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You wouldn’t guess it from reading the news, but the sad reality is that there aren’t enough bad guys to explain all that’s wrong in the world.
Oh, we try to find culprits for everything: there’s a natural human urge to seek a malevolent intelligence behind misfortune — to ascribe blame to someone. It is comforting to imagine that bad things happen because bad people cause them to happen. We have some faint hope, after all, of ridding ourselves of bad people — and, until we do, we enjoy the knowledge of our moral superiority.
But much of what goes wrong in the world isn’t the result of bad intentions, but rather of good intentions gone wrong in unpredictable ways. That’s a disconcerting thought to consider, which may be why so many possessed of beneficent motives do their best to avoid doing so.
Examples abound. Those favoring legal enforcement of our borders are racists; their opponents hate America and want to bring about the ruin of our country. Those opposed to Roe v. Wade are medieval misogynistic oppressors; abortion supporters are murderers. Those who opposed same-sex marriage are theocratic tyrants; proponents are nihilists bent on destroying the fabric of society.
Global warming skeptics are Gaia-hating monsters in thrall to Big Oil; those sounding the AGW alarm are human-hating monsters in thrall to Paul Ehrlich. The rich get richer because they’re evil; the poor get poorer because they’re lazy. Minorities suffer because of white people; women suffer because of men; everyone suffers because of white men. (White men are the moral O-negative, the universal donors of oppression; and when you have a villain that versatile, why look any further?)
In the age of social media and an activist press, believing the worst about your opponent is wonderfully freeing: when your opponent is a hateful bigot — or, more importantly, when you believe him to be — you don’t have to engage his arguments. That saves a lot of time and is particularly useful if your own arguments are, well, wanting.
But a lot of our problems are the natural results of our prosperity and good fortune and technological progress. Safer and less menial work, longer lives and greater freedom and equality, deeper safety nets, the emergence of a technology-driven monoculture — all of these things are good and bad, bringing both comfort and problematic transformation.
Most people aren’t politicians, nor outspoken, nor activists. Most people mean well. Most people who voted for Hillary Clinton thought she would make the country a better place; most people who voted for Donald Trump believed the same thing. I know a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans, but I don’t think I know any villains. I don’t personally know anyone who wants to destroy my country, though I know a few who honestly believe that we can walk like Venezuela and talk like Venezuela but not, ultimately, become Venezuela.
The opinion cloud is invested in, obsessed with, demonizing the opposition: for the press, for pundits, for activists, for the professional political set, it’s just good business to assume the worst about anyone who stands between you and your conception of a better world. Because right makes might, and there’s no more compelling argument than “but you’re evil,” for those willing to make it.
We amateurs, who fancy ourselves modest thinkers and reasonably well-informed, fall prey to this easy superiority just like everyone else. But it doesn’t earn us a paycheck and is best kept in check if our hope is to persuade others that our views make sense.