Friday, October 18, 2013

Honesty and Decency are Superhuman

I wrote this post a long time ago, and I'm not sure why I never published it.  Luckily, Ta-Nehisi Coates' new piece about the capacity for evil in any run-of-the-mill person made me think of it.  I wonder how many things I do unconsciously that are as bad as complicity in Nazi Germany.  I have some ideas, but I am more interested in what it takes to be good in the world.  From where I sit, it takes a lot of courage and energy to be merely decent.

Amanda Marcotte pointed out how extremely cool it was that Charles Ramsey stepped up to make a difference in what seemed like a run-of-the-mill domestic violence incident.  It turned out that he stepped in at a time that allowed several kidnapped women to escape their decade-long ordeal, but there was no way he could have known that.  (Amusingly, he says in an interview that he knew something was really really wrong when a white lady ran into his black-man's arms.)

Amanda nicely takes this incident as a reminder that we need to pay attention to the world around us and intervene when we can.

She's right about that, but it bumps up against the progressive tradition of mocking "cookie-seeking."  If you don't know what that is, it's doing something normal and decent (like not raping people) and asking for praise.

Decency takes a significant amount of self-confidence and bravery.  It's hard.  We may as well be generous with our cookies.  There's a reason that people keep reading inspirational tales of heroism so they can internalize the ability to act.  

To be clear, I think that Ramsey did something that should be expected of all people, but I also think it was brave.  It's an action that deserves commendation, but shouldn't be exceptional.  If we were all half as good as we think we are, every day we'd do four or five things that would impress a stranger.