When All the Good Guys Are Actually Bad Guys

We do seem to be quite prone to thinking of those on the “other side” not in terms of the wisdom of the goals at which they aim but in terms of virtue and vice.

We have been deprived of the opportunity to consider things from the perspective of the other, and thereby to soften our differences, and more frequently find solutions which better balance the various concerns. We tend to deal with by means of “war” what would be better dealt with by means of dialogue.

 

Does it seem to you, as it does to me, that it has become more common for our public debates to be framed as being between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”? When I hear people talking about political issues, it’s very common for discussions not to be framed in terms of the strength or weakness of the arguments on the various sides of the issue. Rather, the tone of these discussions seems much more partisan and adversarial—almost tribal (David Brooks addressed this issue in a recent op-ed in the New York Times).

Quite frequently it’s not even just one issue that is being discussed, but a whole laundry list of issues, and the positions being championed correspond uniformly to the platform of some political party. Sometimes, when participating in or overhearing a conversation like this, you might even get the impression that the people doing the talking are vilifying those on the other side of the debate or in a different political party as not just wrong, but evil.

Is one side filled with virtue while the other side is filled with vice?

Whether it’s actually more common now than it used to be, we do seem to be quite prone to thinking of those on the “other side” not in terms of the wisdom of the goals at which they aim—nor in terms of whether the means they argue for are well calculated to achieve those goals—but in terms of virtue and vice. The people on “our side” are perceived as “good,” and the people on the “other side” as “evil.”

Now it’s true that there are times when we must not shy away from calling certain things evil. For example, New York’s new abortion law, which allows the killing of babies up to the moment of birth without material restriction, is deeply evil. But acceptance of even evil like this is, for most people, not the result of an explicit love of death, but of comfortable and convenient lies told and believed for too long.

This kind of evil is usually more attributable to calloused hearts, ingrained societal habits, and the syndrome of the proverbial “frog in the boiling pot of water” than it is about an explicit bloodlust. Nevertheless, very evil things—like abortion, sexual abuse, slavery, murder, and genocide—can be done by people who have come to accept evil as “normal.” Christians would be failing to be “salt and light” if they failed to boldly confront such evils when they encounter them in the world

Many of our differences of opinion should be open to respectful dialogue.

But most of our differences are more mundane than this; they are differences of opinion about how to relatively value things like freedom versus security, the rights of the individual versus the needs of the many, privilege versus responsibility, and so on. In many cases our differences are differences “on a grand scale”—about how to achieve the “good society. On the more mundane level, in the context of our daily lives, our ideas about what’s fair, or about how we ought to treat each other aren’t radically different from each other. But because of our differences on the “big issues,” we tend to perceive those who disagree with us as a threatening “Other.”

In many cases, our differences of opinion are magnified by our lack of sufficient exposure to people unlike us. In fact, the more our society has become riven by tribal division, the more we have retreated from meaningful discussion with the “Other” into the comforting embrace of people who think exactly as we do. Our perceptions of people unlike us is shaped by mass media. Social media has only accelerated this trend.

As a result of these changes, we have been deprived of the opportunity to consider things from the perspective of the other, and thereby to soften our differences, and more frequently find solutions which better balance the various concerns. We tend to deal with by means of “war” what would be better dealt with by means of dialogue.

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