on seeing the humanity in terrible people
I want to start this post by saying that it’s more about me working out some thoughts than telling anyone else how to think—or even saying what I think about the subject. I’ve written a number of times already that I’m reading through Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving as part of a non-credit bearing class on peace and justice that I’m taking through Community of Christ Seminary. In the reading I completed for last night’s class session, I was impressed by the following passage from the elder Tutu:
We are able to forgive because we are able to recognize our shared humanity. We are able to recognize that we are all fragile, vulnerable, flawed human beings capable of thoughtlessness and cruelty. We also recognize that no one is born evil and that we are all more than the worst thing we have done in our lives. A human life is a great mixture of goodness, beauty, cruelty, heartbreak, indifference, love, and so much more. We want to divide the good from the bad, the saints from the sinners, but we cannot. All of us share the core qualities of our human nature, and so sometimes we are generous and sometimes selfish. Sometimes we are thoughtful and other times thoughtless, sometimes we are kind and sometimes cruel. This is not a belief. This is a fact.
While I didn’t make the connection while initially reading this passage (or the others like it that appear throughout the book), during our class discussion last night, I was suddenly reminded of an excellent blog post that recently appeared on Wil Wheaton’s blog. The post is mostly excellent for the way that it defends libraries, speaks to Kentuckians, and holds up geekiness—all in a way that Wheaton is particularly good at. However, Wheaton also tells the story of one of his earliest acting memories, when he was a seven year old filming a (never aired) Jell-O Pudding Pop commercial with Bill Cosby. After telling the story, he adds the following comment:
Real quick sidebar: Bill Cosby is a monster who hurt people without a second thought for decades. He’s not a good person. He wasn’t a good person. But sometimes bad people do good things, and though it was a single grain of sand in a desert of abuse, in that moment, one of the most famous comedians in the world was kind and compassionate toward little seven year-old Wil, who was hurt and scared, and just wanted to go home. That doesn’t excuse or lessen any of the horrible things he did, but part of my life story is that Bill Cosby showed me more compassion and empathy on that set than either of my parents ever did, at any point in my childhood.
I don’t know if this is exactly how Desmond Tutu would put things—for one, Tutu doesn’t believe in calling people “monsters” because it strips them of the need to be held accountable—but I appreciated Wheaton’s wrestling with the same idea that Tutu is: People can be awful and terrible, but we can also recognize that they are capable of very human—even kind—acts within that overall awfulness.
Again, I don’t know if I have a thesis statement here, and if I did, I think this is a tricky enough issue that I wouldn’t hold everyone to seeing things the way that I do. That said, I appreciate the way that the Tutus (and to a lesser extent, Wil Wheaton) are inviting me to balance holding people accountable for terrible things with recognizing their humanity and dignity as I do so. I don’t know that I have that tension figured out yet, but I appreciate the opportunity to try.
- Bill Cosby
- Wil Wheaton
- The Book of Forgiving
- Community of Christ Seminary
- Desmond Tutu
- Mpho Tutu
- Graceland CIMM
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