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Good enough people

by Philip Martin | November 27, 2022 at 1:53 a.m.

When you were younger, you might have thought there was a regular order to the world. For this is the way it is explained to us, in history books and fables passed down from one generation to the next.

We could believe that in the aggregate, life for human beings is getting better all the time and likely to continue to get better until we blow ourselves up or the microbes figure it out.

We could believe what Hollywood tells us: Everything is going to be all right in the end. Good will triumph over evil. Class will eventually show.

But most of us grow up, and start to understand that most of what goes on in the world makes no sense. Most of us do not get what we deserve, and thank God for that. Venal people flourish, and even have fan clubs. People who play the lottery worship billionaires who behave like jackasses. Some people take up hating as a hobby; they buy the T-shirts and sign up for the newsletters.

You grow up and realize there's no consensus on what constitutes "good." Everyone has their reasons; everyone can explain themselves, at least to themselves. What presents as cronyism from across the room is the tightening of a trusted circle to the besieged. Your perspective is largely based on where you stand. And maybe this unlocks your empathy.

You realize that some people are bored by baseball, that not everyone likes Stanley Kubrick's films. You can even imagine someone not being moved by Bach's mass in B minor or Joni Mitchell's "River." You begin to entertain the idea that things are relative, that the reasons you believe what you believe have as much to do with how these beliefs were imprinted upon you as the quality of the notions themselves.

Just because my prejudices are mild and silly doesn't mean they aren't real. I am opposed to short-sleeved dress shirts, cargo shorts in nice restaurants, and flat-brimmed baseball caps. I don't usually express my opinions about these fashion statements to the people who choose to make them because I'm not a psychopath and because deep down, I believe the stereotype that anyone capable of committing these atrocities probably also carries a rusty straight razor.

These are real feelings, and though I can tell myself they are stupid and I can be tolerant of anyone who violates my double-secret rules about how people ought to dress (I can smile and shake your hand and pretend you're just as good as me, you cargo-shorted, flat-billed creep) but my heart still judges.

I suspect my socially expedient hypocrisy is not too different from that of a hypothetical guy imprinted with crummy ideas about race as an impressionable child. While his crummy ideas are more serious than my stupid ones, are they any easier to purge? Are his efforts to rise above these irrational but deeply rooted superstitions anything but honorable? Can we say people are trash because they are victims of an unenlightened upbringing?

We can make laws to discourage bad behavior. We can, to a certain degree, discourage people from harming one another. And we ought to make more of an effort to keep our schools and houses of worship and concert venues and high school football stadiums safe.

While there are obvious things that could but probably won't be done because they would interfere with one class' bottom line and another class' image of itself as a standing militia of Good People With Guns willing and able to defend the republic from all enemies foreign and especially domestic, perhaps there are other ways we might try to identify the bad thinkers among us and help them remain hypocritical.

Because someone who keeps their bad thoughts to themselves and acts like a good person is indeed a good person. Or at least a good-enough person.

Evil is a useful concept, but I'm not sure it's real. It's often used as an excuse, a way of dismissing complication and complicity. A school shooter is evil. There are evil people in the world. (Thanks, Satan. I renounce thee and therefore none of this unpleasant stuff has anything to do with me.)

And even if there are evil people in the world, most who do really bad things are recognizably human. Things happened to them. They might have been subjected to violence. They might not have been loved enough or at all. Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes.

But we have all been hurt, at least a little. And only some of us shoot up schools or Walmarts. There is no regular order to the world.

You have probably heard the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor king who fell in love with an ivory statue of a woman he'd carved. Aphrodite was touched by Pygmalion's love and made his statue, named Galatea, real. They married and lived happily ever after, which was rare, even back then. It's the story that inspired the story of Pinocchio, "My Fair Lady," and the way Jimmy Johnson went about building the Dallas Cowboys in the early '90s.

There are a lot of ways you can read the myth--in "My Fair Lady," the character who really grows and changes in a fundamental way is callous professor Henry Higgins, not the Cockney flower girl he teaches to speak with a posh accent--and one of the most facile is to see it as a story about how the setting of expectations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pinocchio became a real boy because he aspired to be a real boy. (He faked it until he made it.) Johnson expected his players to be champions.

What we expect of ourselves matters.

Maybe we ought to expect ourselves to be kind, to be generous, to do the right thing even when there is no obvious advantage that attaches to doing the right thing. Because what we do is the only thing we can really control in this world without regular order.

We might not be able to suppress all uncharitable thoughts, and maybe not even all mean tweets, but we can be politely hypocritical. We don't have to shoot anyone.

We can be good enough people.

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