When an evil character is in the same vicinity as a good character, usually something devious is going on. Sometimes, though, the villain just doesn't want to fight. Maybe they just finished a hero/villain team-up. Maybe they're in a neutral zone, and they can't be overtly hostile. Or maybe the evil one is just smart enough to realize that sometimes the best way to hit somebody is to trick them into crawling down to evil's level.
This trope is what happens when a villain starts annoying the hero as much as possible without actually giving them any clear cause to resort to violence. Once placed in this situation, the hero has two options. First, give in. After that, punishment is inevitable. Whenever an evil character manages to provoke a good character in this manner, the good one always ends up getting punished. This is almost always what the evil character intended by being such a pest in the first place.
The second choice, and always the one taken by especially noble heroes who make it a point to be Lawful Good, is to walk away and not dignify the evil ones with the satisfaction of manipulating a good guy.
Naturally, this trope can tend to be a pretty heavy Broken Aesop - the Naïve Everygirl must forgive and understand and offer her friendship to the Alpha Bitch no matter how badly and rudely and unfairly she's treated... but don't expect anybody to cut her a break, ever. The number of times main characters must learn to accept jerks and devils in plain sight because "it's the right thing to do" is exactly proportionate to the number of times they can't get away with similar infractions.
This trope stems from the fact that the main character Can't Get Away with Nuthin'. When anyone can taunt anyone else, but the main character is evil for doing so, it's Selective Enforcement.
A character's response to this trope is a good way of determining where they fall on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. See If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him! for this trope as it applies to a Matter of Life and Death. If the character decides to defy this trope, this will result to Made Out to Be a Jerkass.
See I Shall Taunt You when this scheme is employed deliberately as a part of a larger plan, usually a Batman Gambit.
- In S Cryed, Maxfell's alter only works when he's in trouble, so he taunts Kazuma by implying that there are bombs in the toys he handed out. Really, he's just provoking Kazuma into making him desperate.
- In Venom #5, Flash Thompson gets into a confrontation with his abusive alcoholic father which nearly turns violent. As he avoids his father's drunken swing and almost hits him back, we hear his thought process:
Wide open... break his nose. Smash his snarling mouth. Shut him up... Pay him back.
It's what he'd do to me.
But I'm not him.
- Early in The Vow, even though Lady Lianne starts off on the wrong foot with Lord Shen, she refuses to poke fun of his pale coloring because she doesn't want to be like the people who mock the black plumage of her black swan mother. In fact, judging people for their congenital traits is a Berserk Button to her.
- Exaggerated in ParaNorman. While this trope is, for obvious reasons, normally less serious than its life or death counterpart, adding in the element of forced undeath makes Agatha capable of psychologically tormenting her murderers to the extent that Norman's declaration that she is just like them doesn't ring hollow (particularly given that she has already killed them).
- In the movie The Believer, the skinhead main character and his skinhead friends walk into a kosher deli and start loudly demanding ham and cheese sandwiches. They successfully provoke the owner of the deli into attacking them (after they refuse to leave), and the judge who sentences them finds both sides equally at fault.
- A particularly cruel variation in The Patriot: The villain kills the hero's civilian son in front of him early in the film and later tries to bait the hero into breaking a truce by bringing it up.
- In the film Starship Troopers, a fleet officer taunts the main character, Johnny Rico, trying to get him to fight back. When Johnny tells him that he would have to be insane to hit an officer, the man tells him to 'disregard rank'. This ends in an all-out brawl. This is an aversion because the room was full of people, including officers who outranked them both, who heard the guy loudly announce "We are disregarding rank" right before Rico beat the shit out of him.
- In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, one villain made the mistake of facing Carrot, who is indeed a much better man than he is. So he just kills the villain. Vimes explicitly thinks that a bad man will gloat, but a good man will not, and so will just kill you without any fanfare if he has come to the conclusion he has to do the deed.
- Vimes would later go on to use his lack of taunting a victim to prove to himself that he's a good man - after (necessarily) killing an utterly loathsome villain in The Fifth Elephant, he notes in an internal monologue all the Bond One-Liner comments he could make. He makes none of them, because if he did "then he'd know that what he had just done was murder."
- Draco Malfoy and the other Slytherin kids constantly get Harry Potter and the other Gryffindors into trouble by provoking them, helped along by Professor Snape's double standard. They have a knack for timing it just right so that Snape only sees the retaliation, or so Snape claims. Hermione is usually the one who holds Harry and Ron back. Except that time when she's the one to punch Draco, and no teachers around to punish her.
- This is a common trope in the Star Trek series- many alien races will needle Federation ships about their morals and values in an effort to see the Federation betray them by acting in a way that's the least bit undiplomatic. Apparently the Federation has to respect everybody else's morals, values, and cultural practices, but nobody else is ever expected to honor the Federation's back.
- Subverted in the Buffy episode, "Fear Itself". Giles tells Xander to stop mocking the (pint-sized) demon.
Xander: Why, can he hurt me?
Giles: No, it's just...tacky.
- Done on Taxi - a snobby hairdresser (Ted Danson!) deliberately gives Elaine a frightful haircut. She vows revenge, going back with her friends, and is just about to dump a bowl of some viscous goo on him, when Alex tells her "You do that and you're no better than him!". She agrees and they start to leave. Louie excuses himself, turns back, and dumps the stuff on him, saying "She may be better than you, but I ain't!"
- Played with in Firefly. After winning a duel against someone who insulted Inara, Mal muses that a good man wouldn't kick an enemy while they're down. Then he kicks him anyway, concluding that he is okay with just being an "alright" sort of man.
- Happens far too goddamn often in pro wrestling. What makes it worse is that if the face attempts to choose option two (taking the high road) he will get booed by the fans in attendance for being a wuss. Failure Is the Only Option, it seems.
- In Knights of the Old Republic, the Sith on the planet Manaan relentlessly taunt and provoke Republic soldiers (including the player character). Anyone who responds in kind ends up being jailed. The only way to get around them is to ignore them. (Except in one case where you can actually threaten the Sith; when she calls over a nearby Selkath official, you can Force Persuade the official to believe she was the one responsible.)
- In one Allied mission in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, the Soviet commando is constantly taunting your own unit about how superior she is. Pleasingly, if you do well enough in the mission your own commando bites back with some serious verbal smackdown.
- In Final Fantasy XIV, Asahi taunts the Warrior of Light after the battle with Tsukuyomi, rubbing in the fact that not only has he ensured that peace between Garlemald and Doma has been permanently broken but that if they kill him, it will cause a further diplomatic incident anyway. This is all after he stages a Frame-Up to make Doma look guilty for causing a Summoning, so at this point, it's basically just Evil Gloating. The Warrior of Light looks like they're about to gore Asahi on the spot. Thankfully, Yotsuyu does the deed instead, preventing the Warrior of Light from needing to make a decision.
- Carrie refuses to rise to Zinger's taunting in this Everyday Heroes episode.
- The Order of the Stick: "A Reason to Keep Trying." Roy refuses to stoop so low as to respond to his father's taunts.
- The Nostalgia Critic and The Angry Video Game Nerd had a hell of a lot of fun with this one. First, the AVGN plays it straight by "taking the high road" and complimenting the Critic. Then it's subverted when the Critic suspects that he's being passive-aggressive, leaving a hidden insult in his response. It's then subverted again when the Critic's Da Vince Code-esque attempts to "translate" the post leaves him with nothing but jibberish. Heh, looks like the AVGN really was taking the higher road when he...Wait a tic, doesn't it kinda look like "LICK MY SHIT NOSTALGIA CRITIC" backwa-GOD DAMMIT, NERD! This was made even better when the Nerd admitted to planting that message.
- The red-headed Jerk Jock in Batman Beyond spits on Terry during a wrestling match to provoke him into throwing a punch, getting him in trouble.
- Justice League: In his own words, Lex Luthor "Spent 75 million dollars on a fake presidential campaign, just to piss Superman off."
- In the She-Ra and the Princesses of Power episode "The Ties That Bind". Catra is held captive by Glimmer and Bow, who she previously held captive and tortured. She constantly reminds them of this fact and taunts them about doing the same to the captive Entrapra, (failing to mention that Entrapta isn't a captive. Bow constantly invokes this trope, reminding Glimmer they have to take the high road since they're the good guys. Subverted since Catra eventually breaks Glimmer's self-restraint due to her Evil Gloating over Entraptra's Face–Heel Turn.
- Invoked, as most victims of social bullying can attest that this is something the teachers and parents keep telling them to keep them from retaliating.
- Harry Styles was advised by his bandmates not to respond to Taylor Swift's unflattering parody of him.
- A number of famous sayings describe this phenomenon.
- Besides the quote at the top of the page, other analogies involve wrestling with pigs and chimney sweeps.
- There's also many variants of "Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference" — often misattributed to Mark Twain. Another version attributed to Twain goes: "Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience."