In fiction, moral complexity is in. Today’s golden age of TV have brought characters who are difficult or whose intentions are ambiguous out of the realm of literary fiction and art house movies to popular shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and countless others. And we love it. When you consider a character, your opinion of that character is colored by many things other than “hero” or “villain.” On Mad Men, when nearly every main character has either cheated on a significant other or knowingly slept with someone who’s cheating, how do you measure which character you enjoy the most? On Breaking Bad, why do some people root for characters who’ve killed innocent people but hate other characters for smaller, personality-related reasons? I don’t watch Game of Thrones, so I can’t really comment on it, but I’ve picked up on some of the Snark Ladies’ interesting thoughts regarding the actions of some characters on that show.
Here’s what I’ve been noticing lately: this cultural embrace of moral ambiguity does not extend to actual human beings. With current events, there always has to be a villain, even in accidents where no one was really at fault. On the Internet, if anyone says anything regrettable, they’re never given the chance to backtrack or apologize—and even if they do, people will label them and discount anything they say from then on. There’s this ridiculous Tumblr, which I won’t link (if you’ve heard of it, you’ll know which one I mean) that catalogs everything that popular celebrities say that could be construed as “problematic”—even though some of those things are hardly problematic and some of them are things said or done while playing a character.
We reduce people.
We boil down every single thing about a human being—all experiences, all circumstances, all thoughts, all actions, all feelings—to one single thing we don’t like and slap a label on them.
We do it all the time, with everyone from celebrities to politicians to criminals to people we know personally or engage with online. It’s too much work to consider the bigger picture or to imagine that there’s anything more to a person than whatever we don’t like.
I say “we” because I’m guilty of this, too—too often. It’s easy to reduce. It’s harder to look closer and find the humanity in people we don’t like, or people who do things we don’t like.
I mentioned before that Schindler’s List, which I saw for the first time last year, is something I have a hard time talking about. The reason why is that what I took away from it was very personal, and I was afraid if I tried to explain it, it would come out sounding like I was making a movie about the biggest genocide in modern history all about me. But this was the revelation I had while watching it, a movie about a man who, despite doing an incredible thing that saved over a thousand lives, was not by any means a saint: if you lose your ability to see beyond whatever you don’t like about a person, if you can dehumanize people enough to boil them down to a single thing about their complex being—then that’s one thing you have in common with the Nazis.
When you don’t consider the humanity of every person, the inherent worth everyone has just by being alive, even people who do terrible things with their lives, it looks pretty ugly.
I’m often amazed by people who are more generous, compassionate, and forgiving than I am. When Fred Phelps died recently, I was surprised by the subdued reaction, which could be summed up as “let’s not stoop to his level.” My basic instinct is more often than not a desire for revenge, even if it always stays just a revenge fantasy, but thank God for the example of people whose hearts are bigger than mine.
Sometimes I’m not very good at forgiveness. But I’m trying to get better.
There’s no one thing that inspired this post. It’s a conglomeration of observations of things around me and in the world. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and something I always want to keep with me as I check my reactions when anything upsets me.
I don’t want to reduce people. And I don’t want anyone else to, either. People are all more than the sum of their complex, sometimes infuriating parts. I need to remember that while there is a great capacity for evil in humans, there is an even greater capacity for love, kindness, and compassion. And I need to recognize that greater capacity in all people as well as in myself.