There Are No Bad People
In my last piece, There Are No Better People, I wrote about how people are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even the best of them have a nasty Puritanical streak. These qualities are not bugs, they’re features – by which I mean they’re innate, baked into people like chocolate chips in a cookie. These qualities have been with us for a very long time and they will be with us for a very long time to come, probably because the doodyheads who had these qualities lived longer than the saints who didn’t and so we’re all descended from them.
It’s kind of a pessimistic take, I admit. The good news is, it’s only half the story.
Despite our many flaws, which of course stretch far beyond those I’ve listed above, people are also generous, open-minded, egalitarian, reasonable, kind-hearted, and even the worst of them are capable of changing – both their minds when presented with new evidence, and their behavior when presented with opportunities to do so. As they say, when you know better, you do better, and people DO do better when they can.
Some folks say “people never change” but that hasn’t been my experience, not at all. If people couldn’t change, we would still be living in tribes and killing each other at a shocking rate. Scientists estimate that our ancestors killed each other at a rate of about 20 per 1000, rising as high as 120 per thousand in times of crisis and upheaval, and this has dropped to a better, albeit still not great rate of 13 per thousand worldwide1. If people weren’t capable of change, our lives would still be nasty, brutish, and short. If people couldn’t change, we’d still be smacking our kids around and dying of filth-borne diseases. Women wouldn’t be allowed to talk in public without men’s permission, let alone vote. I wouldn’t bother writing thinkpieces at all because there would be no one I could ever convince.
One time I got these things called Reese’s Chips which are like chocolate chips only peanut butter flavor, kinda, if you use your imagination. They were pretty tasty, so rather than making normal chocolate chip cookies, I made a humongous batch of cookies with both Reese’s Chips and regular chocolate chips in them. The result of this experiment was that instead of a regular chocolate chip cookie, I got a cookie that was half peanut butter and half chocolate chip. They were great, but let’s pretend that instead of being totally delish, they were terrible. Let’s pretend that the chocolate chips I put into my cookies alongside my tasty Reese’s Chips were rancid, tasting of selfishness, tribalism, xenophobia, superiority, mean-spiritedness, and Puritanical tendencies. As good as the Reese’s chips were, with every bite of the yum you got a big ol’ mouthful of one of the lucky chocolate ones. This was unavoidable because the badness was baked right into the cookie alongside the good stuff.
That’s people for you. These hot, crusty blobs where there’s some stuff that tastes pretty darn good in them and then some stuff that’s absolutely disgusting but unless you’re a hermit on a mountaintop (and even then you have to live with yourself) you gotta eat the cookie anyway.
But people are not cookies. Unlike cookies, people have the ability to grow and change and become not perfect, but better than we were yesterday. I believe this with every fiber of my being because I KNOW I am a better person today than I was yesterday, last week, a year or two ago, or when I was 21. This process was not a straight line; I have had dark times in my life where I backslid and acted like a selfish a-hole and hurt people I care about. I have had moments of weakness where I was cruel to vulnerable people to get a laugh out of somebody powerful or as a preemptive strike to keep them from being cruel to me. I have had moments of cowardice when I should have spoken up or intervened and I bit my tongue and stayed silent. I am not happy I did these things, but I accept them as part of me. I accept that, because I understand that just like everyone else, I am a deeply flawed person who at times through twists of fate, incorrect decisions on my part not done from malice but because I couldn’t predict the future, or the actions/inactions of others, has been put into positions and circumstances that catered to my worst inclinations rather than encouraging me to be the best person I could be – generous, open-minded, egalitarian, reasonable, kind-hearted, and capable of change.
When you know better, you do better, unless circumstances arise in which doing worse-er makes more sense to those rancid chocolate chips that lurk inside of us all.
Recent events have gotten me thinking about that capacity of humans to change for the better. I grew up in the 70’s and bigots – straight up, overt bigots – absolutely existed then. You could see them fictionalized on TV in the form of Archie Bunker or in real life on The Phil Donahue Show. (Before the trashy talk shows took over, Phil Donahue and his ilk were a precursor to social media where people were given a platform to air problematic opinions and then everyone in the audience got to yell at them for it.) Interestingly, as much as the audience yelled, bigots were never presented as lost causes. They were always depicted as sad, scared people whose belief system was dying, dinosaurs who just hadn’t gotten the memo their time had passed, and by holding them up for scrutiny, even giving them a little sympathy, we could perhaps encourage other bigots and bigot-adjacent people to look at the tainted cookie of their own beliefs and hopefully realize that they could, in fact, change.
Bigotry was not a life sentence, it was a decision people made, and so it was possible to choose something different. You could choose to be generous, open-minded, egalitarian, reasonable, kind-hearted. You could choose to change. Seeing a bigot put into situations where they were forced to question their beliefs was kinda like an inoculation – by having humanity’s ugliest beliefs put on display, it made you examine your own and see if there was room for improvement. By seeing the worst in another person it helped you resolve to be a better person yourself.
All that was sort of the point of Archie Bunker.
The thing that’s interesting to me in retrospect about Archie Bunker is that he was the protagonist even though everyone hated him. While we’re accustomed to antiheroes, nowadays they’re portrayed as cool dudes, rebels, seen as good guys in the eyes of a lot of people. Admirable, even. People love Vic Mackey and American Psycho Patrick Bateman and Scarface. Want to be like them. Walter White pretty much has a cult following.2 Nobody ever admired Archie Bunker. We laughed at Archie because he was so pitiful, so sad, so scared. Archie Bunker was the butt of the joke.
Over the course of time, Archie…and by extension, we, the viewers…had some life experiences that chipped away at his bigotry. His assumptions were challenged, and he learned. Archie Bunker grew and changed and improved over time. Had Archie been isolated and despised he would never have had those experiences, and indeed, had many other, different experiences that very well might have served to make him an Actual Bad Guy. Archie would have been left alone in his darkness, in his bitterness, and he never would have become a better person. Isolating the weak-minded alone with their worst selves, alone with their hates and fears and darkest desires, never allowing them to encounter anything that pushes back on their assumptions about how the world really works, is no cure for bigotry. Not for bigots, nor for the rest of us, who have those same qualities laying dormant within us since ALL humans have those same qualities laying dormant within us.
While Archie Bunker is obviously a fictional character, I think his transformation took place for reals in many hearts and minds over the course of the past hundred years. If you stop to consider the environment people were born into in the early days of the 20th century, compared to where we are now, it’s undeniable that people are capable of rising above ugly beliefs they were taught as children to create a better society, and in fact a whole lot of people who built the world we live in today did precisely that. Even if some of those people are or were not quite to the level of woke that we might desire by the standards of 2020 (and honestly, few are, even those who were born after 1980), the amount of change that they’ve done from where they started to where they are today. Archie Bunker, they ain’t.
So what are you going to do with these people unlucky enough to be born in a different time or raised under a grotesque belief system? Shame them? Shun them? Scream into their faces? Destroy their entire lives and get them fired from their job? Beat them up for wearing a red hat? Threaten their lives and the lives of their families?
At some point, the anti-bigots started to remind me a whole lot of what the bigots used to look like. And I don’t see how that does anything but make Archie Bunker circle the wagons, double down on his hatred, and never, ever change.
Open dialogue used to be seen as the cure for bigotry. Not solitary confinement. Reaching out, not pushing away. And honestly, I think it worked pretty darn well. Inarguably, and wonderfully, there’s far, far less overt racism than there was when I grew up. Despite how ingrained it was at the turn of the 20th century, by the turn of the 21st we had bigotry on the ropes. Perfectly? No, of course not, but so much of what we’re told constitutes bigotry nowadays falls into the realm of microaggressions, not aggression aggression, and while we’re still far from what we might envision as ideal, considering where we came from, it is a massive and remarkable improvement. People CAN become better than they were. It’s obvious that they can. They may still be selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and Puritanical (even the best of them) but we all of us have the ability to improve ourselves and our culture as a whole through education, experience, a spirit of mutual tolerance, and ongoing positive interactions with those outside of our ingroup.
I find it a concerning trend that bigots (up to and including the 2020 version of the beast, the microaggressors, folks who are very far from Archie Bunker and generally have good intentions implemented clumsily) are being written off as lost causes. Deplorable. As human scum that should be ostracized and driven from polite society, never engaged or interacted with in anything resembling a positive, empathetic way. It is concerning because Archie Bunker never would have become a better person if that had happened. He would have never had those positive interactions that challenged his belief system. He would have embraced his fate as a villain and rather than rising to become his best self – generous, open-minded, egalitarian, reasonable, kind-hearted, and capable of change – he would have sunk to his worst one.
There are no bad people. Some may find this hard to believe, may claim that I’m justifying harboring snakes in our collective bosom, but it’s true. Every person, even the worst among us, has the capacity to change for the better.
Treating flawed people as if they are irredeemable simply encourages them to be worse. It’s a trait of humanity to consider the enemy of your enemy your friend, even when they’re nothing of the sort, and making enemies out of people simply drives them closer to people you despise. Consider many people’s experiences with health care – when people who are in pain and scared and suffering go to doctors and get no help, are even laughed at or humiliated, they stop going to doctors and start believing in online charlatans instead. When the authorities, whoever they may be, disdain a person as a waste of time and oxygen, it is human nature to turn to the people and belief systems who are willing to embrace you, to help you, to sympathize with you, to treat you with some modicum of human dignity, even when those people and belief systems do not have your best interests at heart.3
It’s why kids join gangs. It’s how suicide bombers are recruited. This is how radicalization in ANY form happens.
Archie Bunker may be a fictional character, but the noblest purpose of fiction is to give us a window into the minds of other people, not only when they are acting like saints, but when they’re acting in ways we like to think we ourselves never would. The reason why this is so very important is NOT to save the soul of Archie Bunker, but to save our own. Because no one ever left their cozy bed to ride out on a pogrom in the middle of the night thinking that they were the bad guy going out to harm innocent people. People always think they are the good guy, and their actions are fully right and justified, because the Other, whoever that Other may be, is the Actual Bad Guy. If you don’t take a good hard look at people like Archie Bunker now and then, if you don’t consider how he thinks and and feels and how he feels fully right and justified in his selfishness, tribalism, xenophobia, superiority, meanspiritedness, and Puritanism, you will BECOME Archie Bunker, only way faster because you have the support of an entire society full of Archie Bunkers behind you.
Not only does banning bigots from society forevermore hamper the ability of the bigots to become better people, it hampers the ability of everyone to become better people, because we are never forced to take a really hard look at those flaws of human nature that exist in all of us and consider how easy it is to succumb to them. All of us, universally. These flaws transcend the outrage of the day completely.
Now, some might say that marginalized people shouldn’t have to ever encounter any bigoted beliefs and so the Woke call for prejudiced people to be driven underground where they cannot offend anyone with their disgusting beliefs, and that sparing those who already suffer additional pain is justification enough. But we are not talking about stupid children who need the protection of hovering helicopter parents so they never get any bumps and bruises. We are talking about adults who are strong and powerful and wise. Marginalized people are acutely aware that prejudice exists, having encountered it constantly over the course of their lives. Bigotry is no secret to them, they’re well aware of its existence, and hiding it does not make it no longer exist.
I find a fair number of folks who claim to want to cancel bigotry, ostensibly to protect the feelings of others, are being deceptive. The real reason they want to ostracize bigots is because they think bigots reflect badly upon THEM. I believe a lot of people are Woke right now for no better reason than that they’d like overt and obvious prejudice to go away because it makes them feel bad inside, and also because being Woke gives them brownie points with others in their ingroup.4 Many people want to shun those they’ve decried as bigots even at the risk of making said bigots into worse people when any opportunity for redemption is stripped away. Many people want to shun bigots even at the risk of making THEMSELVES into worse people, because they are never forced to look their own authoritarian tendencies in the face.
And why? They are embarrassed. They are embarrassed by the existence of bigots, because it’s a constant reminder that they themselves have some rancid chocolate chips at the heart of their personal cookie.
The catch of this essay is that since people can change, that means they can change back, or change into something different but equally bad. If we refuse to consider the existence of bigots, if we shall not suffer them to live amongst us, if we close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears and decline to contemplate the ways that bad people got that way because the witch doctors told us contemplating these things is taboo, we’re no longer protected against becoming bigots ourselves.
There may be no “better people” since we’re all born with an innate set of flaws, but people DO do better when they can. All of us, even the worst of us have the potential to be generous, open-minded, egalitarian, reasonable, kind-hearted. Even the worst of us can change for the better. The trick is in setting up our society to give them room to make that transformation, rather than driving them – and you and me – to be even worse.
- Our primate ancestors were likely even more murderous, with many of our most closely related primate cousins killing each other at an average rate of over 100 per 1000
- It’s been quite a fascinating bone of contention between myself and some of my male friends when I continue to defend Skyler White.
- I would point out that the globalist old guard very well may have created the worst excesses of antifa through precisely these means.
- Also a handy way to destroy others above you on the socioeconomic hierarchy!