In their present form people have been knocking around this planet for something like 200,000 years and over that span of time many conclusions have about people have been made.
Such conclusions are by no means consistent or logical. Different cultures have arrived at their conclusions about people alongside creation tales, religious beliefs, social conventions and the dictates of environment. Accordingly, when we review what’s generally concluded about people, we see great variation, running the gamut from terribly negative to extremely positive.
Those among us who behave badly, who hurt others and impose an aggressive personal agenda on all around them, provide a ready justification for feeling negative about people and society. That such bad behavior has often been committed in the name of goodness simply serves to make such matters rather confusing. Badness committed in pursuit of goodness creates a terrible moral paradox, which is why Mahatma Gandhi abandoned any use of violence whatsoever in his pursuit of India’s independence from England. But I digress; the point of this column is to try to answer a question: Are people inherently good but sometimes bad, or are people inherently bad but sometimes good?
The conclusion that people are inherently bad is a popular one, with its roots set in Biblical tales of original sin. According to this conclusion, everyone is born bad, but has the potential for goodness, accessible to us only through the grace of the divine. In this case, such divine grace requires submission by faith, and there are those who say without it, we are sinners doomed to darkness. A yet bleaker, non-religious conclusion is that people are basically bad and beyond all redemption. Accordingly, this logic dictates that the instrumentality of state power must be exercised to control people, the preferred approach of tyrants and despots.
Others prefer the conclusion that people are basically good. From this perspective, the inherent goodness in people is merely obscured by ignorance, confusion and mistaken thinking, resulting in bad behavior; goodness itself remains unblemished. Thus, it is said, those seeking goodness in others can always find it, despite the outwardly unpleasant actions and activities of people. It was such confidence in basic goodness that made Gandhi all victorious. No matter how terribly people behaved, he never lost confidence in basic goodness, an unyielding force that ultimately cracks open and breaks the shell of self-serving behavior and attitudes.
As in most matters philosophical, I look to our granddaughter Isabelle for guidance; at nearly four she is articulate, thoughtful and not yet filled with too much claptrap. My wife emailed me a discussion she had with Isabelle that’s to the point:
“We were talking about little baby Warren and how tiny he was (when he was born) and she said that she’s bigger than he is so she has to be careful with him. Then she said, “Because he’s little and he’s breakable.” I said, yes that’s true. Then she said, “I’m bigger but I’m still breakable.” I said yes. And then she said, “You are too.” I said yes I was breakable, too, wondering where she was taking this. Then she said, “Everyone’s breakable. Even the bad guys.” I said, yes, just sometimes the bad guys said they didn’t care or they wouldn’t admit they were breakable. She nodded her head. I had tears in my eyes. It’s true, we’re all breakable, even the bad guys.