What does it mean to be a good person? In a world full of difficult choices, I find myself grappling with this question daily. Are only those people who are truly good, whose bravery and strict moral codes have changed the world, allowed to be called good people? And is there a difference between small acts of kindness and big ones? The people who donate to charity, who are polite to strangers, who are aware of how bad the world is but aren’t able to or inclined to make any drastic changes, can they still be considered good people?
Having grown up in a religious household, I was brought up aware of the existence of evil. Evil, as I was taught by my pastor and my vacation Bible school classes, was personified by the presence of a devil, the cause of all things bad in this world. I imagined the devil as the stereotypical horned, red man, carrying a trident and having a devious look on his face.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had convinced myself that evil could be spotted as a silly-looking man wearing a cape and that anyone who didn’t fit my own, narrow interpretation of evil could be trusted, or at least wasn’t evil. As I grew up, my image of evil grew to include more caricatures — the creepy pedophile, the violent racist, to name a few — but my understanding of what evil is did not.
A few things in my life made me question my understanding of evil. One was a World War II and Holocaust class I took in high school, where I learned how the concept of “business as usual” was used to normalize the violence against Jews and other minorities in Europe. Up until then, my concept of evil had always been limited to individuals — Hitler was evil, Mussolini was evil; it was hard for me to comprehend that an entire population had somehow been evil or had been complicit in evil. My straightforward view on evil was being challenged, and I was struggling against it. I began to question what it meant to be a good person.
Two events have occurred recently that I feel represent our society’s inability to view evil in a nuanced way. The first has been the reaction to what has been dubbed the “Weinstein Effect,” i.e., the public downfall of various men accused of serial sexual harassment. After the downfall of her friend Louis C.K., comedian Sarah Silverman delivered a monologue on her show “I Love You, America” where she asked, “Can you love someone who did bad things?”
Second, The New York Times published a profile on a Nazi sympathizer titled “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” which was widely derided for exhibiting sympathy for the said Nazi. These two instances, though widely different, I believe exhibit a common theme in our morality: our inability to normalize evil and thus recognize evil that doesn’t fit our standards or caricatures.
Sarah Silverman, albeit unintentionally, addressed a topic often brought up when a famous or well-respected man is accused of sexual assault: that this man had a good reputation, was a friend to many and because of this, many cannot believe that he committed such a crime. Silverman handled this issue in the best possible way she could — she addressed her emotions without denying the experiences of the survivors. Oftentimes, it is hard for friends and loved ones to imagine that someone they care about has hurt others. Men who were kind, who were feminists, who were kind to their daughters couldn’t possibly be a part of the problem, could they?
Likewise, the author of The New York Times article, Richard Fausset, seemed to be surprised that Nazi sympathizers are, in fact, human. He seemed to express confusion that not every one of their actions revolves around terrorizing people of color, that they are capable of being polite, that they get married, that they can cook pasta, that they have friends. He ended the article with no deep conclusions, instead simply describing a scene where his subject and his subject’s then-fiancé had a relaxing evening, stating “they spoke about their future — about moving to a bigger place, about their honeymoon, about having kids.” All these things may be true, but what do we risk by humanizing a Nazi-sympathizer? Someone who expresses respect for Hitler, who believes that races should be kept separate?
This brings me back to my original question: What does it mean to be a good person? Can a sexual predator or a Nazi-sympathizer be a good person? I’m going to be honest: Considering I don’t even know what it means to be a good person, these questions are beyond me. Any attempt on my end to answer them will be disappointing.
Instead, I propose we think about this concept in an entirely different way and stop trying to grapple with the cognitive dissonance of realizing that someone who does something that is objectively wrong can also be capable of love and kindness. I would argue that considerate people sometimes do evil things and participate in evil movements. Their actions are what we describe as evil, even if these individuals don’t fit our storybook, devil-with-horns definition of evil.
In the end, our society has built up moral codes for a reason; we have determined racism is bad, sympathizing with the leader of a genocide movement is immoral, sexual assault is wrong. I believe sometimes it is hard for us to grasp just how complicated fellow human beings can be, but I propose we stop assuming people who appear to be nice and kind aren’t capable of terrible things.
Because, overall, being a good person doesn’t really mean anything. It’s only a phrase used by individuals, and what makes a good person can vary widely from person to person. It couldn’t, and it shouldn’t, hold up any type of evidence in a public court of opinion.
Elena Hubbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.