Jus(t) a Bad Human

About a year and a half ago, I went to the House of European History in Brussels with my fellow students. In that museum, a narrative is told about the origins of Europe, in particular about the past 250 years, and the origins of the European Union. After a tour in the museum, we discussed the following statement: The House of European History is a form of European propaganda. The teachers wanted to use a critical and questionable statement. Given the slightly startled reaction of the woman from the museum who attended the debate, they had succeeded. My team had to argue in favour of the statement and I was allowed to open the debate.

My main criticism was that the story  about Europe was put in the museum in such a way that the European Union would fit in as the ideal outcome. At the time, I mainly disagreed with the fact that war was depicted as ‘bad’ in the museum. I literally said “they say war is bad”, which resulted in smiling fellow students. And rightly so, because their reaction made sense. Yet it felt strange to me that war was portrayed as bad simply because it was a war in Europe; if we Europeans really think war is so bad, why do we contribute to wars in other parts of the world?

A few years ago when I was wearing a Rise Against shirt to a barbecue of my study association, a fellow student asked me “Rise Against? Against what?” I gave him some examples of phenomena in the world that Rise Against is against; war, murders. Bullying, xenophobia, homophobia, domestic violence, or violence in general, abuse, to name just a few of the many examples. He responded by saying that “everyone is against that, right?”, implying that it’s not so special to be against it. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to say, because I thought he had a good point. I now disagree.

Apparently, there is a public consensus on many of these topics. After all, it is seen as weird to say openly that you are in favour of something like war or murder, which was also visible in the reaction of my fellow students. If it wasn’t strange to say that war is a good thing, they wouldn’t have laughed. But if everyone is against war, or against any of the other phenomena, why does it still exist? Apparently people still find it necessary to keep it alive.

This is not surprising. After all, we all look more like Hitler than we would think, and certainly more than we would like. And yes, you read that right. As Tim Fransen claims in his book Life as a Tragicomedy (2019), pure sadists do not exist. Every person is both good and bad, and we are all around a certain average of that (Fransen, p. 126-131). After all, all people who contributed to the Holocaust were not 100% bad, no matter how often we’d like to look at it that way.

A joke about Hitler that I personally find amusing is “that he was a good person, because he has made tremendous progress in the field of medicine without hurting one animal for that”. Hitler was a vegetarian and was not in favour of animal suffering. A pure sadist? Absolutely not.

However, it doesn’t fit with how we see the world. When it comes to right and wrong, we often tend to make a split; WE are good, and THEY are bad (Fransen, p. 132). From our own perspective we think that we are doing the right thing, because if we didn’t think that, we would change it. Right?

We think we are above average in everything. Above average funny, above average nice, above average interesting, above average honest (Fransen, p. 32). Fransen calls this a logical impossibility, because the average would be somewhere else if we were all above average. A person like Hitler or all the people who contributed to the Holocaust probably thought that of themselves. They thought they were doing good, that they were doing good things. This applies to all bad things in the world (and also ‘bad’ is tied to my perspective here, because people who perform the actions in question probably see those actions as ‘good’), because this is just an example. The chance that we do bad things ourselves is real. Evil is much closer to ourselves than we would like (Fransen, p. 131-132). To return to my previous point: why would many events considered to be bad by consensus in the public sphere, why would they after all still take place?

At the same time, we often expect others to be flawless, especially with regard to our idols or people for whom we have a lot of respect. However, we cannot expect anyone to be 100% good because such people don’t exist, just like people who are 100% bad. After all, we are all an average of good and bad, or somewhere close to that average. We all have dark sides, but of course it’s easier to find them in others than recognize them in ourselves. The fact that someone has done something bad doesn’t immediately make them a bad person, and it doesn’t give any reason to immediately stop supporting or respecting that person. After all, you aren’t an angel yourself.

When I recently shared this last idea in a group chat, I got the comment: “Justin is way ahead of his time. Hopefully you will not be beheaded for your enlightened ideas”. A comment that I liked very much. Although I’m  of course not a 100% good person myself.

Though I am an above average good person, of course.


Footnotes:

  • Tim Fransen – Het Leven als Tragikomedie (2019) | (Life as a Tragicomedy, Dutch only)

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