If I believed in clickbaity, sanctimonious article titles, I might have called this post “One Thing You Need to Stop Doing When Talking About Politicians and Celebrities.” But I’m not going to tell you what you need to do. Instead, I’ll tell you a trend I’ve observed and why it’s a trend I’d like to challenge, and reverse. I invite you to join me, but I won’t berate you into it. I’ll leave that to strangers and bots on Twitter.
Here it is, as plainly as I can state it: We go to extremes easily and often, and we need to be careful about that. We’ve reached a point where we seem to collectively regard an individual as either an angel or a demon. Of course, I’m not actually talking in supernatural terms, but angels and demons are powerful, familiar symbols that will register easily.
What do we typically think of when we hear about angels? Harp-playing do-gooders in shiny white robes, flawlessly keeping the law and singing the praises of good and righteousness.
Demons? Horned, slavering beasts with razor-sharp teeth, breaking and devouring everything in their path without any evidence of rationale or restraint.
Why use such extreme figures to characterize public opinion of individuals (especially when my point is to challenge extreme positions)? Because our culture is so steeped in all-or-nothing extremes that we seem to have lost the ability to recognize human beings as complex individuals. We struggle to remember that even the best of us make mistakes, and that even the worst of us have brief moments of good.
Here are the two crucial sides of this: when it comes to critique, calling out an error is not the same as marking an individual as a fundamentally bad person, and identifying a pattern of flaws or mistakes in an individual is not the same as declaring that person irredeemable or evil.
Similarly, when it comes to affirmation, recognizing a certain action as good does not necessarily constitute a blanket endorsement of an entire person, and recognizing that someone is still basically good is not the same as forgiving or ignoring the harm of their mistakes.
Let’s look at a specific example: Kat Timpf is a political correspondent for Fox News and a writer for National Review. Following the events in Charlottesville (where a planned rally to protest a statue’s removal was usurped by a white supremacist hate march and a counter-protester was murdered), she spoke out against Trump’s defense of the alt-right and the hatred being spewed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. She’s also (before and since) been forthright with her own views when she disagrees with the policies of elected GOP officials.
In a well reasoned, rational discussion, this would be regarded as perfectly reasonable. To say “I disagree” when you disagree with someone is no controversial political stance. However, especially since Charlottesville, Kat has received unceasing abuse and threats from people defending Trump’s statements, DACA, and anything else she’s had the temerity to think for herself about.
While I believe quite firmly that Trump’s statements on Charlottesville were unacceptable and Kat’s response was excellent, that’s not actually my point here. Rather, what we see is an example of a conservative thinker voicing a challenge to a (nominally) conservative leader, and rather than her critique inviting reflection or debate, it opened a floodgate of backlash, and most of that backlash essentially claimed that if you didn’t support Trump totally and without hesitation then you must be a liberal.
Detractors here are completely disregarding the idea that an individual can agree on some issues and disagree on others, and that having values and standing up for them sometimes means challenging people who claim to have the same values, or who are members of your community. Supporting the current elected official of a currently incarnated political party has been lumped in wholesale with holding the traditional, classical values of that party.
What I’m Not Saying
I want to emphasize again that my point here is not about whether Kat Timpf or Donald Trump had the more agreeable view in this case. My point is that for many of Kat’s detractors, her critique of Trump instantly turned her from an ally into an enemy, from a fellow Angel into a horrifying Demon. Rather than see her critique as an opportunity to reflect on their own views, or even simply seeing it and thinking, “oh, I guess this is a more complex issue,” it instantly and permanently made her dead to them (and compelled them to tell her so). That immediate dropoff is the biggest threat of seeing people as angels and demons, and is the biggest reason I want to challenge it.
And of course, I am guilty of this myself, too. I have made my distrust of Trump well known, and while I do believe that most of that is justified, one thing I’ve caught myself doing, more than once, is reacting with skepticism at stories of good Trump has done. A few people who call him a friend have shared how he has gone out of his way for them, paying medical bills or calling and visiting when they needed it.
Because I believe Trump is unfit for the office of President, and have seen him struggle to empathize with or understand people who are different from him, I am tempted to believe he is Evil, and that he has never done any good for anyone, ever. But I know this is not true. I know I must reckon with the fact that, rather than being a Demon, Trump is a complex individual who has both strengths and flaws. Acknowledging that he has strengths does not automatically invalidate my belief that he is unfit to be President, but it does force me to be more measured and thoughtful when I critique him and when I listen to news about him.
On another blog, this might be the part where the author says “but there’s good news, I have a simple technique I use to solve this problem!” But I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have one. In fact, I don’t believe there is one.
To state a complex reality in simple terms, people are more complex than we want them to be, and always will be. The human brain is eager to categorize and organize people because it makes keeping track of them easier. In many situations, that mental power is critically helpful. But if we constantly remind ourselves that people aren’t that simple, our complexity makes us beautiful, and if we want to do some good in the world, we’ll be well served.
Do you have any good examples of people becoming angels and demons in culture? I’d love to hear them. Drop a comment here or on social media.