One of the great mysteries in life is: How do so many good people do so many bad things.
It is so easy to write off anyone we do not want to address in a meaningful way as being evil and point out their misdeeds to negate the good that they might have done. The sad truth is that there is not a soul on earth that could not be so dismissed.
So the question becomes how is that the same humans can on one hand be committed to doing the right thing and still find themselves doing so many things that are hurtful?
I live in the Deep South, the land of churches and southern hospitality ... and Jim Crow. The people of the Jim Crow world were on one hand generally honest, hardworking, generous and committed to living a Christian life. Yet, they perpetuated an abhorrent system of repression and dehumanizing behavior. My 97 year old mother-in-law is of that generation. Sure, the good church people were not usually the ones that actually committed the lynchings and terror, but they provided cover for those who did. A number of years ago I asked my mother-in-law how she and her peers, after WW2, had justified denying the vote to the black vets returning from fighting the same war their brothers and husbands had been fighting. She did not have to look for an answer, right off she said “Well our blacks just weren’t smart enough to vote.”
Her response gives me the answer to the question I am asking in this essay. Why do good people do evil things? I propose that fear supported by man’s uncanny ability to engage in self-delusion allows good people to do evil things.
Let’s go back to my example of the fight to oppose civil rights for black Americans in the 1940’s - 1960’s. I say the fight to oppose civil rights because while there was an active fight for civil rights, there was an equally energetic fight against them as well. The fight against civil rights was led by a small group of demagogues who simply didn’t care about what was moral, rather their sole concern was what they thought was good for them personally. However their power and ability to enact their agenda came from targeting the passive majority of the white population that acquiesced to their campaign of terror. The tool the demagogues used to keep the majority from supporting civil rights was fear. Though there was a great deal of actual fear of change and the unknown consequences of desegregation, the most potent weapon was the fear of opposing the demagogues themselves. I am old enough to remember the fear of being called a “Nigger Lover” and how adults would go out of their way not to be called such a thing. Looking back I puzzle why such a phrase had any power at all. To be called a lover of the oppressed is in effect the same thing as being called a follower of Jesus. Any casual reading of the gospels would show that Jesus equated love for all humans, especially the poor and down trodden was the mark of being one of his followers.
So why did that phrase hold a negative connotation? The phrase is based on the belief that social justice is a zero-sum equation. It assumes an “us versus them” scenario. The fear of the white majority was being seen as the enemy of their race. If the hearer does not deny being a "nigger lover" then, by the accuser’s definition, they stand opposed to the welfare of the whites. The point of the phrase is to put fear in the heart of the hearer to keep any qualms or opposition to the segregationists agenda to themselves lest they become a social outcast.
Interviews done of elderly people reveal that even at the time there was a significant level of discomfort at the immoral position of denying the civil rights of people with African heritage; yet, it was unusual for any white to openly voice that opinion. The sad truth is that people were more afraid of what the demagogues thought of them and what the neighbors thought of them than they were afraid of betraying their own values.
How did people live with themselves? That is where self-delusion comes into play.
Since few people can live in a state of tension between what they know to be right and what they are actually doing, it is easier to spin a lie to one’s self than to endure social ostracism. So to maintain both social standing and a self-perception of morality, people create a fiction that they choose to believe no matter how preposterous. My mother-in-law to this day believes that the African–American vets coming home from the war were indeed essentially children in adult bodies, incapable of making adult decisions such as voting. By clinging to this fiction, she does not have to face the monstrosity of her moral failure for not opposing segregation and the denial of basic human rights.
Thus, we see fear is the initial motivator to tolerate evil, but self-delusion allows it to continue over time.
Let’s turn to the current issue of equal civil rights for people in the LGBT community. I will grant that there is sufficient Biblical grounds that a well-meaning Christian could conclude that it is wrong for a Christian to engage in homosexual behavior. I don’t think that is the correct interpretation, but I will grant that it is easy to make that erroneous conclusion absent malice. However, there is no possible Christian justification for denying civil rights to LGBT people. In the Roman world in which Jesus and St. Paul lived, homosexual behavior was so ubiquitous it was considered abnormal for men not to have sex with other men on occasion. Yet, despite this, never does Jesus nor any of the writers of the New Testament ever suggest that Christians should engage in a campaign to prevent the Roman’s from engaging in such behavior. The only discussions of morality were focused within the tiny Christian community.
Today’s demagogues use the fear tactics on a broad anti-sexuality agenda and an anti-gay/anti-trans agenda in particular. The fear of being labeled a “Pervert Lover” keeps people, particularly leaders, from advancing a broad human rights agenda. It would be incorrect to call all of those who oppose LBGT rights or who want to suppress sex-education in public schools as “haters”; but, it would not be incorrect to suggest those who are not haters are simply cowards. They have first yielded to what they think is the expected belief system, then convinced themselves of lies in order to live with that compromise. For most of the anti-LBGT and/or sex negative crowd, the only person they really hate is themselves. The simple truth is that very few people actually live the sexual lifestyle those who advocate right wing social values advocate. Human nature is that we most vociferously oppose in others the very traits we want to hide in ourselves.
Today, more than any time since the fall of Jim Crow it is difficult for people, particularly Americans of European descent, to stand up for the values of unconditional love and equal justice for all. The pressure to accept greed and selfishness and gross injustice as normal and even admirable has not been greater for a very long time.
I say we should not see this as a reason to go along with the flow. NO! It is time to plant our feet and stand against the tide.
I propose the most effective means of helping good people to do the right thing is not to berate them as evil, but to admonish them to act with courage of their own internal convictions. The demagogue is only as powerful as his ability to convince people to act against their own moral code. I am convinced that most Americans want a just and equitable society. Most Americans deep down know what is right, but lack the courage to stand up to what they believe is the majority opinion. We will never change the truly evil people. What we can do is to deprive them of the power of the fear they preach. We must not give into the temptation to label all those who go along with an oppressive agenda as morally deficient, for when we do we just back them into a corner to defend themselves. In doing so we not only work against our goals, but we become the very demagogues we seek to discredit.
It is simply a matter of having courage to openly stand up for our convictions that matters. You never know who is looking to you for guidance. I have no doubt that there are many weak people looking for a role model so they don't become just another good person who does evil. Further, I believe that the kind of people who support this website are also the kind of people who can show others the way forward.
We just need to be willing to openly oppose the tide of injustice and hate.