In the comedy The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, the character Cecily worries aloud about a character named Algernon (who she later falls in love with), stating, “I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look just like everyone else.” Algernon then enters the scene, his presence confirming Cecily’s concern, to which she proclaims, “He does!”
Politics in America has degenerated to the point that we treat people with whom we disagree as if they were, in fact, a “really wicked person.” Contrary to the suggestion of some, I do not believe that good and bad are constructs of man—they are truths. There are acts that are inherently good (for instance, to provide care for someone who is sick or infirm), and there are most definitely acts that are bad by their nature (e.g. premeditated murder is surely bad, to use an extreme example). And each of us has a societal and moral obligation to judge between good and bad and to choose good acts. Certainly Jesus taught us to do this in the Bible.
But Jesus also taught us to be extremely cautious about judging others. We are all weak judges of character and poor judges of another person’s “goodness” or “evilness.” Like Cecily, we all prejudge others, but in the end, we all really just look alike. We are all imperfect.
I believe that it’s important to start with that premise in politics. I am imperfect and weak, so are you. You may be a member of a different political party than I am, but we are both imperfect. But that does not mean that I am good, and you are evil. We both have ideas that we believe are true, but just like our imperfection, our ideas cannot be so easily categorized into the binary boxes of “good” or “evil.” Instead, our ideas are all imperfect. Some are certainly better than others, but still imperfect.
And because of our imperfections, our knee-jerk tendency to think in binary terms about politics is not helpful, nor is it based in reality
Think about it—politics today is steeped in this “either-or” false dichotomy: Republican vs. Democrat, black vs. white, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad. You are either “pro-life” or you support killing babies; you are either “pro-gun” or you want to take away all of our guns; if you’re not “pro-Trump” then you are certainly a Democrat; if you don’t support expansion of social programs, then you want Grandma to starve; blame the Republicans for this; blame the Democrats for that. I could go on and on. This is part of why we may feel our national politics swings from left to right then back to the left, like a never-ending pendulum.
But none of this binary thinking reflects reality. It’s too easy to play the “either-or” game, so we resort to it all the time. Where does it get us? Nowhere.
We must be willing to think deeper than this superficiality. Let me explain.
Imperfect ideas are not monoliths to which we must inexorably cling to—our ideas exist only on a spectrum, like the colors you might see if you looked at sunlight on a spectrum. For example, as a lawyer, I never see a perfect case. Issues must be analyzed, facts must be investigated, perspectives of all sides must be understood, and in the end, the results are often messy. This is because life does not bring us neat and clean situations we can easily drop into “he’s right,” “she’s wrong,” “that’s good,” or “that’s evil.” Deep inside, you and I both know this.
Just the same, as Mayor, there are many issues facing my city that must be carefully considered. These issues are complicated and require more depth of thought. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” Civic work demands leaders and thinkers who live in the details.
The same thing applies to people. Think of the characters Javert and Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s seven starving children, for which he is sent to prison for five years, paroled only nineteen years later after four unsuccessful attempts to escape. When he finally gets out, for those who know the story, he commits himself to God and does much good. Javert, however, only remembers him for his act of thievery, and is determined to put him back in prison. How would you judge a man like Jean Valjean? His situation is certainly not perfect—it exists on the spectrum of imperfection. But Javert is a black-and-white guy, and it doesn’t serve him well at all in the end. We all exist at some place on this spectrum of imperfection. This is one reason why we all deserve a little mercy from each other, which is a major message of the book.
Prior to working as a lawyer, I had the opportunity to clerk for a very thoughtful judge. Part of this job involved the most meticulous analysis of criminal defendants prior to receiving their sentencing. Prior to law school, I was used to commonly hearing people speak about arrested individuals in black and white terms as simply “guilty” or “innocent.” However, I quickly realized how much actually plays into the judging of an individual, or the pronouncement of a sentence for a crime. This was no easy task, and I did not envy the judge’s responsibility. He had to judge people, and had to do so from an imperfect vantage point. What was the defendant’s intent? What was the harm done? Has the defendant already paid some for his crime? Is he remorseful? Did he even know what he was doing? Is it likely he will do it again? And on and on. Contrary to Cecily’s surface, black-and-white judging of Algernon before even seeing him, this judge had to lay out all of the relevant details of a man’s life, and do his best to judge another person in the difficult, messy grey matter in between guilty and innocent.
What about the issues? Consider, for example, our social programs. What level of assistance should we provide to those living in poverty or to individuals with disabilities? Again, there’s a whole spectrum of options, and it’s not helpful or real to think in terms of all or nothing, one option being good and the other evil or wrong. There are all kinds of considerations. Who should qualify? What should we offer as a social net? For what amount of time? It’s extremely easy to call the Republican “evil” for not wanting to expand social programs, or the Democrat “evil” for offering “socialist” social programs, but when we get into the meat of it, again, all we are dealing with are imperfect ideas for imperfect people in messy situations. “Either-or” constructs are not helpful.
And believe it or not, every political issue is like this. Abortion is “bad,” but what if the mother will die if the pregnancy happens, or what if the pregnancy is the result of rape and the woman is only 14 years old? The right to own a firearm is protected in the Constitution, but the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that this right is not absolute for every weapon, or every person in every location, or under every type of circumstance. The right to free speech is protected in the Constitution, but you can’t just say anything you want to in any location to any person. Every political issue is extremely messy and complicated. Every issue has various answers that exist along the spectrum.
Instead of seeing everything in black and white, our politics would benefit if we recognized that we are all imperfect, and therefore, we need each other. Weak people relying on each other stay together, and that’s where strength is found (think, for example, about the imperfect people and states who formed “a more perfect union”). As Lincoln once said, “There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”
We need to recognize the imperfections in ourselves and in our ideas and realize that it is up to all of us, together, to find incrementally better solutions along the spectrum of imperfection. When we do this, we will start to appreciate that some of the greatest truths are found not in black-and-white, but in the messy but beautiful color of grey. We will start to better appreciate and look deeper at people. We will refuse to allow artificial labels (i.e. Republican and Democrat) and stereotypes to form our opinions. We can then become kinder and communicate in more constructive terms, finding solutions to the issues that affect all of us.
The views expressed in this guest article do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of The Civility Initiative. The purpose of guest articles is to to help our readers more fully understand and see current issues from as many different vantage points as possible.
About the Author: Sean Coletti is the Mayor of Ammon, Idaho. He also has a full-time law practice in Idaho Falls at the firm Hopkins Roden Crockett Hansen & Hoopes, PLLC. Sean is married to Jessi Grigg Coletti, and they have two sons, Jaydn and Sterling.