think difficult

Demo, by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan.

People say things about others that, in some sense, are most accurate and true, yet also intensely relative to that person’s perception or just the fact of their presence (their simple being there, among the people they assess). I knew someone once who told me that a certain department in a certain university was ruthless and cutthroat. Later, I met someone who experienced directly the ruthlessness of that department and reported to me about it in ways that corroborated the first person’s experience. Later yet, I met two more people who ended up not getting tenure in that department but who nonetheless described it as a lovely and supportive place. And then, by a strange turn of circumstances, I made friends with quite a few members of that department and what everyone had told me about it through the years seemed perfectly accurate — that it was ruthless and cutthroat and that it was lovely and supportive — and I could see perfectly well why each of these people would describe that department the way they did, and it wasn’t confusing at all.

So now, in my mind, that department is both wonderful and cruel, and I think I would know what people would find it preponderantly cruel and what people would find it preponderantly wonderful, and why. And if someone asked me, “Do you think I’d fit well in that department?” I’d have to say, “I don’t know, it depends very much on who you are.” But if they entered the department and then told me all about its duplicity and Machiavellian nature, I’d say, “I know,” and if they told me instead how caring and interesting everyone is, I’d say the same.


This is all to say that you can sincerely and non-condescendingly sympathize with everyone when they tell you how they feel about something or someone, but you shouldn’t form an opinion on the people they are talking about before you experience them yourself.

Maybe there are serious psychological studies out there about the kind of people who become ardent Republicans and the kind of people who become ardent Democrats. In general, the choice of political allegiance and belonging seems to me to say very much about the way people relate to themselves, others, the world, and God. I wouldn’t want for a second to suggest that there is some kind of psychological determinism in place here. But one’s history and the ways one finds to negotiate one’s relationship with the world shape very much how one views the world and what one thinks works best to make the world a better, more acceptable, more orderly place.

There is certainly a very complex interaction between psychology and morality, and reducing one in terms of the other would be facile, silly, and unfair (though people do it all the time, especially now that evolutionary psychology is oh-so-popular).  I don’t claim to begin to understand the vagaries of this interaction, but I think we should all make great efforts to eschew simple explanations and always aim for the complex, the difficult, and the tentative.