There are a lot of “good guys” and a lot of “bad guys” out there— and who qualifies as good or bad depends almost entirely on who raised you and which history textbooks you read.
I’ve felt rather grown-up this last year, as I’ve made conscious efforts to reexamine my own biased understanding of good and bad. Whatever progress I made, however, was called into question by Dr. Quinn Mecham today.
Dr. Mecham’s Middle Eastern Politics class, of which I am a part, was recently assigned to watch the film, “Of Fathers and Sons.” It’s a fascinating documentary, charting the day to day lives of a jihadist man and his sons in modern-day Syria. The film is brilliant and emotional, but jarring. There are scenes of darling little boys tumbling around, playing invented games, giddily greeting their dad when he comes home, comforting each other, and falling asleep in their parents’ arms. There are scenes of the same children masked and lugging machine guns around a military camp for 12 year-olds, and eagerly beheading little birds “just like [dad] did to that man.” The juxtaposition is eerie and humanizing at the same time.
As Dr. Mecham prodded the class to share their thoughts in class today, it became evident to me that most of us had similar reactions to the film. We were mourning the violence; we were horrified by the justification of terror. However, we were also slowly coming to realize that terrorists are people too. That is not to say that any of us felt that their actions were justified, but as Dr. Mecham taught us, we considered the principle that there are no bad people, only bad actions.
This class discussion led me to think more deeply about several conversations I’ve had with my father in the last few months. The two of us feel very differently about the current administration. I have often resorted to the argument that Mr. Trump is a “bad man” and as such, should not be leading our country. Is this language beneficial to society in any way? Are we somehow stronger or more protected by labeling criminals, political opponents, or outsiders as “bad people” or “the bad guys”? Does doing so provide any sort of additional strength or wisdom? If so, I’ve seen very little evidence of that. Are those in jail “bad people”? Are the soldiers of opposing armies the “bad guys”? How different would our society be were law enforcement to refrain from labeling suspects or even prisoners as “bad people”? What effect would that have on the criminal justice system? What if we raised our children to see clearly the consequences of poor decisions, without painting those who make poor decisions as inherently bad? I assume that such a society would be far more capable of compromise, of forgiveness, and of innovation.
So, if there are no bad people, what does that mean for diplomacy? For elections? For the war on terror? Are we to step aside and assume the best in everyone that so vocally wishes us harm? I don’t believe that was what Dr. Mecham was suggesting. Rather, if we can rewire our minds to believe first and foremost in the innate goodness of every human being, we might be far more capable of reaching an understanding as to why they make bad decisions. Bad actions, not bad people, cause pain, injustice, and suffering. If the existence of bad people was the core of the issue, even the most brilliant interventions and the best of intentions would do little to remedy the injustices that riddle every society. As world-renowned political scientist Hans Rosling states in his book Factfulness, “Look for causes, not villains. When something goes wrong don’t look for an individual or a group to blame… spend your energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation.” I hope that as we shift our language, we will better comprehend the core of the issues and the abuses so prevalent today. As we do this we will be far more capable of solving problems, and less inclined to point fingers.