Saturday 9 December 2023

Goodies and Baddies

This week we saw the unedifying sight of the presidents of two Ivy League Universities (Harvard and Pennsylvania) and MIT, saying that calling for the genocide of Jews was not necessarily against their bullying and harassment codes of conduct.

How did we get here, less than a century after the Holocaust?

Oddly enough, I was already thinking about writing about Goodies and Baddies this week, following another thought-provoking exchange. This one was in a private conversation with an academic, who had discovered, to his shock, that an industrialist with whom he is collaborating on a grant, does not share his left-wing view of the world. So great was his shock that he was wondering whether he would, in fact, be able to work with this person, whom he had previously thought of as a friend as much as a collaborator. But it was when he said: 'I mean, if he doesn't even want to try to be a decent human being...' that I was brought up short (mentally) and had to work hard to stay in listening mode.

As it happens, I did; and in fact, as he thought further about the issue, he realised that he was making rather a large assumption, and that holding socially conservative views didn't necessarily mean that his collaborator 'doesn't even want to try to be a decent human being.' (see my previous post on why we listen to bad ideas if you are interested in what happened here and why I didn't immediately confront this sloppy thinking). 

But I think in both cases, the issue arose because of Goodies and Baddies thinking. The presidents of the Ivy League Universities, I suspect, have decided that the Palestinians are the Goodies in the current conflict. Therefore (and it is precisely that link that is so problematic) the Jews are the Baddies.

Likewise, my academic client clearly knows that he (and all his left-leaning friends - the only people, as he pointed out - with whom he normally mixes professionally, as he works in a University) are Goodies. They work (very hard) for the betterment of humanity, and support left wing politics as they believe that they will best deliver social goods. Therefore (that dangerous link again) those who disagree are the Baddies.

Of course, it isn't articulated like that. That's the problem. The assumption seems to be operating at an instinctive, rather than an intellectual, level; and as my academic client experienced, when submitted to serious reflection, it rather crumbles. And the joke is that I am sure that the three presidents, and my academic client, would all see themselves as liberal and inclusive people.

For myself, I only have to look at myself to see that I am a bit of mix. I have good intentions (most of the time) and try to do good (at least some of the time). However, I can find that I have mixed or even shameful motivations at times (pride, selfishness and competitiveness amongst others) and I behave badly at times (I will not go into full confessional mode here, however). 

It was of course that towering figure, Solzhenitsyn, who put it most powerfully:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.

But Goodies and Baddies is such a compelling narrative: it is, after all, at the heart of most fiction - and that with good reason! So it is extremely easy to fall prey to it. And from there it is a short step to de-humanising the Baddies, to misrepresent them, rather than seek to understand what validity, if any, their views may have, or (more importantly perhaps) what good values they are seeking to pursue. And we end up with the kind of polarisation that is bedevilling so much political and indeed civic and academic discourse at present. It is lazy and childish.

As ever, it is far easier to spot this in someone else's thinking - and far more important to spot it in our own.

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