Creating Bad Guys

We have to stop creating bad guys.

How’s that for a lead?

Talking with my kids in the car this morning, I came to the understanding that our national past time is now creating bad guys. We are always looking for someone to blame. Someone to be the seat of all evil in a situation. It’s so habitual now, we can’t even accept the run of the mill bad guy as a bad guy. There’s always got to be someone worse behind the curtain.

For example, Omar Whateverhisnameis. Bad guy. Period.

You’d think being able to pin the blame for a senseless act on an obvious bad guy would be enough. He killed innocent people because he was a bad guy. Clean. Simple. Easy to process. Let’s all agree: he was a bad guy.

But no, we have to go looking for the bigger bad guy. You own a gun? You’re the bad guy now. You follow Islam? You’re the bad guy now. You’re voting for Trump, or Hillary, or Bernie, or a third party candidate no one has really heard of? You’re the bad guy now.

Why do we do this? Because we disagree on certain issues. And in this day and age, to disagree with someone isn’t just an intellectual parting of ways, it’s to somehow invalidate their existence. We’ve somehow determined that if someone else doesn’t walk lock-step with our worldview, they are an infidel. Or a sinner. Or a deviant. Or a nut job. Or a fundamentalist.

In effect, we have created a culture where everyone who disagrees with us is a bad guy.

And because everyone is a bad guy, it means we don’t have to listen to them. After all, bad guys are bad for a reason, right? They represent what is evil, mean, low, and despicable about humanity. They are not to be trifled with, talked to, listened to, or otherwise engaged. You only destroy, in comment threads, chat rooms, text messages, or with bullets, bombs and drones.

“You can’t reason with those people. They only respond to one thing.”

“You can’t talk to people like that. You have to shut them up.”

It takes no effort whatsoever to see that we’ve become increasingly draconian with our response to people who disagree with us. Let’s watchlist anyone who owns a gun. Let’s take away their right to spew hate. Let’s ban all Muslims. Let’s kill every radical.

That last one is the most troublesome. Radical means bad guy nowadays, and what makes a bad guy is now firmly in the eye of the beholder — which means your solution might be used against you.

I wish I could make this point resonate. I wish I could get people to understand that disagreeing with someone doesn’t automatically mean intolerance; that pushing back against someone’s reasoning doesn’t mean you support their marginalization. I also equally understand that the flip side: to be ignored, to not get a fair hearing, to be dismissed out of hand by someone who refuses to listen is one of the most frustrating experiences a human being can encounter.

I am going to be honest. There are people in my life with whom I disagree on any number of topics. Some of them I love dearly. Some of them I keep at arm’s length. Some of them I simply avoid. But I don’t demonize them because we disagree. In fact, most of the time I simply bite my tongue and keep my thoughts to myself because I don’t need to make my disagreement the central point of our relationship.

Instead I do the much harder work of trying to find the places where I can connect with them. That doesn’t mean we become best buddies; it’s just me choosing to not lead with hate. It’s easier to dehumanize. It’s easier to make the other person the bad guy. It’s hard to look at a person and find something good about them, especially when I feel like they have rejected something good in me.

But I choose to do it, because I’m tired of living in hate. I’m tired of being surrounded by bad guys. So I choose to find what makes people good. I’m grateful for the responsible gun owners who might one day defend my family just like I’m grateful for the people who want to make it harder for people of evil intent to get a gun. I’m grateful for people who want to understand persons of religious fervor just as I’m grateful for people who want to be wary of radicalization.

Is it hippie claptrap? Maybe. But it beats the hell out of living in a world where there is no refuge. The truly bad guys find a way of making their presence felt; I certainly don’t need to manufacture psuedo-bad guys to add to the ranks.

If anything, we need to start looking for heroes. We need to start seeing the potential for good in others. We need to start agreeing that our distinctions, our passionate differences, can help us be a stronger, better nation.

It’s not too late for that, is it?

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