Good Guys and Bad Guys

Depending on who you talk to, the recent death of Hugo Chavez was either the tragic loss of a heroic defender of the poor or the timely end of a socialist thug. Now, I’m not interested in taking sides on this one. I make no pretense at being any kind of expert on the modern history of Venezuela. No, what fascinates me is the need to cast him as misunderstood hero or brutal villain, when it seems pretty obvious that he was neither, or both.

We have this human determination to decide who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are, and we expect to be able to identify them by their hats. The good guys are noble and honorable and agree with us on all particulars. The bad guys are greedy, unethical and cruel. They espouse ridiculous notions that run counter to all we know to be true. It’s a way of looking at the world that allows us the comfortable privilege of identifying “us” and “them,” so that we can know who is on “our side.”

But for better or for worse, people are rarely that two-dimensional, and we do everyone a disservice when we try to cram people into folders marked “good” and “bad.” The other day a friend posted a graphic that showed a picture of Bill Gates and a cornfield, with the label “evil” over Gates’s head because he owns a vast number of shares in Monsanto. I’m no big fan of Monsanto, but really? The man has done more than anybody since Jonas Salk to eradicate communicable disease in the world, and you’re willing to slap the word “evil” over his head? Pressuring public figures to divest from companies you think are hurting the public is one thing, declaring anyone who is invested in these companies to be evil is quite another.

It takes a little mental flexibility, but if you want to deal in the real world then you could acknowledge simultaneously that Chavez was autocratic and that he improved conditions for the poor, that Gates has done a tremendous job working to save children from disease at the same time that he is culpable for investing in Monsanto—not to mention Windows Vista. A recent French article points out that Mother Teresa allowed a great deal of suffering in her “homes for the dying” that she could have perfectly well prevented. Martin Luther King, Jr. plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation. There is no one who is totally pure, no one utterly evil. The congregation I serve, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, has a ministry to prisoners which includes a pen pal program, correspondence courses and more. We regularly receive staggeringly beautiful letters from inmates who are finding their way to spiritual insight and compassion in the brutally harsh conditions of prison. These men and women have done some dreadful things. They are not (mostly) innocent. They are also not evil.

But when we reduce the world to good guys and bad guys then we conclude that the bad guys belong in jail, and don’t deserve to be treated as humans with hopes and desires. When we imagine that there are good guys and bad guys then we assume that we need to take guns away from the bad guys and put them in the hands of the good guys, disregarding the fact that good guys shoot their wives or girlfriends or themselves on a disturbingly regular basis. When we divide the world into good guys and bad guys we go to war against the “axis of evil” without regard for the human or financial cost, because we know that good will triumph over evil, and we know that we are good.

Of course there are people who commit terrible acts, and who must be stopped. Of course there are people who accomplish heroic feats, and who deserve our praise. But if we think that we can divide the world into a superhero cartoon of good and bad then we have badly mistaken what it means to be human, and our choices will be lead dangerously astray.

We would be better off to let ourselves by guided by the words of Annie Dillard from her book Holy the Firm:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead–as if innocence had ever been–and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.

  • Amanda Aikman

    Another wise and beautiful column, Lynn. Thanks so much!

  • TEA

    “The bad guys are greedy, unethical and cruel. They espouse ridiculous notions that run counter to all we know to be true. ”

    You mean like falsely accusing a person of inherent worth and dignity of the archaic crime of blasphemous libel on the unTrue basis that they have made “unfounded and vicious allegations to the effect that ministers of the (Unitarian Universalist) Association engage in such despicable crimes as pedophilia and rape”?

    • https://twitter.com/Sageling Daniel Grey

      Could you please expand upon this, TEA?

      • TEA

        How would you like me to expand on this Daniel?

        In any case you can find out more about it by running appropriate free and responsible Google searches for the Truth and meaning of what I am saying.

  • Patricia Bianca

    I hate the word “evil.” I don’t believe in such a notion, and your column puts very eloquently into words why. Thanks, Lynn.

  • https://twitter.com/Sageling Daniel Grey

    This is something that’s occurred to me as well. One of the things I value about my UU faith is the emphasis on what you’ve called “mental flexibility” and the willingness to engage with situations in shades of grey, rather than a binary black/white, right/wrong view. That of course doesn’t mean that UUs are free from that sort of thinking, or that we don’t still have to struggle with questions that have no easy answers (if they have answers at all).

    I’ll be linking to this in my church’s e-newsletter tonight. Thanks again for the thoughts.

    • TEA

      I find that the “mental flexibility” of Unitarian Universalists often results in UUs exercising remarkably hypocritical double standards. . .

      Would you like some examples?


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