In my life, it's been somewhat of a struggle for me to not cast people, ideologies, religions and everything else into certain clearly defined roles: he's/she's/it's either good, or bad, without considering the fact that there are a host of other options which fall in between. It was always either one or the other: good or bad. Simple and easy - but not exactly the best approach to judging people, places, things or situations. As I've grown older and, (thankfully) grown up a bit, I'm starting to realise that life isn't just about those two extremes, rather there is a full intermediate spectrum of greys to which everything belongs, without anything ever really being fully "good" or "bad", rather everything comprises a bit of both to some degree.
The in-between area of the good-bad dichotomy is comparable to Kinsey's Sexuality Scale, which posits that no one is fully hetero- or homo-sexual, rather, we all fall somewhere along the ambiguous continuum of "bisexual", with heterosexual and homosexual being the two extreme ends of this spectrum. Kinsey's theory seems to apply to many other spheres of life as well: that none of us are neatly one thing or the other, rather, we are someplace along a continuum between any two extremes.
Regarding the issue at hand, I've come to realise that no one is either entirely good or entirely bad. None of us are fully saints, nor are we fully sinners. History may paint us in retrospect as villains or heroes, but history is never always fully explored by the average person. We are oftentimes remembered for one act which will forever cast us in the light as good, or in the dark as bad. Oscar Schindler is reported as being a businessman of questionable repute, though he is (rightfully) not remembered for this; rather, he would forever be recollected as the man who saved Jews, immortalised as such in "Schindler's List". Schindler has been labelled good, and thus he will remain for perpetuity.
Is this right, however? Aren't these simplistic, conclusive labels of good or bad a slap to our intellectual capabilities of digging deeper and finding the truth? Because the truth is rarely ever simple. The truth is often quite complicated and not easily labelled or defined. Good and bad are easy ways for us to put a handle on difficult situations. But difficult situations are difficult for a reason - and they are not always meant to be summed up in such neat summarisations as simply "good" or "bad".
The composite of who a person is, is inspired by a mind-boggling number of variables which are hard to keep track of: personalities, experiences, upbringing, culture, race, education-level, background, emotional intelligence-level, religion, genetics, etc. All of these variables coalesce together to form who we are. This unique composition of who we are, at any given moment, results in our words, deeds and actions. Would Schindler have acted differently if he had been born to a different mother? Or what if he'd married a different woman? Or what if he'd gone to a different school? What if the victims had been black and not Jewish? What if he'd been a poor man and not a member of the German bourgeoise class? What if he'd been raised in the Caribbean, or in some other tropical, colonial region?
Would Schindler have acted differently had any of the variables been different, and, thus, would he be considered good otherwise?
Good and bad; white and black; day and night; up and down; yin and yang; action and reaction; calm and storm; powerful and weak; at rest and in motion. Nature abounds with overt examples of a struggle between opposing forces, while the vast spectrum which exists between the extreme forces are oftentimes not as easily discernible. The dominant, opposing extremes have led to an inability to see the area of grey which exists between the two absolute states. In a simplistic way, this struggle between two absolutes has given rise to the concept of good vs evil in theology. We first see this being theologically demonstrated in the Zoroastrian religion, where a god of good - Ahura Mazda - is positioned directly against a god of evil -Angra Mainu - and neither the twain shall meet. This concept was adopted by Judaism, only to be later dropped as heretic, but fully endorsed by Christianity and Islam in the theologies of one God versus one Satan, the ultimate personifications of the good and bad struggle. Due to the enshrining of the good versus bad concept into the intrinsic theologies of these two powerful religions, man as a whole has adopted this easy way out and accepted as fact that there is simply good and bad, disregarding the truth of the spectrum which exists between the two.
When we, as individuals and as society at large, judge another person, another society or another ideology to be absolutely good or absolutely bad, we are, in effect demonstrating who we are. By omitting the spectrum which exists between the two seemingly opposing forces of good and bad, we are clinging to absolutes in the most puerile way of trying to make sense of the world around us. It takes a person (or society) of high intelligence, creativity and compassion to discern the good and bad in someone or something other than ourselves; to recognise that someone/something other than ourselves is neither wholly good or wholly bad. Introspect allows us to look at ourselves with all the information at hand, readily examinable to weigh our words, deeds and actions. It's easy to be introspective. To be "extrospective" about another entity means digging deeper; it's about attempting to be unbiased and fair in characterising that other entity. Trying to discover why someone acts the way they do/says the things they do is not an easy feat. Trying to understand why and how a theology, ideology, belief or faith different from our own can contain good and truth within is a worthwhile challenge. The recognition of good in the other does not detract from the good within ourselves or what we believe. The earnest recognition that good exists in the other is a sign of intellectual honesty. The open admission that bad exists in aspects of ourselves demonstrates emotional and spiritual maturity.
Judging people/things with an outcome of simply two absolutes - good or bad - opens a door to easy hate (in the case of judging someone/something as wholly bad) or to needless gullibility (in the case of judging someone/something as wholly good).
It is easy to brand the other as bad. He's/she's/it's different from us/offended us/hurt us, therefore, he/she/it is bad. And if we've relegated something to the garbage-bin of bad, then, in all likeliness, it won't be our top choice of suitors to dance with at the upcoming dance. We don't struggle to understand, and thus, we are apt to lapse into adopting a negative view since we don't consider that good and bad exists in the person/thing that's different. Life is relative - so is good and bad. The right and practical thing to do is to look for an impartial view of the different person/thing, because to do otherwise implies that we are prejudiced against him/her/it. We usually judge someone/something to be bad because of it's very difference from us - and in saying he/she/it is bad because he/she/it is different and not like us, we are saying that we are better. The notion of superiority is a sign of prejudice. Prejudice is a sign of hate. And if we were so good, how could we hate?
Equally dangerous is when we accept in our heart of hearts that someone/something is wholly good. In cases like this, we are oblivious to the true nature of the person/thing we are glorifying, and, thus setting ourselves up for huge disappointment, or, worse, total brainwashing. When people are sucked into cults, it's because they've judged the cultish entity to be wholly good - and have not objectively investigated the organisation they are joining. When an organisation is not transparent and remains unquestionable to it's followers, it raises alarming red flags to the more discerning individual and society. To the ones who've been sucked into thinking the organisation is wholly good (or blessed of God, or perfect, what have you) they unflinchingly follow whatever they are told. Similarly, when we judge individuals to be wholly good (religious leaders, politicians, other various persons we esteem), we don't allow ourselves to appreciate those people in totality. We ignore the fact that they are just like us - they are human, and, thus, encompass both the good and the bad. Inevitably, we are let down when they don't live up to our expectations of them as completely good beings. Hitler rode in on a wave of messiah-ship. So did many other leaders. Do we blame them for our immature acceptance of them as wholly good when they do things that are not so good? Or do we become brainwashed so far as to ignore our own notions about right and wrong and blindly follow whatever these people dictate?
One of the most powerful statements in the Hebrew Bible comes from Isaiah 45:7. It says: "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe - I, the Lord, do these things" (JPS Tanakh translation). In Jewish tradition there is no opposition between good and bad. Both are merely creations of the Creator, from Whom everything was allowed to be created, and through Whom creation is sustained. The idea of an all-powerful God means, simply, that nothing can oppose Him, and, thus, everything serves His purpose. The good has its purpose; so, too, does the bad. There can be no repentance without there first being wrong-doing. There can be no compassion without there first being sadness. There can be no good without there first being bad. The comparatives are what make them tangible. Without the opposing extreme, the other would cease to exist. The good exists because there is the bad to compare it to. Recognising the truth that good and bad are not independent of creation, but, rather, are creations themselves, is the first step into recognising that good and bad are not absolute. They are merely points of reference, between which an important spectrum of ranges are waiting to be acknowledged. This is an important truth we need to be aware of: the fact that good and bad both exist simultaneously within the other and within ourselves.
difficult to change once established, yet not the whole picture of who a person truly is. "Good" and "bad" are not absolute. They are simply the two ultimate ends of a particular spectrum, and we fluctuate along that spectrum at any given moment. To capture the position along that spectrum at one moment and use it as a measuring-stick of a person, is a disservice and a disgrace to the individual, and, more importantly, to our intellectual capacities.
Also, it is imperative we note that "good" and "bad" are relative and are not universal. Indeed, there are universal ethics, morals and values which transcend cultures, religions and socio-economic boundaries and apply equally to every person, every culture and every nation, but, at the same time, what one views to be "good" may not be so from another's viewpoint. One man's garbage is, quite often, another man's treasure. For instance, I may aspire to write. This is good in my eyes. Someone may aspire to trek the Himalayas. That's good in their eyes. Neither invalidates the other, but they both are different things we deem to be good/desirable, based upon our personal preferences. It is so easy for us discard of people and things which differ from us, hurt us, offend us, scare us and brand them as "bad"; to cast the "other" in the role of villain in the novel of our lives. Just as every person has a unique viewpoint based upon his/her experiences, culture, genetics, background, upbringing, personality, intelligence and emotional wisdom, so must we accept that every person brings a completely different viewpoint about what is deemed good and what is deemed bad. The individual understanding of good and bad is not universal. It's individual. As differentiated from ethics, morals and values, the judgment of what's good and what's bad, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Author Stephen Prothero captures this perfectly in his book "God is not one", where he demonstrates how differently God is envisaged through the oft-contrasting perspectives of eight major world religions, and, consequently, how the ideas of good and bad differ dramatically among them all. If the world's major religions diverge on this issue, how much more do we diverge on a national, societal, cultural, individual level as to what is good and what is bad?
once for the year, does that make me charitable? Or is it the constant contributions to charity over the course of time which makes me charitable? Alternately, is George Zimmerman to be considered "bad" for the one time he admittedly shot and killed Trayvon Martin? How many "good" actions are needed to equate the actor as "good"; and, conversely, is one "bad" action enough to judge someone as "bad"? Of course, there are exceptions to every rule: Hitler's brutal massacre of six million Jews has led to an enshrined, collective opinion by educated westerners that this man was obviously and irrecoverably "bad"; whereas Schindler's one act of saving Jews became his eternal cause de celebre(1). Can one big act of good cancel out many other acts of bad? Or do we need many small acts of good to redeem ourselves? Or, is it that we differentiate between sin and sinner, good and do-gooder? Hate the sin but not the sinner, but oftentimes, it is difficult to separate the two. The person and the action are, actually, two separate issues. Though the action is as a result of the person, the action is, still, separate from who the person is. Consequently, the action may be deemed good or bad, but we more often than not use the action to evaluate the person as a whole. Isolated actions do not necessarily equate the individual(2). A composite of all actions, however, gives a fuller and more holistic picture - and allows us to better place the individual on the good/bad spectrum.
This discussion of the opposing forces of good and bad is far from over, but there isn't much more I can say on the topic. Good and bad are merely tools created by the Creator. They are not end results; they are not ultimate achievements. They are simply there to serve His purpose. When we look beyond the pale of good and bad - black and white - we realise the full spectrum of colours available to us, we realise the other isn't so easily defined and should be embraced and attempt to understand the other, and, most importantly, we realise more about who we are and where are on this evolutionary path which is our lives.
(1) I was conflicted to lump Oskar Schindler's good deeds of saving Jews into one defining "act", for his efforts saved around 1,200 Jews - each life he saved, recorded as an isolated good deed in itself. However, since it was the same good deed repeated, I chose to simplify things by transcribing them as one act. Schindler's acts of goodness are not to be diminished in any way - he saved the lives of so many, and, today, the descendants of these people he saved number over 6,000. Schindler was a selfless giver and savior of human lives, and I remain ever in awe of his goodness. May his memory be a blessing.
(2) By no means am I saying that people should not be rewarded or punished for their actions according to laws and regulations. Rather, I'm positing that there be a differentiation between action and actor, not between action and appropriate reward/punishment.