What makes a good person?

16 Nov

I have been dwelling a lot lately on the people I know and love who voted for Trump. I was, in the immediate aftermath, angry at them – even the ones I already suspected would vote for him. It was sort of fine that they were voting for him back when I thought he didn’t have a chance of winning. Don’t get me wrong, it was disappointing – but I just felt like it was a difference of opinion and that it would gain me little to argue with them about it or try to actually change their minds – my way, the way of progress, the way of the future, was going to win. As those who have been reading lately will know, I now regret my hands-off approach. I wish I had engaged them better, and more often. I vow to do better moving forward.

But I’m left, now, with my feelings toward them. The anger has faded a little, I am mostly just disappointed, in the way a parent might be disappointed when the child they thought they raised better acts out in unexpected and distressing ways. I thought I knew who they were.

I thought they were “good Christians”, and I thought that really meant something to them. Each time another Trump incident went viral, I thought “this is the one – this is the thing that will change their minds about supporting him, they have to see now”. I assumed that, in the end, his bigotry, his immaturity, his sexism – and, just, how woefully underprepared he was – I thought all of this would come clear and ultimately would stop them from being able to cast a vote for him. Or, rather, I hoped for it. Because, let’s face it – I had already seen in their rationalizations that they had the capacity to ignore the worst facets of Trump. I just hoped that their better selves would carry the day. I am deeply disappointed that didn’t happen. But when you talk to many of these people, they feel the same about my support for Hillary – how could I gloss over x, y, and z (nevermind that x and y aren’t true, and z doesn’t begin to compare to Trump’s alphabet of problems)?! Surveying our cultural differences right now is to look out across a deep, wide canyon that seems unbridgeable – it is so easy to lose hope.

These votes for Trump have forced me to acknowledge things about people I like that are hard to acknowledge:

  1. They have different ideas of fairness and equity than I do. They believe we all start off at the same spot and then where you take yourself is up to you – where they acknowledge that some people start worse off, they believe if those people just work hard they can overcome it. Maybe they don’t believe racism and sexism and classism are institutionalized, or that certain people are disadvantaged from the word ‘go’ for no other reason than the color of their skin or the set of genitals they were born with.
  2. When they saw Trump mock a disabled reporter, or heard him call Mexicans rapists, or talk about grabbing women by the pussy they, at best, didn’t see those as deal-breakers. Why weren’t those deal-breakers for them? Because they aren’t disabled, aren’t Mexican, haven’t been sexually assaulted? Maybe they even thought some of it was kind of funny or true? I have no way, really, of knowing. I know these people don’t have bad intentions, but I also see what they have been able to overlook. How could they overlook those things?
  3. They want fundamentally different things for our country than I do, and they have a lot of company in that (but, importantly, not a majority). Maybe they think marriage should be between 1 man and 1 woman. Maybe they think abortion should be illegal. We may disagree on the social issues – but larger than that, we disagree on the fundamental question of whether our country should be open or closed, for others or for ourselves, global or local. We have different ideas about how we should be taxed, about how the government should spend money, and about what kind of laws we should have all based around that simple axis: open or closed, for others or for ourselves, global or local.
  4. They may not be good people, even though they are nice people.

This last point brings me to the real meat of this post today.

They may not be good people, even though they are nice people.

That is the thought that has been occupying my mind lately – because I haven’t really decided if it’s true. I don’t know what it means to be a good person, but I keep reaching for some general definition. I am reaching for a definition that defies categorization – that defies politics and religion. I think maybe the word I am reaching for is actually “ethical”.

And under that definition, which essentially can be described as “right” or “moral” behavior, I don’t know what matters – intent or result. Because the result is that a racist, misogynist demagogue has just been elected to our nation’s highest office. And the intent in their vote was, indeed, to elect him. But was it to elect a racist, misogynist demagogue? Or was it to elect someone they thought would better serve their interests and world view? If it was the the latter, does it matter? If you voted for a racist, misogynist despite his racism and misogyny are you morally superior to those who voted for him because of it? I think the answer is yes, but only just – because, you see, the result is the same.

“But,” my little lamb brain keeps bleating, “but, these people are nice people. They are kind people. They do things! They volunteer at soup kitchens. They serve at church. They treat their employees well, and hold their friends close. They raise big-hearted children who are also kind and nice and do good deeds.” Does all of that get thrown in the garbage because of one vote? Or even because of a lifetime of votes?

I don’t have an answer. It’s not a rhetorical question. What do you think?

Here is some further reading, all articles I read in the last several days that help illuminate my thought process:

This piece by Jamelle Bouie who essentially falls on the side of arguing that intent doesn’t matter. “There is No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter”

Elizabeth Gratten argues similarly that “the decent white woman who voted for trump does not exist”.

This New York Times piece about women who voted for Trump is a great humanizer.

And, lastly, I like to read the National Review from time to time, even though I can find many things with which to object, because the articles are well-written, arguments are well-reasoned, and it gives me insight into how people who think differently than I do feel about particular issues. This piece is about the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist. There is much to pick at and disagree with, but ultimately I am encouraged that leading conservatives are also concerned with the appointment and voice their opinion that, regardless of his own beliefs, his pandering to the alt-right is cause enough of concern. Here again we see that interplay between intent and result.

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