6 Reasons Good People Turn Into Monsters
I want this phrase added to the American flag:
Hating a bad thing does not make you good.
Put it in place of some of the stars or something. It's important. It's one of those things everyone knows, right up until it's convenient to not know it. Hell, hating bad people doesn't even necessarily get you closer to being a better person. The Klan hates ISIS, but we don't count that as a point in their favor. Yet I'm pretty sure that most of what we consider being good in this culture is just having disdain for the right things.
What does this have to do with police shootings, Nazis, immigration, and most of the headlines you'll see this year? And how does it tie into the best Keanu Reeves action franchise? Well, it comes down to how ...
We Hate Giving People Second Chances
This subject will be about five outrages old by the time this article goes up, but as I type this, the Trump administration just ended a government program for children whose parents entered America illegally. "DACA" basically allowed these young people to get jobs, pay taxes, go to school, and get driver licenses despite not being citizens. Ending the program means destroying the lives of about 800,000 people for a crime their parents committed. As one Republican congressman put it, "justice" means these people deserve to "live in the shadows." After all, he said, they entered the country illegally. Not even years of productive, law-abiding living absolves them of that original sin.
Experts call it "John Wick morality" (or at least they should), named after the film series in which Keanu Reeves' dog is killed by Russian mobsters, and in response he shoots 738 of them in the head. You wouldn't think any real person considers that a reasonable moral code to live their life by, until you look at the comments under any article about a police shooting and see ...
... or see entire comment sections full of people rooting for a guy who shot a car thief to death. The logic almost makes sense if you squint -- if the victim hadn't resisted (or suddenly moved their hands, or smoked weed, or failed to signal, or illegally crossed the border), they'd still be alive, therefore they have no one to blame but themselves.
That "no one to blame" phrasing is key. It implies that once someone breaks a rule, you can do whatever you want to them and you cannot be blamed. Listen for it, and you'll hear somebody using this reasoning once a day, even if it's just over stupid shit. Do you have some poor bastard in your social circle who's gotten stuck with a demeaning nickname based on something they did when they were 13? If you want a famous example, try to find a single discussion about Richard Gere, anywhere, that doesn't bring up the urban legend about him shoving a gerbil up his ass (a rumor that got started during the freaking Reagan administration).
Which means people had to devote actual conversation time to the possible contents of this man's asshole, rather than mere tweets.
We need that one mortal sin which will let us revoke a person's status as a human worthy of dignity, respect, empathy or anything else. It's the proverbial John Wick's Dog, the moral trump card. We cannot be accused of prejudice or pettiness as long as we've got a bloody JWD carcass to jiggle in response to critics.
How does this apply to you, a good person fighting the good fight? I'm getting to that.
We Use "Justice" As Cover For All Manner Of Awfulness
"Hold on," says the hypothetical skeptical reader who's been following me from article to article for the last ten years, "you're using immigration hardliners and police shootings as an example of this shit in action? Those are just the result of racism, dude."
I don't think that's the complete truth. I think the reason so many racists could pass an "Are you a racist?" polygraph test is that they don't think minorities are inhuman due to their color, but rather their supposed criminality. The officer who shot Philando Castille as he sat in a car with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter said that he thought he smelled marijuana. In his mind, this single hint of a single minor crime meant absolutely anything done in response was justified.
A response which horrifically smelled of gunpowder.
That he would not have done this if the driver were a whimsical white stoner dude never occurs to him -- prejudice almost always hides behind a supposed zeal for justice. Internet hate mobs never flood a woman's inbox with death threats without a JWD to justify it. ("She wouldn't be getting these calls in the middle of the night if she hadn't made fun of us on Twitter!") And where a crime doesn't exist, we'll extrapolate one. "Of course I thought my family was in mortal danger when that Mexican man approached the car! After all, if a guy will cross the border illegally, he'll rape a woman. He's already proven he doesn't care about the law!"
It's an utterly insane double standard, of course -- our own mistakes are singular instances and in no way should affect others' overall opinion of us. ("Just because I lied doesn't make me a liar!") Yet it's so seductive that virtually every hateful asshole you've met in your life has built their fetid nightmare of a personality upon this very foundation. They all think their daily cruelty is in response to some extreme provocation.
And If you don't already feel like the victim of some perceived aggression, then don't worry: There's an entire industry dedicated to that.
But this article isn't just about piling scorn on those people; virtually everyone reading this already thinks of them as monsters. My point is that none of them were born monsters, so we should be having the same conversation people do in the second act of every zombie movie. "How do we stop them and, more importantly, how do we keep ourselves from getting turned?" If cruelty wears justice as a disguise, then anyone who believes in justice is at risk. In fact, the more strongly you believe in justice, the more at risk you are.
Once, as a well-meaning child, I asked my Sunday School teacher how it was okay for God to send people to Hell for eternity based on fairly minor infractions, while if an earthly ruler punished rulebreakers with indefinite torture, they'd be considered cruel despots. The answer made sense to me at the time, and went like this:
Because God is infinitely righteous, He has infinite loathing for unrighteousness. His very purity is what makes any tolerance of impurity impossible.
Therefore, our modern pansy-ass attitude toward lawbreakers (insisting on reform and humane treatment) is actually evidence of our corruption. If we were more righteous, we would be more cruel toward the unrighteous. Therefore, not only is that cruelty justified, but it is in fact a key barometer of our own goodness. Petty meanness toward atheists and homosexuals is exactly what God wants. If you're reading this and sure that this kind of medieval thinking only applies to Christians ... well, keep reading.
We Start Hating People For All The Wrong Reasons
A critic of any female politician/pundit/activist can't resist pointing out how ugly/fat she is (if she's pretty, then the insult is that she's a slut or that she only got her position based on looks). Racists will start with high crime rates and unemployment, but will quickly move on to how rap music is shitty, how ghetto women wear trashy clothes, how blacks can't speak proper English. Never mind that it's impossible to justify music, fashion, and dialect as examples of moral failure. For some reason, it's not enough for their enemies to be merely wrong; they have to be disgusting on a visceral level.
Feel free to swap race with "People who like the wrong team / political party / brand of smartphone" if you need proof this is everywhere.
It's crazy how those racists do that, isn't it? Those dirty, toothless, inbred hillbillies. They're almost as bad as the gamergaters. You know, those fat virgin neckbeards in their mothers' basements? They all probably voted for Trump -- that guy with the gross weird hair and fake tan and tiny hands. Disgusting, right?
"Well, but that's different! In those cases, the targets deserve it!" Oh, I get it. It feels great to poke our enemies in their sensitive spots. We know Trump is insecure about his hair, that Chris Christie is probably sensitive about being fat, that social outcasts are so ashamed of their virginity that some of them will blow their brains out rather than live with it. So why not use those weapons? This is total war, after all -- everything about the enemy is fair game. And remember, the more cruel we are to bad guys, the better we are as people. God himself said it.
But what about all of the good people out there with weird hair, those insecure guys shyly trying to hide bald spots? Or your allies who are unattractive, nervous, and unsuccessful at sex? How are they not supposed to take home the message that personal appearance apparently matters just as much as their moral choices, and that sexual failure is something to be deeply ashamed of? That it doesn't matter if you're one of the good guys if you also have poor grooming and social skills?
Well fuck, now look what's happened. We've not only justified cruelty toward our enemies based on their past sins, but justified cruelty to totally unrelated people. Just throwing out collateral damage like John Wick's stray bullets, mowing down passing tourists with gun-fu until the whole city is brought to a panicked standstill. We certainly don't stop to ask if the dog would even have wanted this.
"All I wanted was to sleep and eat cat poop. Killing more people than a natural disaster is a fitting tribute to that dream."
We Wind Up Radicalizing Ourselves
One genre of angry message I've gotten over the years goes something like "I've been a daily reader since 2010 and thought you were the good guys, but after seeing [joke/article they found offensive], I'm realizing how wrong I was! Goodbye forever." Think about that for a moment. They are claiming to have read and enjoyed literally thousands of articles and videos before encountering one single offensive idea, at which point they declared the whole enterprise a loss. That's super weird.
"This show sucks. Better throw out my TV."
Well, it's weird until you consider what particular bubble they spend their time in. I've never been around an activist group that didn't turn into an endless series of petty purity tests. I was raised in a church where everyone was looking for more and more inconsequential things to judge each other by. R-rated movies were of course forbidden, but which prime-time network TV shows were permissible? Any of them? Of course rock music was of the devil, but what about country? Aren't those songs about faith, kind of?
The natural evolution is toward tighter and tighter criteria for what behavior gets you shunned from the group. The end result is that the central cause, the group's JWD, can be as pure as the driven snow, and yet the tone will get more and more toxic over time, the members becoming less and less charitable with each other. Here, for example, is what my Twitter timeline looks like:
"Nazis are bad and must be opposed."
"People who enable or defend Nazis must also be opposed."
"Unlawful violence is perfectly acceptable when opposing Nazis and their enablers."
Wait, I'm not sure I'm on board with that ...
"Anyone who opposes the use of unlawful violence against Nazis is also a Nazi enabler."
What? No! I'm one of the good guys!
"Also, if you think about it, all American institutions and capitalism itself help support white supremacy, therefore all are Nazi enablers and eligible for violent retribution."
Hey, I think you just declared war on literally everyone who isn't currently in the room with you.
You hear experts talk about how extremists get "radicalized" -- how a guy went from a mild-mannered food inspector in San Bernardino to a brainwashed suicide attacker in the course of a year or so. But it really isn't a mystery, and we all form less-murderous versions of this. All it takes is a closed like-minded social circle in which it's considered unacceptable to disagree with the group, and then devote that group to hating something. It doesn't even matter if the thing truly deserves hating -- it still turns toxic. In fact, it works better if it does. "How can you criticize any flaw in our group's behavior when the other side is Nazis! That's literally saying that both sides are the same! The mere existence of pure evil on the other side mathematically means our side is pure good!"
At that point, no criticism is possible and there is nothing to moderate the rage. The rhetoric ratchets higher and higher as each member tries to top each other (to prove their own righteousness by demonstrating they hate the target most), and there is no method for reining it in. Moderate voices from outside the group are excluded completely, anyone from the inside who takes a moderate tone can be shouted down with accusations of being an enemy sympathizer. Soon, everything from objectively grotesque insults to elaborate torture fantasies are tossed around without a second thought.
... Until You Reach A Point Of No Return
At some point, an action will be suggested that you would normally consider immoral. It doesn't have to involve armed mobs or building bombs. Depending on the time, place, and cause, it might be as minor as agreeing to spread a lie. ("I mean, even if they didn't really do it, they probably did something just as bad! It's not like they never lie about us!") Or maybe someone will suggest digging up a member of the opposition's address, maybe find out where they work, show them how serious we are.
In every case, some members will be nervous. There can be consequences to this kind of thing, right? But will they risk their status in the group by objecting? Will they have their commitment to the cause questioned?
"I can't lose face in front of my fellow cyber-warriors. Wait ... wasn't this group about repairing the potholes on Main St. at some point?"
It is right about here that you realize the cause was never what was important. The group was what was important -- having a bunch of like-minded people standing and fighting alongside you. After all, was it ever about the dog, or was it about what the dog symbolized? So maybe you wouldn't sacrifice yourself for the cause -- you can always get another dog -- but would you sacrifice yourself for your friends, these people who you know would damned well do the same for you? Absolutely!
And now, without realizing it, you have the answer to the question you've been asking your whole life: "How can evil people live with themselves? How can a Hitler or Osama bin Laden or Charles Manson look themselves in the mirror every day?" Here you go. This is how. Inside every truly destructive person is the JWD, the broken and bleeding puppy driving them mindlessly forward, and outside of them is a group of people reinforcing their rage until the rage is all they are.
It is a fact of human nature that living purely in opposition to something, rather than for something, hollows you out inside. To be a whole human being, you have to spend your life building something good. It's easy to find yourself withholding time and energy from friends, family, career, and hobbies, because damn it, one of those assholes on the other side has said something outrageous and I must respond, because this is war and this is all that matters.
And The Whole Time, You'll Tell Yourself It Was The Only Way
Around 70% of readers never make it to the end of an internet article, so it'll be interesting to see how many rebut this with, "Oh, great, another article saying Antifa and Nazis are the same! As if one of them ISN'T ACTIVELY DEMANDING GENOCIDE." It's the same mental dodge I've been pointing out -- as long as the other side is worse, you can't criticize me. But I'm personally telling you, as an individual human being, that you need to ask yourself one crucial question: Are you in it for the cause, or are you in it for the fight? There's an easy way to tell: Do you get involved with the boring parts?
Donald Trump's entire agenda could be obliterated a little more than a year from now with a new congress, but statistically the vast majority of you won't vote at all (and I'd say the vast majority who show up to anti-Nazi rallies also won't cast a vote). Smacking Nazis with clubs is fun. Voting in midterms is not. Only one results in real change. Hell, in the 2016 election that supposedly determined the future of humanity "Did Not Vote" won 44 of 50 states. Why are some of you willing to put yourself in physical danger at a protest but won't suffer the tedium of real-world policy change? Deep down inside, you know the answer.
"But voting doesn't change anything!" Okay, the outcome of exactly one senate race just prevented Obamacare from being repealed. Twenty million people will have health insurance next year because just a small group of voters -- enough to fit in a stadium -- showed up instead of staying home. You think Hillary would be talking about repealing DACA? "Sometimes violence is the only way!" Are you saying that based on evidence, or because you want it to be true? For every nationalist/authoritarian movement that got turned back by war, literally thousands quietly died due to losing elections or just failing to drum up popular support. How many elections has David Duke won? Goddamnit, you're playing their game. Don't let the devils drag you into Hell.
Because god help you if one day you find your enemy has finally been defeated or, even worse, that your tactics only made them stronger (would an armed mob on the other side hurt or help recruitment for yours?). You are left with a personality built entirely on fighting a misguided war, a bottle of poison that didn't kill the cockroaches and is now just collecting dust in the garage. At that point, will you give up the rage and rebuild your personality around loving something? Or will you just turn that hatred on yourself? I want you to at least think about it. Here's a GIF of an otter having a snack.
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