Friday, March 07, 2008

Threshold outrage

They say sometimes even good people can do bad things. “Good people.” A simple two-word label given to the idea—not the being—of someone who does no wrong. This person is versed in the ways of Good and Evil; he will never betray our trust; given boundaries, he may step to their edge but never cross. This person… does not exist. An idea, and nothing more; a goal we cannot achieve. The ultimate in frontiers.

Even if we master the expanses space and time, we will never master or understand Good and Evil. And proof of this fact exists around us, day and night. Twice this week, I have found it.

Understand these, or understand nothing of what I say below:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Franklin D. Roosevelt

There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power […] is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged”

Good is Criminal

Twice this week, I’ve tried to visit my high school to revisit a few people who have been very important to my life. Twice, not because I failed, but because I was turned away. I have no desire to cause trouble, so I stop by the office to pick up a visitor’s pass. No dice.

Sorry, the new policy is no visitors during school hours.1

This, to me, is infuriating. I am not here to be a disturbance. I am not going to interrupt lessons. I am here to do what little I can to show a few teachers that their lifetime devotions are appreciated by at least a small subset of the students whose lives they touch. For teachers, it’s a simple but important feeling that keeps them going. That’s the only purpose of my trip.

But no, I might be up to something nefarious and endanger some number’s performance on a standardized test. God forbid. It’s not like the administrators really care about the students’ education; they just care that their numbers are up over last year.

So, denied the pass, I could ignore the rules and wander on my own. I could trespass. I could get caught. I could be arrested. All for wanting to give back what was given me—the encouragement to keep going.

Doing good in spite of the rules can make you a criminal. Thank you, Ayn Rand. I dislike their veracity, but your words hold merit.

Fear versus Truth

What we see here is a dangerous trend gone unnoticed. We are so afraid of the nasty, evil person somebody might be that we often fail to see the good person they are trying to be.

I see:
A student returning to leave a few kind words of encouragement to teachers who, daily, face unappreciative students. I was one of them once, and only now do I realize the value of what they did.

They see:
A stranger. Young enough to pass for a peer among high school students. Perhaps here to stir up trouble—disturb classes, interrupt testing. Perhaps even worse, he’s here to inflict harm upon one or many students—possibly preselected, possibly random. A liability. If any of these fearsome, litigious outcomes happen, our (administrative) asses are on the line. Nope. Not safe. Don’t let him in, unless there’s an arranged and pre-approved reason.

Kinda takes the fun out of it. Where’s the warmth of surprise when even a 10-minute chat to say “thanks” needs to be scheduled with the cold calculation of a business meeting? The whole process becomes mechanical and inorganic, drained almost entirely of the sincerity it might otherwise have.

We’re so afraid of the legions of evil and nasty people that those of us not falling among their ranks will soon cross some law’s boundary. That is, we’re bound by such laws whose text would make our deeds criminal, regardless of intent or outcome.

Words and interpretation

We create meaning with space and words with ink. Unspoken intent is what gives a language power. Words and definitions merely give it utility.

I was once told that if composers notated every nuance of their music, the sheet music would just be a giant black splotch. Musicians learn to read feeling in the space between notes, instead of simply executing what’s printed on the page. Why is this relevant?

… because we’ve long since forgotten how to infer what’s not written. So we’re bound by the letter of laws, even if the spirit was to prevent evil without forbidding good. But these days, we’re so afraid of this nebulous all-encompassing “evil” that we’re going to drown out all semblance of goodwill remaining in noble-hearted individuals.

There are few—not many—who try hard to be a good influence, and I feel like we’re being backed into a corner because of what people fear. We’ve forgotten to heed the advice of FDR as mentioned above, and this will be our reward. A world without good, defined by fear and mistrust.

We are, all of us, constrained not by who we are, but by whom the world fears we might be.

What does it take to turn a good person bad? I’m not entirely certain, but I imagine there is some threshold at which outrage takes hold and reason breaks down. The frustration of good intents being constantly thwarted probably doesn’t help. But nobody sees this.


  1. … with a few caveats. Notably, it seems that prior contact with school employees (teachers) can get you admittance, but only if pre-arranged on behalf of both parties.

1 comment:

Paul said...

… and it's even worse when the constraining fears originate from within ourselves.