This blog is based on the premise that we as human beings perceive our reality through contrasts that are placed before us. That’s how we learn. We know light because we also see darkness. We know kindness because we also experience meanness. We perceive right because we think we know wrong. We recognize injustice because we have core values that we believe inform us about what justice looks like.
The exception to this presumption is this: What if society is telling us that injustice is really justified, that it really is justice. Would we know the difference? Would not knowing the righteous truth be our fault, or would we, could we have been influenced so much by the prevailing norms of society that we would not know the difference between right and wrong?
In this way of thinking, were all Germans complicit of Nazi Germany’s commission of the Holocaust? Were all Hutu ethnic Rwandans complicit of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsis? Were all white South Africans criminal in perpetrating Apartheid? Were all voting Americans guilty of the sin of slavery? Are all white Americans guilty of the continuation of racism? Are all police guilty of transgressions? Or were all befuddled by the blurred lines within their social norms?
My two favorite biblical passages deal with these issues. One is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The other is “Do not follow the majority to do evil” (Exodus 23:2). These two passages recognize the dichotomy of human nature, love and evil. And they recognize that in order for society to progress, we need love and also the awareness of and restraint against following cultural, social or business norms that may appear to be okay at the time but are really evil.
Americans currently are going through a very timely and necessary soul-searching, refining “good” so that we will do less “bad”. We are defining good as non-racist and non-discriminatory. We are defining good as equal justice and dignity for all. We are defining good as kindness and respect. And we are defining bad as racism, injustice, cruelty and bigotry.
In the process, many are branding the likes of Christopher Columbus, Woodrow Wilson, Robert E. Lee, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for their racial or ethnic views that society once tolerated — that the majority went along with or even endorsed — but that are no longer acceptable by today’s normative standards of right and wrong.
It seems to me that some protesters and even several companies that are adapting their social responsibility platforms are missing the boat. If “good” men in their times could have followed the majority to do evil, is that not a powerful teachable moment in our times? Rather than ripping down monuments, changing names of cities or removing President Woodrow Wilson’s name from The Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, might we not gain more in the long run by informing ourselves and our children that we all are capable of doing the “right thing” as defined by society but the wrong thing as measured by love, kindness, justice and respect?
In the din of anger and protests, are we missing the opportunity to tell our children that people are rarely totally bad or totally good but, rather, a mix of both. That the definition of what they are is subject to the social climate and values definitions of their time. That sometimes people, like Justice Hugo Black and Chief Justice Earl Warren, are racist early in their lives but evolve to buck their racist origins in admirably defining equal justice and legal rights. To put it in the words of TV host Wayne Brady, “We need to be able to learn and grow. We are not the same person at 15 or 20 or 25.”
As a Jewish American, I recognize that FDR had elements of greatness and goodness, even though he was anti-Semitic. As the son of Holocaust survivors, I don’t want Auschwitz to be razed. I want it to continue to be an educational tool and reminder of society’s imprecise and often subjective definition of right and wrong. If we as human beings understand darkness because we perceive light, I want people to understand human cruelty so that they can make the choice to embrace human goodness.
I am waiting for the anger to stop and for the education to begin. Every school in America should have dialogue not just about racism, but about meanness and kindness, good and bad and the very human temptation toward following or doing evil. Because only by seeing the contrasts and contradictions will we come to understand the difference between the two.
Under the right societal circumstances, each of us can be a racist. Each of us can be an anti-Semite. Each of us can be homophobic. Each of us can be a bully. None of us is exempt from bad behavior, and each of us is an ethical and humanistic work in progress. Let’s remember that when we judge history, and let’s learn from its lessons in a sustainable way moving forward.
Nelson Mandela recognized the tightrope between anger and progress when he became president of Post-Apartheid South Africa. One of the first things he did was to set up a reconciliation commission, based on a restorative justice model. He recognized that anger, although initially empowering, was ultimately destructive; that only truth, reconciliation and forgiveness could move his country forward. I close this blog with his inspiring words:
1. “We must strive to be moved by a generosity of spirit that will enable us to outgrow the hatred and conflicts of the past.”
2. “You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.”
3. “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
4. “Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”
5. “Reconciliation does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict, but that reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.”
6. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
7. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. They must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Let the reconciliation, forgiveness and teaching begin. And let there be love.
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, a character education and social-emotional learning non-profit organization based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, serving 2,500 K-12 schools in all 50 states.