Last issue, I left the “good guys and bad guys” discussion incomplete. If I had more room, I would have went on to say that the absence of “bad guys” doesn’t imply that nothing bad ever happens. People do bad things, but that doesn’t mean they are bad. It usually means that there are negative consequences, usually for everyone involved, including the perpetrator. According to Buddhism, as I understand it, a sin is not so much an infraction that deserves punishment as bad practice that has bad consequences. Call it karma or the tail follows the dog; the punishment is not meted out by anyone nor need it be. The punishment is a natural consequence of the act itself. It may be instantaneous like sticking your finger into a flame, but it could be much more subtle. It may look like a clear win in the short run, but it will have bad consequences in the long run: kind of like eating a double fudge sundae everyday.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do all that we can to keep people from doing bad things. As with health problems, which behavior problems resemble, the cheapest and surest solution is prevention. Fair and just rules and laws set the basic parameters for what kinds of behavior usually lead to bad consequences. They might keep us from having to learn everything by trial and error. On the other hand, laws that make no sense to us goad us into breaking them just on principle. It’s practically written into our constitution (and the Constitution!). Laws need to be written knowing that, in the end, we each will be the final arbiters who decide whether we will obey them.
Another tool for prevention is to make sure laws are fairly and justly applied. If we feel that we are getting screwed, we may have no qualms about breaking the law, even if we know that what we are doing is bad. We’re pissed and we don’t care. That’s how people decide to deliberately or randomly kill other people. If the people that are getting screwed and/or the people doing the screwing can be identified as a particular group, we think of them as “bad” people. That’s how we make “bad guys.”
Our bad behavior may be helped along by a religious or political ideology, in which case the “bad guys” are clearly defined, and we may actually feel positive euphoria while committing the greatest of evils. This is about as close as we can get to calling a group of people inherently evil, but we need to remember that by doing so, we put ourselves in the same basket. This is the difficult situation where people are raised in a culture that sees all others as evil or unworthy. Most religions and cultures have some degree of patriarchy as well as negative judgments relating to race, ethnicity, or class. We can’t punish people for what they have been brought up to believe, but we can’t ignore their behavior either. That’s where laws and ample demonstration of proper behavior is warranted. Even so, it takes a long time to root out these misperceptions.
Before we get too self-righteous, I want to point out that we are all equally capable at any time of good and bad behavior. It is hardwired into our emotional makeup. You are familiar with the idea of good and bad angels who sit on each of our shoulders. I think we are consulting them all the time, sometimes going with one, sometimes the other. Sometimes a situation calls for some anger and confrontation even though most of the time, we’ve made the wrong choice. So, it isn’t a simple matter of always listening to the one and never the other. Our choices are never as simple as that.
A lot of the time, we use the behavior of those around us as a yardstick for what is right (or at least acceptable, which is often good enough for us). This is why I’m greatly troubled by the brutish culture that our president is modeling for the rest of us. We are all capable of that kind of behavior, and we can see it more and more all around us because it is considered now to be acceptable. Don’t think you are immune because you see it as despicable. There is ample historical evidence of neighbors turning on neighbors because of something that has nothing to do with their immediate social environment. This is a dangerous situation that is not normal even though the media try to rationalize it as business as usual. We need to impeach and remove this president. Then the most important thing we can do is to provide counseling and mental and emotional support for the many damaged people among us. Next we need to support compassionate, nonjudgmental people, especially those running for office now all over the country. The next most important thing is to avoid being violent. We may have to defend ourselves at times, and we definitely will need to put our foot down and tolerate no violence from others. Being nonviolent requires more courage than resorting to violence. This is a touchy situation and will require courage and presence of mind for us to get past it.