People are complicated

One of the things that I like to think represents an intellectually mature mind is seeing the nuance in situations and the human condition.  Seeing the world in black and white, is such the hallmark of the adolescent mind (and the Sith!).  And one of the key ways that manifests is wanting to label people “good” or “evil.”  No, there are some truly uniquely good and uniquely evil people out there, but most people are quite capable of considerable extremes of both.  Yes, you reading this are sure you are good person, but are you quite sure you would not have helped the Nazi’s effort against the Jews if you were living in a small German village in 1942 and the SS came to town?  Sometimes good people do bad things and sometimes bad people do good things and it’s not always clear what’s what, or if that’s even meaningful.  But absent a larger context and understanding to simply take any criminal, label them a “thug” and essentially write them off, shows a very facile way of thinking.  Bill Ayers on the matter:

The second item that sparked my thinking was from one of the many ideological talking heads “contributing” to the ongoing “debate” about police violence and the protests in NYC, Ferguson, and elsewhere. In this case, an avowedly conservative show (The O’Reilly Factor) trotted out an avowedly conservative commentator (Ben Carson, who happens to be black) to defend the police against attacks (both physical and verbal). You can see a synopsis and a link to the interview here. But what really caught my eye was this particular snippet by Carson, which the Fox News site picked up in the summary and the headline:

“The community has to recognize that a thug is a thug. When people do bad things, there are consequences,” Carson said.

This struck me because of something I’ve been wrestling with lately: a framework in which, rather than “picking a side” and dehumanizing the people on the other side, we can engage in conversations with people we disagree with, about serious and even tragic subjects, while continuing to recognize the humanity of each other. The phrase that keeps coming to mind: each of us is a Child of God…

Carson’s glib bumper-sticker statement, of course, runs in completely the opposite direction. He wants to put white hats and black hats on everybody so that he can defend the virtuous and punish the wicked. I guess it must be comforting to play God like that. But I think it’s the wrong approach.

And, I just love this conclusion– I read it and thought, “that’s going right into my blog”

To be clear: there are people in the world who, despite their humanity and inherent value, will try to hurt others unjustly. Some of these people are civilians, and if they’re lower class we call them “thugs”. Some of them are wealthy and wear suits and they usually get treated pretty well, even when the damage they cause is far more widespread than any thug could dream of. And some of them carry badges and wear uniforms and are called police officers. None of this should be surprising – if you change clothes and circumstance, some people will still do bad things to other people.  [emphasis mine]

But if we actually want to things to get better – if we want to work towards a society where fewer police are killed in the line of duty, and where fewer civilians are shot by police, and where fewer people are terrorized and assaulted by either strangers or those close to them – we need to stop pretending that we can draw neat boxes around people and label some of those boxes “good people” and others “bad people”. We need to treat violence and the use of force seriously – not as some Hollywood fantasy exercise and not as something that can be contained to only a few. We need to acknowledge everybody’s legitimate need to live in peace, and think about what we do when that is violated – by anybody. And above all, we need to listen to the collected wisdom of many centuries: treat others, and view others, as we ourselves would be treated and viewed.

Wonderfully said– nothing for me to add.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to People are complicated

  1. John F. says:

    Right on!

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