There Are No Better People
One of the themes emerging from the recent civil unrest is this: you can’t say police corruption is a case of a few bad apples, because it’s obvious that the police force is rife with bad apples and even rife-r with apples that would defend, even protect the bad apples.
I tend to agree with the sentiment. It’s undeniable that there are some Actual Bad Guys who put on a uniform and walk amongst us every day, and many more who would do anything in their power to keep those deeply flawed guys and gals on the streets.*
The solution many people have to this dilemma is simply to make sure only good people get hired as police officers. It seems so easy. If some policemen are bad, let’s just hire exclusively good guys as cops instead. I mean, DUH, right? You can apply this logic to social workers, medical professionals, college professors, legislators, judges, teachers, truck drivers, journalists, Hollywood celebrities, tech workers, city planners, bureaucrats, fast food workers, the people at the DMV…hmm. Now that I come to think about it, there sure are a lot of fields overflowing with bad apples, aren’t there?
The existence of bad apples in just about every walk of life leads me to conclude that bad apples are legion – well nigh universal. After all, humans are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the best of them have a nasty Puritanical streak. Believe it or not, these ubiquitous traits don’t make us inherently bad people. They simply make us human people. There is no getting around the downsides of humanity since these character traits are baked into our DNA.
You cannot find a human being who doesn’t have those tendencies lurking within them. I have them in me. You have them in you. Mother Teresa and George Washington and Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King Jr. had them too. All human beings have these character flaws, probably because at some point in history when we were a pack of lemurs living in a tree they helped us survive in some way, or maybe they just didn’t manage to kill us all before some of us reproduced. It is not possible to educate them into nonexistence or pray them away or put warnings into the corporate handbook because these traits are innate. All we can do is mitigate them.
Because people suck, the history of humanity has been a series of terrible things happening to some people, being done by others, and these terrible things stretch across racial and philosophical lines. Google a group – any group, defined by any metric you would like – and you’ll find something terrible that people under that collective umbrella did to someone at some point in time. Yet despite being surrounded by a veritable army of scumbag psychos, a shocking number of us alive today have a higher quality of life than the richest people had only a century ago. Despite being surrounded by pathological sociopaths and gross inequality (which, hate to tell you, but we always were) many of us are pretty safe, pretty happy, and doing pretty ok for the most part, at least when compared to our historical predecessors.
How can it be that when we’re surrounded by so many bad apples, at the very same time our average quality of life is so high that people like me feel free to bitch about the smallest of inconveniences like the wording of a tweet or if the supermarket is out of particular brands of spaghetti? Shouldn’t we all be oppressed and miserable instead of fat and relatively happy, at least with the help of antidepressants, with all these Actual Bad Guys surrounding us?
According to many, no we should not. Some would say we can’t rest until the bad people are rooted out of every crevice and cranny where they nest, where other bad people cover up for them and still others continue to look the other way. Maybe even YOU looked the other way, these people would say to me, or benefited from others who averted their eyes back in olden times, and thus you need to either repent or you will be forced to repent. Because these folks would say that bad people have to be removed from society, forcibly if necessary, and then and only then can we have the world that we deserve, a world without any bad guys in it at all.
To that I would say, here’s a teaspoon, please go stop the tide.
Civilizing humanity is a lot like building a sand castle. People trying to create civilization out of the irredeemably deplorable detritus that is humanity are trying to build something precarious and fragile that is inclined to fall apart all on its own; worse still, this precarious and fragile and falling-apart thing is always under assault, whether it’s from the tide coming in or from drying out or the force of gravity or a guy running through on his way to catch a Frisbee or someone who comes along and gives it a kick just out of sheer meanness.
It takes constant vigilance to keep the sand castle of civilization erect, constant repairing of the walls and rewetting the sand and keeping a wary eye for errant feet and recalcitrant grains of sand. Even if you do it all perfectly there’s every chance the tide will still come in and wash it all away. Even if you do it all perfectly you gotta sleep sometime and you have to trust someone else to keep it going when you can’t be there. Ignoring the maintenance of your castle – like for instance you got distracted by something else for a while and didn’t keep the sand wet enough, or the person you trusted while you were catching some z’s wandered off to get a hot dog, or someone deciding your castle sucks and they want to build a better one in the same spot so yours has to be torn down – will soon mean there’s nothing left, it’s all fallen apart.
You could be the most noble sand castle builder with the purest heart and best of intentions but that doesn’t matter if forces of entropy and/or deliberate malice collude to destroy your castle. Your nobility and pure heart is meaningless if you built your castle on a weak foundation of shifting, collapsing sand. Conversely, you could be a pretty rotten person who builds and maintains a wonderful castle – a civilization that is a pretty decent place to live for many generations – for awful reasons. A person’s moral purity or lack thereof does not predict the outcome of what they’ve built, and a good thing too since humans are invariably selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the best of them have a nasty Puritanical streak.
You may find that a shocking statement. You may think that bad people must make bad civilizations but that simply can’t be true because all humans are humans are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the best of them have a nasty Puritanical streak. Yet it is inarguable that some of our civilizations and subcultures within civilizations have been better than others, even when they were governed by absolutely monstrous people who should have their statues torn down. As much as you personally may hate America, as true as it is that America all too often has not lived up to her noble ideals, and regardless of the absolute a-holes who have risen to positions of leadership within her borders both geographic and historical, living in America 2020 is better than living under communism or under a king or a banana republic dictator or in the lawless anarchy of the Old West or even in the respectable parts of America in 1820 or 1920.
Somehow bad people made a good thing even though other bad people made bad things and we should all of us fight tooth and nail not with each other, but to maintain what we have here, even though the good thing isn’t as perfect as some of us think it should be in our imaginations.
A buzzword we’ve been hearing a lot is “systemic”, meaning that there are systemic problems that cause human suffering and inequality. I completely agree with this. I believe well-designed, well-implemented, and well-maintained systems can help to keep people’s darker impulses in check, and poorly designed, implemented, and maintained systems exacerbate them. Bad systems that rely on human beings to be holy angels or impartial robots fail time after time because bad systems enable and even encourage bad behavior. You can’t just put good people into a bad system if it’s the system itself coupled with human nature that is encouraging good people to behave badly. Any solution that calls for “first, we need to get rid of the bad people” is doomed from the outset. Any solution that calls for “first, we need to get rid of the bad people” is starting off with a witch hunt and things rarely improve with that origin story.
Even a good person put into a bad situation without the support, guidance, and limitation of some sort of system, forced to handle circumstances that are too much for them to bear, will revert to being selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and Puritanical. We have seen it happen again and again. We’ve seen it happen in the schools, we’ve seen it in our workplaces, we’ve seen it in the halls of government and in police on the streets and in soldiers in Vietnam. Because beyond our obvious human moral failings we all share, people get tired. They get distracted. They get embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated. They get scared. They get angry. Hungry. Sick. Cold. Hurt. Old and senile. They lash out when they’re attacked and many times they go too far. I love my children more than anything on this Earth and I have yelled at them over nothing, punished them unfairly, treated them unjustly when I was tired and had low blood sugar and was ticked off about a fight I had online. How, if a good mother can lash out at her own beloved children when she’s in a pissy mood, can we can expect human beings in life-threatening situations to never get things wrong when in direct confrontation with someone who they don’t care about at all, have reasons to distrust, who may even be trying to kill them?
We can’t. It’s a ludicrous expectation to expect perfection from law enforcement any more than we should expect that doctors won’t ever accidentally make mistakes, even kill people. (Doctors actually kill far, far more people than police officers do, oftentimes due in no small part to racism, classism, ageism, and sexism, not to mention gross negligence or outright malice.) All those who aspire to be empathetic should take a moment and attempt to understand what it must be like to be a police officer, to go out every day knowing you may be killed, but willing to do that because you believe in what you’re doing, only to be met with no appreciation and even outright hatred. Imagine having this experience within a system that simultaneously fails to give the necessary support while simultaneously not holding cops accountable for bad behavior, even covering it up on their behalf. All those who aspire to be empathetic should take a moment to marvel at how, despite all the mixed messages and impossible expectations, police officers so often maintain a level of self-control that most of us sorely lack in the face of great temptation, knowing that if they don’t make their case a bad guy may walk free.
Law enforcement officers SHOULD aim at perfection, obviously they should. But it is understandable that sometimes they fall short, just as it is sometimes understandable that a person – even an otherwise good person – might run from the police when frightened, or that a person – even an otherwise good person – who had lived a life of chronic deprivation might turn to a life of crime.
It is equally understandable that ones’ brothers-in-arms would sometimes try to cover it up when one of us succumbs to a raging case of humanity. For all the human vices we suffer from, at times we suffer just as much from our virtues, and loyalty is a virtue that can be a corrupting force. Hollywood protected its own. The education system protects its own. The military protects its own. Politicians protect their own. Medical professionals protect their own. The Catholic church protected and still somehow, shockingly, protects their own. The far left absolutely protects its own, mitigating and minimizing and justifying bad behavior, even violence, done by those under their umbrella. Pretty much the only time any larger organization or movement criticizes their own members even for gross and egregious antisocial behavior is when it’s cool to do so or when the eye of the public is upon them.
The thin blue line is not the mark of the beast, it’s the sign of flawed and fallible, yet still loyal human beings put into very difficult situations in a badly-designed system.
The chilling and monstrous thing about Derek Chauvin was how calm and methodical he was. This was not a man out of control, afraid, upset, lashing out and going too far in the heat of the moment. Derek Chauvin took nearly 9 minutes to kill George Floyd, and he did so with deliberation and dispassionate malice. That is why Derek Chauvin deserves to stand before a jury of his peers and face a charge of murder. But the incomprehensible existence of a Derek Chauvin doesn’t mean that we can’t still empathize with the flawed and fallible police officer who was legitimately afraid for his life and made a mistake in an impossible situation. The existence of Derek Chauvin doesn’t mean that we now demand the police force be comprised solely of Actually Good People because there are no Actually Good People. We are all of us flawed, fallible, and corruptible, and empathy demands we acknowledge those common human failings.
But this isn’t an essay about empathy, it’s an essay about systems.
Because people are flawed and make mistakes, when we ask them to do very hard jobs such as practicing medicine or enforcing the law or teaching a classroom of children, or being a Congressman, or social work, or driving a truck full of radioactive waste, or any number of jobs where public safety comes into play, we need to give them two things – support and accountability. Training is great but the best training in the world will erode in a lousy and unfair system, and of course training is implemented and received by people, with all their flaws. A healthy workplace culture would be great, but I find that attempts to impose cultures onto groups from above is invariably tainted by selfishness, tribalism, xenophobia, superiority, mean-spiritedness, and Puritanism. All we can ask of a well-designed system is that it provides support for its people while at the same time holding them accountable to a standard of behavior, that it takes into consideration both humanity’s many vices, and also our many virtues, like loyalty, which themselves may be corrupting influences.
The thing that’s remarkable about the sand castle that is the American Constitution (and the state constitutions that mimic it) is this – it does those things. It provides we, the people, support in the form of protecting our rights, providing courts so we can seek redress from an impartial authority against those who have harmed us, and setting limits on the abuse of force. Has the Constitution done this perfectly, no, of course not, because human beings are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the best of them have a nasty Puritanical streak, and human beings are the ones implementing the system. But it’s a pretty freaking good system nonetheless, because it doesn’t pretend that humans are angels or robots. It’s a sound system because it takes into account the natural inclinations of humans towards immorality and tries to govern them through slow deliberation and accountability via checks and balances rather than hot heads and unilateral action.
Somewhere along the way a movement of power-hungry extremists convinced some of us that the folks trying to keep the castle from crumbling and doing it differently than they would have are the problem, and that the solution is to destroy everything and start anew. They would say that because the system was made by bad men, it is inherently bad, and must be torn down and rebuilt by good people. But there are no good people. The solution to America’s problems lies in all of us admitting that we are deeply flawed, self-obsessed jerks who would happily use the power of the law and of the government to accomplish our desires, even our whims, and then in light of that, building and designing more systems like the Constitution. Systems that take into account the nature of humanity in all our selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and Puritanical glory, using those very tendencies to hold each other accountable.
We don’t need better cops. We need better systems, the kinds with the checks and balances, the limitations and accountability baked in like the chocolate chips in a Toll House cookie. Because there are no better people. There are just different people. Different people in a bad system will invariably become bad people, it’s simply that their loyalties will lie with a different group of people. As will their prejudices.
Far too many people have a Hollywood understanding of the world. They believe in good guys and bad guys, and they believe that Batman and Superman exist – that there are people out there who can be trusted to wield phenomenal cosmic power wisely and justly on a case by case basis. But superheroes aren’t real. All we have is people, and trading one group for another is not and never will be a cure for systemic flaws…because people, to a one, are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean- spirited, and even the best of them have a nasty Puritanical streak.
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*Of course, this is why libertarians like me have been calling for criminal justice reform, public accountability, and checks and balances all this time even as both Democrats and Republicans alike worked hard to erode and corrupt the system to suit their agenda, but that’s neither here nor there.