Beware the good people

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Life is full of dualities, though they do not often look this serene and accepting of each other. Lee Lim

Humans are complex, always in a state of flux

Some have said that humans are inherently good for reasons like our ability to learn through the course of our entire lifetime, to better our knowledge of the world and our practice of interacting with it. We’re also quite averse to being stuck (psychologically or physically) for too long. We don’t like static, stagnant places, so one way or another we work to grow from where we are at present. From this view, progress is inevitable as long as existence continues, making that push for growth an inherent part of our makeup.

On the other side are arguments for the inherent corruption of humanity, like the current extent of prohibitive laws across the globe. This side proposes that, were people inherently good, we wouldn’t need to prohibit and punish things like theft, domestic abuse, or terrorism, because they quite simply wouldn’t be happening.

Others take a step beyond those sweeping-judgment positions and work case-by-case, categorizing the individual people they encounter as either inherently good or bad depending on experiences with and knowledge of them. This can make navigating social situations quite simple. All you need to know is whether someone’s been good or bad and your attitude, actions, and reactions are easy to determine. There is a downside though, in that this is still a sweeping judgment that dictates good and bad as permanent traits; someone who is bad has always been bad, and someone good will forever be good.

What I’m hoping to get across is that people just aren’t that simple; goodness and badness aren’t traits, they are states. A trait is something that remains relatively stable in a person throughout their lifetime. Good examples would be hating certain food textures, having wide feet, or being an outgoing and extroverted person. Someone with wide feet will likely have wide feet their whole life, regardless of context. The degree of wideness when compared to others will increase and decrease depending on the sample, but they’ll still generally have wide feet.

I see positioning goodness and badness as traits to be woefully incorrect and inherently harmful. It puts up barriers to the amount of growth possible, cutting motivation to change off at the knees. If I believe I’m inherently, wholly bad, then what’s the point in working to change? If that’s truly something ingrained in my core then it would be a waste of energy to try, or to even think of ways I could try, because the goal is unattainable. Best case scenario, I wind up frustrated I couldn’t fix things and apathetic because of course that’s the outcome.

Positioning people as inherently good also causes problems, especially when people see themselves through this lens. When a person decides that they are inherently, wholly good, they are no longer open to hearing about ways they may have hurt others because that simply isn’t something a good person like them would do. The possibility they could have caused harm registers as a misunderstanding at best, or an unjust and personal attack at worst.

One way to illustrate this would be with someone who’s made the conscious decision to not be racist, but who also views themselves as inherently good. They will likely put in effort to not intentionally, actively, violently be racist. All good steps, but since everyone has some level of internalized racism and we have to function with institutions rampant with systemic racism, things will still come up.

Someone with the inherently good view will not be looking for ways they could have been racist so they can prevent them in the future, won’t be critically and continuously engaging with their attitudes to better their actions, and definitely won’t be open to hearing if others think they have been racist because it literally can’t be incorporated in their self-schema as an impact of their actions.

Goodness and badness are just states. They are things that we can be but they are not permanent. Holding present the idea that I am capable of doing harm is actually a way for me to protect the people around me, because I’m more engaged in considering my actions beforehand, in holding myself accountable for them, and in learning to adjust them so I’m able to stop causing harm because I recognize it for what it truly is. Holding just as present the idea that I am capable of doing good works in tandem with the opposite potential, motivating me to put in the effort to change because I’ve seen how that change benefits me and the people around me.

As in all things, the answer is both. People aren’t good or bad, but they have great capacity and opportunity to reach both extremes at times. Don’t blind yourself for temporary comfort by deciding that you are, have been, and will only ever be good. It’s only going to be comfortable for you (intermittently).

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