29 Jul There Are No Good People
When I was younger, I remember my mom telling me that the world was not nearly as black and white as I thought it was. I hate to admit it, but she was right. Maybe that’s what it means to grow up–to see the spectrum of colors lingering between the extremes.
You Are Not A Good Person
I hate the term “good person” because there are no good people. There are only people. You may be thinking, “No…surely there are good people. What about my aunt who goes to Church every Sunday, works at food kitchens, and knits blankets for the homeless every weekend? Surely, she is a good person.” No. Yes, your aunt does good things, but she is not a good person. This distinction, which may seem superfluous to many, matters because one is a judgement on an entire person–despite not knowing the complexity of the different factors that lead them to who they are–and the other is a judgement of a single action in a single moment of time.
Growing up, I thought a certain subset of the population was just good. They were like Superman–infinitely kind, always helpful, and never did any harm. I wanted to be one of those people, but the reality is that none of us are those people. Being good isn’t a characteristic that people are born with. It’s a value that we have to consciously choose to strive for each day, and in the process, we’re bound to mess up because we’re human,
As I’ve gotten older, I realized that every single person is capable of doing awful things. This has been documented through several different psychological experiments. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed how easily people can change to fit the authoritative rolls they are supposed to. The Milgram experiment showed how willingly people can do horrible things because authority figures told them to. Jane Elliot’s Blue/Brown Eyes experiment showed how perceived inferiority and superiority can affect the way groups of people treat each other. This notion that certain people can be pure beacons of light in an otherwise dark world–like Jesus or Superman–is just false. Darkness exists in all of us.
We are not our favorite heroes from history or fiction. If I were a white southern farm owner in the 1700s, I would almost certainly be pro-slavery, and if I were an Aryan during World War 2, I would probably stand by and witness the slaughter of millions. That doesn’t say anything about me as a person, but it does say how important our surroundings are in shaping how we view the world. Morals aren’t embedded into people as they are born. They’re created through personal experiences and societal influences. No one is born racist, but also, no one is born anti-racist. This can be seen in modern day politics (we’re substituting politics for morality because people’s political views tend to reflect their moral beliefs). For example, if you’re black, live in a big city, have a post-grad degree, or a woman, there’s a high chance you’re a Democrat, and on the flipside, if you’re Mormon or a white Catholic, there is a high chance that you’re a Republican. While this does not prove causation ( i.e. being Black doesn’t automatically make you a Democrat), the correlations suggest that people who share certain characteristics or demographics have similar life experiences that shape their moral/political views in distinct and significant ways.
Our morality and character are heavily influenced by factors outside of our control (skin color, religion of parents, location of birth). When I look back into the past at these groups of people who committed horrible atrocities, I don’t necessarily see the people themselves as awful people. They’re products of a time that pushed horrible and inhumane agendas. Similarly, we are products of a society that has begun to value social equality more, so the more recent generations have been more socially aware and accepting than past ones. This isn’t due to us choosing to be morally superior to older generations or current groups in society who are less accepting. We, like the villains and heroes of history, are products of the time and place we were born into.
Creating A Divided Society
Another reason I hate the term “good people” is because if good people exist, then bad people must also exist. It automatically others an entire group of people in society and creates an unnecessary divide. For example, when people say, “I don’t want to be friends with Republicans” or “If you support Trump please unfollow me,” On an individual level, it makes sense to only want to befriend people that have similar values as you, but on a societal level, it’s cutting off communication between an entire portion of society that will continue to exist and influence the country, whether or not we talk to them.
While I understand the potential dangers of dividing a society along good and bad, I also completely understand the appeal of it. It will always be easier to call someone racist or a misogynist than to understand where they’re coming from and the emotional underpinnings of their actions. It simplifies an otherwise complex and incredibly gray world. No one has the time to try and understand the nuance of each person they encounter, especially when that person appears to be a bigot. In addition, if we know there are bad people out there in the world, it helps every other person feel better about themselves. At least I’m not a bully, or a cheater, or a thief, or a drug dealer. The divide gives us a sense of moral superiority and righteousness, and that feeds the ego like nothing else. We want to feel like we’re on the right side of history–on the right team. What about the other side? Who cares what happens to them because they’re just bad people.
These people, whether they be bigots, thieves, or bullies, can do and say horrible things, but I think it’s still important to seek to understand them. This feels important to add here: I AM NOT SAYING PEOPLE WHO DO BAD THINGS SHOULD NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS. Understanding does not mean that we should tolerate intolerance or accept completely irrational beliefs. To understand is to listen without making judgements and seek the place they’re coming from, underneath all of the bigotry or harmful actions. People who harm others do it because they’re hurting, like the old saying that the bullied become the bullies. Hate and bigotry are symptoms of underlying emotional pain–fear, anxiety, insecurity. If we can seek out the root causes of the hate, we can dissolve the symptoms along with the real cause. While understanding the emotional hurt underneath people’s actions does not excuse them from responsibility, it helps humanize a person and serves as a reminder that they were not born to do bad things. This compassion and empathy helps blur the divide that runs through society. Except for the truly rare sadists and psychopaths, most people are decent human begins who want the world to thrive and succeed.
The Blindside of Good People
The ramifications of seeing the world as “good” and “bad” extend past how we view others. It affects the very individuals that see themselves as good. In my experience, it is always the people that are the most assured of their moral righteousness that do the most harm–whether it’s being the “I can’t be racist I have a black friend” or the “Me and all of my friends aren’t like the other guys. We’re the good guys”. These people are so assured of their moral standing that they fail to see or even acknowledge the small actions they do that could perpetuate unequal systems or stereotypes. When people see themselves as good people, they become attached to their point of view of the world because everything is ordered and makes sense, so they don’t bother trying to analyze their perspective from the outside. Good People are the proverbial “nice guy”. They’re convinced that they’re a bright star and the darkness of the world has nothing to do with them, when in reality they often engage in toxic behaviors. Throughout history, it’s always the people that are the most sure of their goodness that cause the most damage: Hitler, Robespierre, Stalin. All of these people thought they were the hero of their own story and never stopped to realize that they had become the villain. It’s the people who constantly second guess their actions and wonder what the right thing to do is that look at problems from different angles and gain a more nuanced understanding of situations.
Moreover, once being good becomes a part of someone’s identity, they take any criticism about any of their actions as a personal attack rather than a learning opportunity. For example, there’s an important difference between saying something with racist implications and being a racist, but when your actions are so closely identified with your identity, this line becomes blurred. If someone is told that something they did is racist, they will instantly get defensive. They will think, “I’m not a racist. There’s no way I would say something racist.” Then, the conversation divulges into them defending whether or not they are racist, instead of looking at the specific thing they said. No one responds well to being called a racist, bigot, or misogynist, and that’s not just a Republican or Democrat thing–it’s a human thing. Those labels elicit an instant defensive reaction because they strike at the very core of a person’s identity.
A while ago I had a discussion with a friend, and I said something pretty ignorant about women. My friend called me out on it, and instantly, I could feel something bubbling up in my chest. My face got warm, and I lost track of what we were talking about because I was determined to convince her that I wasn’t being misogynistic or sexist. It was only after I was able to step away and cool down and look at what they said from an outside perspective that I recognized the implicit biases behind the ignorant things that I had said. My friend was extremely helpful by not only calling out what I had said, but also trying to make sure it didn’t seem like she was placing judgement on me. This isn’t a problem that can only be solved by one side of the divide. It requires someone who can take a step back from their point of view and look at their actions from a new lens, but it also requires someone who can bring up criticisms without making those criticisms seem like personal condemnations. Flinging labels like “snowflake” or “racist” or “misogynist” will always be easier and feel better, but it rarely get people to really reflect on their actions.
Living In A Gray World
I’ve messed up plenty of times in my life: I’ve said extremely ignorant things, I’ve been a less than stellar son, and I’ve picked on peers to feel better about myself. Out of all the shitty things I’ve done in my life, shame has never been the driving force for me to improve. More often than not, the shame crawls under my skin and finds roots deep within me, and the actual argument or action becomes lost in the overwhelming feeling that I am wrong. I can’t remember any of the arguments that I ever had with my mother (except the one when I was like five and told her to go get her own bag because she had two hands–and I rightfully got whooped) but I do remember the shame that I felt when she would constantly tell me “You have such a bad attitude” like there was something fundamentally wrong about me. The shame still rears its ugly head to this day whenever someone disapproves of anything I do–I feel like deep down I am wrong.
“[Shame is an] intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” -Brené Brown
Shaming is what we do when we label entire persons as one thing. You are a cheater. You are a racist. You are a criminal. You are a bad person. These labels combine a person’s actions with their fundamental personhood. IT IS IMPORTANT PEOPLE ARE HELD ACCOUNTABLE AND RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS; however, we don’t need to fuse their mistakes with their identity.
The moments where I’ve grown and changed the most are when I’ve been told, “You really messed up here, but I know you can do better next time.” I have grown because of the kindness, patience, and compassion of others, and that’s what I want for everyone. It starts with individuals recognizing that they are not wholly good or bad–they’re just human, and that’s okay. We don’t need to see ourselves or others as perfect beings in order to receive love and compassion. Once we recognize the flaws in ourselves, it becomes easier to understand the flaws in others. There will certainly come a day when people you know and love will mess up in ways you could not imagine, and when they do, I hope they can be met with empathy and compassion, while still being held responsible for their actions.
“I don’t know a perfect person. I only know flawed people who are still worth loving.” – John Green
Instead of attaching our goodness or badness to our actions, try attaching yourself to the effort that you give into upholding your values. “I try my hardest to be kind, compassionate, and platinum in League of Legends, and that’s enough.” Baked into the idea of trying is the understanding that you won’t always be able to live up to those standards, and that’s okay–because you’re human. Be proud of the fact that you try to be caring and genuine because that’s all you can control.
I used to be so sure that I was a good person, but now, I try to see myself as someone who tries their hardest to live up to their values but is also flawed in the ways that all humans are. That doesn’t necessarily make me a better person, but it does make me a more whole person.