Optimism and misanthropy

For years, I’ve had arguments with myself about whether people are basically bad or basically good. Which side of me wins the argument has much to do with my current mood, but I’m never certain whether logic is on the side of the depressed me or the optimistic (possibly hypomanic) me.

I know what my therapist thinks. She thinks the optimistic me is right and the depressed me is delusional. I wish I could simply agree with her. The trouble is, the evidence often doesn’t support that.

On a personal, international, and historical level, the evidence is overwhelming that people are actually pretty horrible. Our particular talent seems to be taking something good and misusing it. Our legacy is one of slavery, war, increasingly creative ways to torture and kill each other, every conceivable kind of abuse, daily pettiness and selfishness, oppression based on whatever we can come up with (skin color, culture, language, gender, religion, illness or impairment, financial resources, circumstances of birth) and, finally, environmental destruction of the planet. And all of these things are totally unnecessary. You can argue that war is sometimes necessary, but until we are invaded by aliens, literally the only reason that war is or ever could be necessary is because people suck.

I come from a family in which there was inter-generational abuse. For much of my life I’ve been bullied, mocked, or simply excluded by peers and psychologically abused by people in positions of authority. (And my life has been pretty good!) And every time I let myself be optimistic that society is moving towards acceptance of those who are different, and think we’re making progress in understanding each other and listening to each other, I’ll read something on social media about how all those stupid liberals with their stupid identity politics need to just shut up and being bullied is good for kids because it keeps them from being weaklings (or whatever) and I just want to not be human anymore so that I don’t have to share a species with that person.

Despite all of this, there is a possibly insane, but improbably resilient, part of me that thinks the best of people, that believes they are basically well-meaning though damaged, that wants to like people and keeps seeking out engagement with them in hopes of proving the other part of me wrong. This is the part of me that forgives and asks for forgiveness because I’m not perfect either, that believes some kind of cosmic redemption is possible. This is the part of me that bothers with thoughts of a just society – whether that means a society that is incrementally better than what we have now, or an ideal anarchist society in which no one wields power or violence over anyone else.

The misanthropic part of me thinks anarchism is a bunch of bullshit. A power structure will always find a way to reemerge, as in communist countries. People will just kill each other like they always do.

The optimist in me says, “You’re not the only one that feels this way. There are others. People as imperfect as you, as angry as you, people stronger and smarter and more empathic than you, who are fighting injustice on all fronts because they haven’t given up hope that we can do better. Because they can’t afford to give up hope.”

I look at my son, and he’s just wonderful. I look at him and think, “How can people be bad?” But then I remember that as he grows up (if we haven’t all killed each other yet), he will be bullied and hurt and excluded by others, as I have been. Maybe much worse. And I try to find a category for all those people who hurt and bully others that’s narrower than the human race – a category that doesn’t include me.

But that category also has to leave out all the people I care about and empathize with and want to protect. So that they (we) can be the good ones. Victims, not perpetrators. The trouble is that I see the ways we’ve hurt others, too, knowingly or unknowingly, the ways we’ve participated in structures of abuse and domination. So then I start thinking, “But that’s not the same, this is worse than that, what I did isn’t like what that person did,” etc etc.

Or is it?

At various times, I’ve gone through mental gymnastics to explain to myself why I’m not like other people. Maybe I’m not really human at all, but some kind of elf! (This was Preteen Me.) Or witch! (This was Teenage Me.) Or visionary! (This was College Me.) It’s apparent to Adult Me that if I am any kind of elf, witch, or visionary, I am failing at my vocation miserably and in some very human ways.

Maybe, after all, we are all in this together. Maybe I, with my hurts and faults, am no more or less redeemable than anyone else.

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