Saturday, June 20, 2009

What does it really mean to be a bad person?

What does it really mean to be a "bad" person? This sounds like something akin to the question of evil, but I'm really not thinking in those terms. While there is certainly evil in the world, things tend not to be so black and white. I'm thinking more in terms of what makes a person someone who is generally considered to be a reasonably decent person. Maybe that will make more sense the further I get into this. There are several different, but related things that come to mind as I think about what makes a person "bad" (or not).

One of the first things that comes to mind is the Christian notion of "sin" and how Christians seem to like to say "everyone is a sinner." Of course, this isn't what I'm getting at all. For starters, the Christian "sin" concept includes many things that really aren't bad at all, (like, for instance, masturbation or having lustful thoughts in general), but that aside, the whole concept is really a load of bullshit. Despite protestations to the contrary, the most self-righteous Christian assholes really think they don't sin, compared to others, and look down upon others. And the whole concept seems to be tossed out the window when you combine it with right-wing canards like who the latest "Hitler" is supposed to be - would that be in Iran or North Korea now that Saddam is gone?

Another thing that comes to mind is something I've discussed here before, the whole echo-chamber and labeling phenomenon you see in online discussions and on blogs. There, it doesn't take much to get labeled "bad" - hardly anything at all, in some cases. All you have to do, really, is be not part of whatever clique is the clique that runs the blog. Or disagree with them. It is amazing just how fast a poster can be labeled a "troll" or worse, and everything they say is then discounted and ignored. And apparently being reasonable and willing to have a real discussion (while still disagreeing) is the worst sin of all, because it "tricks" people into talking with them before they are "found out" as some other label - on a feminist site, the label would be "MRA" - whether or not it is actually accurate. Really, though, the "sin" there is not agreeing with the clique while also not being a totall asshole that can be instantly dismissed.

Instead of trying to have a discussion and maybe change some minds, you just have echo chambers where, if you don't already agree in a synchophantic fashion with the clique, you are "bad" and can be ignored and insulted. Any valid points can thus be safely ignored. And the discussion is about as stagnant as a clogged sewer.

The last thing that came immediately to mind about "bad" people was triggered by a discussion on Apostate's blog about Richard Feynman's sister. I have read Feynman's books. He was a very interesting "character" and also a good scientist and writer. I really felt like I got inside his head, reading his anecdotal stories. The post in question was about his sister, who was also a scientist, and who perhaps was not encouraged in that area by her father (though one wonders if he really discouraged her either, since that is exactly what she became). But then it was also 1928 when she was born, a full 10 years after Richard Feynman, and given that timeframe, for a father to actively encourage a daughter to be a scientist as much as he had encouraged his son would really have made him a radical feminist for his time. (Apostate also referred to some sibling rivalry - I really discount that as anything but sibling rivalry - watching how my daughter treats my son, I expect that sort of thing is common). But I digress.

What got me thinking about this was the general notion that Feynman, and his sexism, was a product of his time, or was just a character flaw that he was not aware of, or was blind to. And does that make him a bad person? What does it mean to be a "bad" person? Feynman certainly seemed like he would be a fun person to know and interesting to hang out with. He seemed decent enough, though obviously I never met him. Yet there is that glaring sexism. Does that make him bad? Would he even have been that way if he had been born in 2018 instead of 1918?

Of course, sexism isn't the only ism a person can have. Which brings me to another post of Apostate's that led to thinking about this, one where she discussed meeting up with some Christians to buy some stuff and finding out that they were very decent people to her, contrary to her notion of how right-wing people are. So if someone is a kind and decent person to those they personally meet, but have politics that are the opposite of yours, even against yours (like being against gay marriage when you are gay), does that make them "bad people"? I tend to think most of them really aren't, simply because most people, when they get to know someone in a group that they would otherwise be against like that, their attitude softens. I'd bet a good proportion of right-wingers who are against gay marriage would soften or change their tune if they had good friends who lived next door who were gay and married and saw how decent most of them were. Suddenly, the notion would not seem so alien and threatening. Of course, maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part. But one can see this playing out now in Iran - where the "evil" Iranians are now looking much more human and sympathetic simply through looking at them as people through this election crisis. Hell, the right-wing crazies are upset by this because they would rather have the simple, cartoonish evil figure they can call their next "Hitler."

Is it a blind spot? Blind adherence to ideology without thinking about how it impacts real people, since you never see the impact if you don't know any people impacted?

Maybe I'm naive, but I think most people, if you knew them personally, would probably be pretty decent. Maybe it takes a little time to get to know them so they'd "invite you in" so to speak, but I think most people have a natural, social tendency to, well, be sociable. I think that is why political movements try so hard to make people into labels or numbers - to counteract that natural human tendency to be decent to people you know as people. Dehumanization of the opposition would not be necessary unless most people were reasonably decent.

That's why it always alarms me to see it, even when it is done by people whose politics I agree with. I'm sure I've done it. Right now, I completely ignore anything anyone from the GOP side says on any issue because right now, the GOP has shown itself to be purely about power, talking points for the next 24 hour news cycle, and nothing else. No real debate. No real discussion. Just empty, reflexive opposition. Is that me just labeling them as "bad" so I can safely ignore them? Maybe. Though I tend to think of it more as a learned response to actual bullshit. The GOP is really in a death spiral right now. And there are actually people from that side of the aisle who are not batshit crazy - they just all get excommunicated from the GOP when they stray from the crazy party line - look at Andrew Sullivan. He's a conservative who has been exiled because he dared to break ranks. I still disagree with him on a lot of things, but he actually has shown himself to be thoughtful and willing to change his position when there is new information. A debate with him I would see as actually being fruitful as well as interesting.

Just some random thoughts for a Saturday evening.


Surname said...

You spelled masturbation wrong.

DBB said...

Thanks - actually, now that I look at it, I misspelled about a half-dozen words.

Neezers said...

i don't understand, what exactly does it mean to be a bad person? i try so hard to get people to admit that I'm a bad person. I give them perfectly good reasons yet they give me their pity and even have empathy for me. I want to know that what I think of myself is true. I feel like a bad person. Why are people nice at all the wrong times?