibility that Morgan and Duncan were morally innocent. The conflict escalated as other bishops, including Arilan and Tolliver (Corwyn's bishop) joined in, accusing Loris of supporting a rebellion against the king and promoting genocide against the Deryni.
- The entire plot of 1812: The Arkansas War hinges on this trope, in that the United States is forced to address slavery in the 1820s instead of the 1850s, and in a far more direct way. It's not too sudden, but then it involves an entire nation.
- In Ru Emerson's The Princess of Flames, King Sedry's henchman Nolse has done every manner of dirty deed in Sedry's service, including killing Sedry's own brother for him. But when Sedry tries to torture information out of Fialla, the lady of an ally, Nolse discovers to his shock that he actually does have a conscience and it won't tolerate this. Sedry kills him, but the fight buys enough time for Fialla to be rescued.
Live Action TV
- Lion-O from ThunderCats (2011) takes one against a blood thirsty mob and his own father.
- Gillecomgain from Gargoyles is a rare villainous example: He had no compunctions about killing Macbeth's father or marrying Macbeth's girlfriend (both on Prince Duncan's orders), but when Duncan ordered him to assassinate Macbeth himself as well, he refused for pragmatic rather than moral reasons: "Nay, milord. Macbeth is an heir to the crown, and much beloved by the people; besides, it might lead to some uncomfortable questions about his father's demise... and who demanded it."
- In 1962, a group of street musicians in Munich had gathered quite a crowd and kept playing well after 22:30 into the night. Police arrived and instead of just saying "this is a residential area, would you please stop playing here or move to the park", they immediately arrested the musicians. At that point some people in the crowd protested that this was unfair and 17 years of unresolved social tension after World War 2 finally spilled over. The officers called for backup, which arrived in the form of a riot squad, and at that point the situation grew into a real riot. Completely inexperienced and untrained, police handled the situation as poorly as one would expect and the riots escalated and lasted for over a week, and also marked the beginning of the German civil rights movement which was marked by Police Brutality and left wing terrorism that lasted for the next two decades. And all because someone stood up and said "Don't you think this is a bit excessive?".
- Many Dutch student fraternities let their members go through two weeks of humiliation (Which often include humiliating tasks, getting shouted at by older members, excessive alcohol consumption and very little sleep) before they are a full member. Other fraternities dislike this practice, and don't have this kind of initiation rituals (or some much lesser form.) At least one fraternity puts an older member among the new members, and calls this 'mole' forward to be 'humiliated', until the new members invoke just this trope, at which point the masquerade is giving up, and everybody has a good laugh.
- During the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet government increasingly pressured East Germany to crack down on protests. Combining a harsh Take That against China with thinly-veiled accusation that the Soviets were demanding a return to stooping to the repressiveness of Nazi Germany, the premier of East Germany pointedly and quite angrily rebuked Moscow, "We refuse to implement The Chinese Solution" referring to the Tiananmen Square Massacre with wording that intentionally drew an explicit parallel to the third reich's escalation of repression from Kristallnacht into the eventual enactment of "The Final Solution" which was all too clear and which marked the beginning of the end for the Eastern Bloc
- Invoking this was part of the Milgram Experiment. By asking a volunteer to administer increasingly painful electric shocks to someone (an actor) on command by an authority figure. The researchers were trying to find out when people would stand up and say "no more" due to an attack of conscience. They estimated that no more than 3% would administer a 450V (likely fatal) shock. In initial testing 65% administered that level of electricity. The actor was supposed to stop responding after 300V. Real Life Fridge Horror Nightmare Fuel at its darkest.