Decent People

A remarkable anecdote from the past four years is the account of a recognizable TV editor journalist of an experience at a Trump rally. (I never took note of the details and his name, and only remember the gist of the story. If you know the reference, I’d love to add it here.) Like so many other experiences of journalists, this journalist was called out by the crowd during the rally with hateful, vile rants and threats. However, what is interesting and and interesting to the journalist as well, is that as soon as the lights went down on the rally, the same people gathered around him asking questions about his personal life, fawning on him really, wanting to know more about him as people would with a celebrity in their midst.

I can’t begin to elaborate on all the questions that story raises. Questions for example, about reality and ceremony, how cultural ceremony that sweeps people up in the moment of the happening is a kind of theatre, participatory theatre, a boundary line crossed into a safe place to explore deeper phenomenon of human psyche. Unfortunately, the line is not recognized, is blurred in modern western cultures and is interpreted as reality, the way things are in ordinary life.

President-Elect Joe Biden in his inaugural speech after winning the election spoke of returning decency to American politics: a relief for many shocked at how malicious, vile, and abusive rhetoric could be tolerated for four years from an American president and supporters.

I would love to spend time in some of the reddest counties, listen to people who love going to Trump rallies. I’m only speculating here, but my guess is that those people are also quite decent people. Maybe they don’t act in a decent way, but at heart they are decent people acting out in a kind of self-projected righteous anger. Maybe they, or maybe only some of them, are nasty bigoted mean people we fear.

I lean with more than one journalist who have spent careers on the international stage who all reflect on how most everyone they have encountered in so many countries and societies are in their judgment, good people. Decent people. Most people are like that.

But people can become something else than decent. That’s the open question. How is that? How do they go against their nature and values and become so caught up in a point of view, (shall we call it). German people who became Nazis were decent people. Something happens. I think this is a key point: human beings on a personal basis are independent thinkers, think for themselves, but humans in a collective can be easily coerced into action, into a group think that distorts their personal character. Some get bent and bend back; some get taken over, possessed, lose any sense of humanity, like some of those Nazis or Rawandans or…

Humans, decent people, are capable of horrible acts. It seems to me three roots are behind the inhuman action. Some life experience bends them or damages them permanently. There’s always a story. Some story of early trauma, for example, has determined the whole adult life of so many; they are branded and never break away. A lot of research in psychology points to an experience of trauma that can extend into next generations. Having talked to a number of incarcerated men, I can only say I’m sure I’d be where they are if I had been subjected to the life they had. Second, some people unthinkingly get carried away by some group force. It’s the same emotional and psychic appeal for identity and acceptance that stadiums of sports enthusiasts act out. They want to join in, and entertaining and enabling Trump rallies, for example, do that. People feel comforted, that they belong, and accept without question what seems normal, what milieu they are in. Third some people are just born with deep psychic distortion, pathologies, a numbers game to be expected over the millions of single cell multiplications that results in each human being. Rare occasions for the misfire, thankfully.

I guess the point I come to as I opt for the belief most all people are decent is that if we can all begin there with each other, believing in the good spirit in the other, and if we can see a good humanity in all people no matter their behaviour, then we can be human together, and become more human, that is good people, with each other. I think that’s love and compassion. I think if we can get beyond the behaviour and believe people’s action is shaped and distorted by the imperfection of life, then we see another person to be like us. That is, given other circumstances or birth markers, we could be them just as easily as they are them. Yes, with another education in life, another set of conditions, I could just as readily be that screaming person at a Trump rally that believes legacy journalists are out to destroy my way of life. That’s because the possibility, the delicate balance of the best and worst hang from a thread in all of us. The human being is within us, not some preferential status selected and dependent on our virtue, but imbued, with all of it, every bit of the human story, in our very nature, in our body, our reptilian brain stem, in our gut. But for grace, I am another. It is in this humility, recognition that we are no more superior a moral person than any other, just one other with our story, saved by our circumstances, our teachers, our boundaries; then in that humility we know our humankind, we know ourselves, we understand compassion. In Martin Buber’s translation of the golden rule, we take care of the other because the other is like us. All others, all of us, imbued not with utopia or dystopia but this peculiar humanity. In the story of the Garden of Eden and the knowledge of the tree of good and evil is use of the Hebrew literary device of a merismus which is not characterizing distinct good and evil but the wholeness of good and evil, the whole of the moral landscape as one and indivisible, as in us; we might then imagine. The whole order within. That possibility in us. And so we are not some better than the others, but we are like each other. And so I see myself in the other. And seeing that I become compassion.

And I think if I was that person acting out, say at the Trump rally, laughing at minorities or chanting hunt-them-down, lock-them-up, I would believe I was acting justly. Doing the right thing. Being a decent person, if filled with righteous rage. They feel justified. That’s the point. President-elect Biden calls for a return to decency, to justice -well I think the Trump supporters would be surprised, would not say about themselves that they are unjust. It’s not how they see themselves. so there, in seeing themselves as just, is our beginning point for compassion, for finding our way with each other. That we want the best despite how differently people see that is the beginning point to reflect humanity back in each other, to listen, to learn. See that in each other.

I feel great sympathy for the man who went with a gun to the pizza shop that was said to house a pedophile ring in the basement (run by Hilary Clinton). He went tot he Pizza shop with a gun to rescue the children. He was taking on a heroic human act. It was all displaced from reality because he was living inside a talk media bubble of lies, but he was in his mind, doing a decent thing. And let’s keep going. Let’s see those money-grubbing hosts and producers of talk media who, in Rosenwald’s history of American Talk Radio, are described as people who believe in what they do, feel they are acting in a, shall we say, decent way, yet get so caught up in the conceit of their life they justify it to themselves blind to its consequences and social costs of their action. So we begin not with the lies but the belief they are doing the right thing.

But if they do step back for a moment… now I can’t say if they turn to my perspective on life for I can be off in left field myself just as easily for alI know…what rationalization, what fog am I in? No, I want to say if they do step back for a moment and turn to our shared humanity, then we find each other. Debating the issues only entrenches our differing positions. In that place of our shared humanity, where we acknowledge the possibility of goodness in each other, where we listen to each other, where we take an interest in the other, then so we all arrive at humility, at the place of not knowing, in that place able for compassion.

We are all on a journey through the light and the dark. On a grand scale, humanity knows the very highest of the light and humanity has become possessed of the very darkest of evil. In all, mixed up in the very nature of our humanity, the history we live by, that is our human dilemma, to act nobly or on the flip of the die, to be subject to great forces that can possess us, tip us over in any moment one way or another, a word here and there, a slap in the face, a rape of the body. It has in the course of human history been the practice to drug soldiers before they went into battle. Distort decent people to submit to committing to horrific deeds. Could be any of us. We are all capable, have in us, that whole range of possibility of human action.

We have to love each other. The stronger ones to bend down to help the others. To love that abusive alcoholic not judge and blame and condemn him. Yes condemn the behaviour, but love the person, for love, not judgement will bring them back to their decency, for they are, despite anything else at all, they are decent people. As are we. And we all need each other, to act as decent people, to act with love. The kind of person I want to be.