When Good People Happen to Bad Things

Colin Harris


When Good People Happen to Bad Things | Colin Harris, Prejudice, Fear

Perhaps you have had the experience of having friends – good friends and good people – embrace positions and perspectives that are surprisingly at odds with what we might expect of them, Harris writes.
With apologies to Rabbi Harold S. Kushner and to the title of his popular and helpful book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," I found this transposition helpful in reflecting on one of the troubling features of our current political climate.

Perhaps you have had the experience of having friends – good friends and good people – embrace positions and perspectives that are surprisingly at odds with what we might expect of them.

Humility, of course, counsels us all not to claim absolute truth or goodness for any of our partial understandings, but it is disconcerting when people who epitomize compassion and generosity on so many levels align themselves with positions and policies that seem to contradict their basic commitments.

I wonder if there is more to this than just a matter of "everyone having a right to his or her own opinion."

When good people allow themselves to be drawn into narratives that feature and depend on "bad things" (prejudice, fear, greed, Islamophobia, homophobia and the many other forms of "other-phobia"), those "bad things" gain a credibility they would not otherwise have that increases their toxicity in a society.

When a good person embraces a carefully disguised form of racism, for example, this destructive feature of society gains an acceptance it would not have in its more blatant expressions.

A Klansman in a white sheet holding a placard is easily dismissed as an extremist, while a policy aimed at restricting voter turnout disguised as a protection against the negligible possibility of voter fraud might well be accepted as a reasonable idea.

When it becomes apparent that a public figure has lied about some moral transgression, there is quick and widespread negative response, both to the transgression and to the false testimony regarding it.

When a campaign lies about the record, policy or position of an opponent, the testimony often becomes reality for otherwise truthful people, who become its advocates by e-mail and Facebook.

People who are incredibly generous with time and resources assisting with community needs often find themselves supporting public policies that are discriminatory and harmful to the very people they are dedicated to serving, all because they have bought into a line of thinking that has framed the "problem" as being caused by "them."

It is easy for us who would never intentionally harm another to insulate ourselves from the consequences of pervasive systems that perpetuate restraints on our brothers and sisters that reduce their chances to succeed in finding opportunities for fulfillment.

The challenge of trying to change the "big" systems is discouraging, and the vested interests that depend on those systems for preserving advantage are good at adding to the discouragement.

It is easy to accept the "bad things," especially if they are disguised in their subtle forms, and if they don't affect us directly.

People who are the outspoken advocates of extreme and destructive ideas have the right and the freedom to express those ideas and to seek a hearing. Our laws and principles provide and protect that freedom.

Most of the time such extreme voices are relegated to the margins of society and have relatively little effect on our collective consciousness.

But when people generally known for their integrity and reasonableness buy into ideas that are subtle expressions of racism, materialism and other forms of divisiveness and discrimination, those negative forces build like a hurricane over warm water and draw more good people into the path of their destruction.

When good people happen to bad things, the bad things don't look so bad, because good people have embraced them and helped make them more acceptable.

If a thief comes into our home in the company of a good friend, he is more likely to get away with our TV while we're talking to our friend in another room than if he had come to the door by himself.

The 18th-century political theorist Edmund Burke was speaking to this effect when he said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

The silence and tacit acceptance by good people of bad things in their subtle disguises provides more fuel for their destructive work than do their outright advocates.

It is a bit ironic that Burke's thought is considered by many to be the philosophical foundation of modern conservatism, a position now seemingly occupied by Ayn Rand. We can almost hear Burke's ghost saying, "I rest my case."

Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.