changemaking, politics

Hard On Evil, Soft On People

“Love the sinner, hate the sin”.

It’s such a cliché now, so suffused with triteness and hypocrisy, that it’s easy to overlook how immensely radical it is and how far-reaching its implications are. Like any good theory of the world, it is simple to understand and yet complex in its application.

One of my favorite authors and a role model, Tim Wise, has posted a crucially important article: “Hard on Systems, Soft On People: Fighting for Social Change As If People Matter”. We all would hope that we assume that people matter, that everything matters.

Perhaps the most crucial line is in the opening: “we need to be soft on people because people make mistakes, we hurt each other, we are all works in progress, and each of us is capable of saying or doing the wrong thing at any time — indeed we all have, many times — and so we should essentially extend to others the patience and compassion we would want for ourselves, as growing, changing, and hopefully maturing people. But also, and more importantly, when it comes to the issues we were discussing, be soft on people and hard on systems because it is the systems (racism and white supremacy, sexism and patriarchy, classism and capitalism, heterosexism and straight/cisgendered supremacy) that have distorted us, taught us the biases with which we all walk around to one degree or another, and in some ways damaged our ability to see each other as fully and equally human sometimes”.

So much of what people trying to change the world have to do is raise consciousness. Help someone else see something differently, see the world from someone else’s perspective. And, of course, along the way help ourselves in that process.

What Tim is saying is radical, and it’s something that radicals often ignore. It’s all too easy to let any ideology turn us into assholes. It’s all too easy to let ourselves think we belong to some special club. It’s often only after it’s too late that we’re ashamed of that elitism.

But this statement, as foundational as it is for changemakers to understand, is actually only a corollary of an even deeper point.

“Be hard on pathology, but soft on people”.

Or, put another way:

“Be hard on evil, but soft on people”.

We have to decide, when we try to go into this world and change it for the better, what our goal is.

Are we going to try to destroy, or punish, or alter, or transform, or change, the human vessels of evil?

Or are we going to stop evil itself?

The only way I’ve ever been able to imagine doing good for people, helping them achieve greater consciousness or just be able to get through the day with something resembling a smile, has been to imagine what I do and what my allies do as a brawl against a figure of darkness.

That figure is evil, callousness, cruelty, pain.

We have to act as if people aren’t evil. They’re just vessels for evil, sometimes.

This is an incredibly difficult thing to assume. It can go against every instinct we have to look at the rapist, the molester, the Nazi, and remember their humanity.

And that’s exactly why it matters so much.

Almost every evil in human history has been inflicted because we have the ability to dehumanize the Other.

They’re the Jew, so they’re alien, parasites, people trying to destroy and hurt us. Hurt us and our families.

They’re the Arab, the Muslim, the black.

They’re the criminal, the rapist, the thief.

They’re the war criminal, the dictator.

Sometimes, we are right that they are a threat. Sometimes, people really do want to hurt us.

But that doesn’t make them any less of people.

I am making a value judgment here. It is of course quite possible to view some people as evil. Irredeemable monsters. And this approach has some plausibility: Those who inflict evil damage themselves, warp their souls. When we look at someone else with racist suspicion or bigotry, we distort our good and trusting hearts. When we treat someone else as an object or a means to an end, we turn ourselves into the same kind of instrument.

But the problem with the approach of identifying people as the problem, rather than evil, is that it is itself toxic to our soul.

When we say someone is “evil”, “a monster”, “just a psychopath”, “a murderer”, we reduce their entire life to the worst things they did.

Maybe they were awful examples of people. Maybe they did indeed torture and kill many people throughout our life.

But their mothers, or their siblings, may have loved them. They may have made their friends laugh. They may have done people kindnesses. They cooked meals, sung songs.

It does spiritual and intellectual violence to reduce anyone, even people who have done unspeakable crimes, to a moment.

And what’s worse is that there’s no buffer between them us and us.

Because we’ve all done horrible things.

We’ve all broken hearts, said things in anger that hurt feelings, destroyed objects. We’ve all been callous, cruel, jealous, angry, and apathetic. And virtually everyone alive has at some point or another sat idly by while their society committed monstrosities.

Noam Chomsky has pointed out repeatedly that all American citizens are responsible for the crimes being done in their name. We could have done more. Maybe this is an unfairly extreme viewpoint, but it has the advantage of holding us accountable. Certainly, when we pay our taxes, obey the police, and go about our business, we are giving some kind of imprimatur to the policies of our society and our government.

If we want to reduce others to monsters, there’s no end to that process.

And I have noticed that everyone who has taken the maxim that people can be irredeemably evil, no matter how wonderful of people they may have been, closed their hearts, even if just a little bit.

And we can’t afford that anymore as a species.

I’m not saying that there’s never a reason to stop someone with physical force. I’m not saying that perhaps some people need to be jailed, or compelled to psychiatric treatment. I’m not saying that people should just get away with whatever they please.

But when we start thinking of people as problems rather than souls to be raised up and enlightened, when we start viewing people as dragons to slay, we do something to our ability to solve the problem.

So, if our goal is to reduce evil, what do we do?

Comfort each other. Insure that no one has to go a night in terror. Make sure no one cries themselves to sleep.

Make sure that these huge villages we’ve built called “countries” don’t have people in them who are separated from each other by the accident of their birth or by the caprices of our systems of labor and commerce.

Eliminate the institutions like sexism, racism and classism that degrade the humanity and equality of our fellow women and men.

Make sure that our work is filled with joy and a loving spirit, so that it flows into those who need it.

A lot of people view Empire Strikes Back as the most utterly complete of the Star Wars films. But I view Return of the Jedi as being the more important film.

In Return of the Jedi, the true hero, the one who is right at the end, never stops believing in the capacity for goodness of someone he loves.

That audacity destroys an empire.

When we stop treating people as broken, maybe we can start picking up the pieces.


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