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Are People Actually Good?

My favourite play is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit.  I taught it in middle school for years, and I still read it from time to time because it’s a good reminder of how people behave when they’re scared.

The play is about an impoverished town that is awaiting a visit from a now-rich-and-famous ex-resident.  They are hoping that she’ll bail out the town and restart the economy out of a sense of nostalgia.  So they wine and dine her, and she says she will help out the residents.  On one condition.

They need to kill their favourite citizen, the owner of the general store.

At first the people are horrified and claim they would never do such a thing — not even to fix all the problems with their town and keep from starving.  But I think you can guess how the story unfolds.  The audience learns how people can justify any action — even murder.  The old woman sits on a balcony above the stage, watching the townspeople find their excuse for why the storekeeper’s death is justified.

It’s a disturbing study of human nature.


Yesterday I was listening to an older episode of Note to Self featuring Marina Abramović.  She spoke about one of her pieces, Rhythm 0.  She stood next to a table holding 72 random items and told the audience that they could treat her like an object, doing anything they wanted to her body.  In the episode, she said the first few people walked up and hugged her or kissed her or offered her a flower.  But as it states on the Wikipedia page, the performance twisted into something else:

Initially, members of the audience reacted with caution and modesty, but as time passed (and the artist remained passive) people began to act more aggressively. As Abramović described it later: “What I learned was that … if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you. … I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”

The gun, by the way, was loaded.  And the person curled Abramović’s own fingers around the trigger.


I listened to the episode exactly a week after the election.  Prior to the election, I kept saying that I think people are inherently good and rational, and they will vote down hate.  They will not stand for someone who is going to discriminate against large groups of people.  Trump’s supporters are the fringe of society, but the vast majority of Americans are reasonable and do not want to actively harm others.

I’m obviously less sure of that assertion today.

I’m less horrified by that fringe I imagined prior to the election; they’re scary and disturbing, but there are always going to be people in any society who do not uphold the ideals of that society.  I’m more horrified by the people who are like the townspeople in Dürrenmatt’s play.  They think they are good.  They know and claim to love people who will be negatively affected by Trump’s policies. They justify.  They dismiss concerns.  They promise that they’re not racist or homophobic or antisemitic or misogynistic — they don’t stand for those sides of Trump.  They may even be Jewish or African-American or a woman or gay, and they voted for him anyway, despite the fact that his words and actions prove that he would not afford those people the same respect.

But that’s the thing with art: It gives you the ability to stand back and observe and notice.

The townspeople in The Visit prove that there is no such thing as an uninvolved bystander when it comes to hate.  You either take a stand, or you don’t.  You either actively work to stop it, or you’re condoning it.  People don’t get to be neutral observers when the shit hits the fan.  Discrimination has a tendency to spray everywhere.

As I said this week on Facebook, unlike President Obama, I do not want Trump to succeed.  If he succeeds, he’s the visitor in The Visit, goading Americans to turn on their own fellow citizens.  I want him to fail spectacularly because good people stepped up and did what was right, protecting themselves and others around them.


1 Mrs T { 11.17.16 at 10:40 am }

Chilling. The play, the art, and this reality.

2 Turia { 11.17.16 at 11:02 am }

I have been thinking this too. I read a good piece on my Facebook newsfeed written by (I think) a Republican who didn’t vote for Trump: https://medium.com/@ccmccain/to-my-friends-who-voted-for-trump-63a18f2b6b4b#.f9uzcqaaf. She argues that if Trump voters aren’t racist, sexist xenophobes, then they need to commit to standing up for marginalized people and speaking out against anything said by his supporters that is racist or sexist, etc.

I like this one too about raising activist kids and how we can’t sit by and be complacent: https://motherwellmag.com/2016/11/17/its-up-to-us-to-raise-activist-kids/

I am seeing these comments on social media about how we need to just “get on with things” and “accept the election result”. This isn’t about sour grapes or being bad losers. This is about making a conscious choice to NOT sit in silence and do nothing. Doing nothing and staying silent legitimates and normalizes all the hatred he spewed.

3 Beth { 11.17.16 at 11:33 am }

I agree. My belief in the goodness of people is really being tested. And I don’t know what to do. I have called my rep and senators and nothing is changed. I have donated. I’m feeling helpless as I watch morally ugly people move into positions of immense power.

4 a { 11.17.16 at 12:17 pm }

I commented several months ago that I was finding it harder and harder to believe that people were inherently good. Several people responded that they DO NOT believe that, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It troubles me.

5 loribeth { 11.17.16 at 12:51 pm }

Anne Frank (of all people…!) famously said, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” But sometimes you have to wonder… 🙁

6 Sharon { 11.17.16 at 1:15 pm }

I think people are inherently both good and bad. Circumstances dictate so much of how they will behave.

Have you read “Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil” by Paul Bloom? I thought it was an interesting examination of the research surrounding the question of whether we are born “good” or “bad” or whether we learn these attitudes and behaviors.

7 Cristy { 11.17.16 at 5:10 pm }

Years ago, Grey unearthed a study about men’s view of rape. When asked if they would consider it okay if there was no possibility of punishment, a startling number responded yes. When asked how they felt about it if the person harmed was their mother/sister/loved one, the opinion immediately changed.

This post reminds me of Lori’s post about being jackassed. I think it’s less a matter of good va bad and more a matter of empathy towards others. Most people fail to think about impact outside their immediate sphere (many not concerned about anyone other than themselves). I think it correlates nicely with all the data we have on rising levels of depression, anxiety and nihilism. It is primal to care only about your immediate sphere, but it also means life generally lacks purpose.

8 em { 11.17.16 at 6:22 pm }

I have not been surprised, exactly, but I am very disappointed.

I myself have only had equal rights for a very, very short time. Less than the time that President Obama has been in office. And I still don’t have 100% equal rights, but instead, they are piece-meal, and most likely, about to be dismantled.

And I am better off than many. I know a lot about being other and am well aware when it is done to other people.

I still believe people are basically good. They just need a path to that goodness. If just one person in the town had said, “wait a minute” and started talking about their better natures, it may very well have changed things. I, myself, have changed things in that way and watched people come to and have a chagrined look on their faces and walk away.

PS: having a loaded gun in that art piece is a jerky move. period.

9 torthuil { 11.18.16 at 8:51 am }

When I’m cuddling my two year old I believe people are good, like 100% good, because she is, and here she is, she’s *real*. But obviously not everybody is like her. And even really horrible people were babies once…..Anyway.

I believe people have good in them, as well as a lot of other things that make us human. I think (I know) it takes a lot of effort to be good. There is no break from the struggle, and no point where one can say “ok I’m good, no need to keep trying!” There can be a severe test of goodness anytime. Christians (maybe other religions too, not sure) emphasize that ultimately we fail at being good on our own and must accept that (hence role of faith God etc). And they have a point there I think; at least I’m not sure how to argue against it.

Is being good complicated? Well yeah….especially when we are bombarded with so many conflicting messages and propaganda. (Some of what you consider self-evident truth I perceive as propaganda and targeted defamation.) On the other hand, I don’t think it’s that complicated when you remember that it’s not supposed to be easy to be good.

10 Working mom of 2 { 11.18.16 at 10:15 am }

I don’t buy into the whole “they’re not all racist misogynist etc.” thing that even Jon Stewart (!) is pushing. Sorry, there’s no doubt what/who Trump is, and what he and his associates stand for. No innuendo–they’re overt white supremacists etc.

Interesting thoughts about good/bad. For those of us who are agnostic/atheist, strange to read about religions convincing people they’re inherently bad.

11 em { 11.18.16 at 2:50 pm }

Found this poem and thought it was worth sharing. http://transactionswithbeauty.com/home/aaxd8kg2des47fx9h46jfetkf8bjkz

12 SRB { 11.18.16 at 8:01 pm }

At first, it was incomprehensible to me that this awful, garbage person was elected. How could this happen, right next door? As I see it shaking out, the “give him a chance” and the “I voted for him but *I’m not a racist/mysoginist/xenophobe/homophobe/Islamaphobe/etc” happening makes me physically ill. A vote for him was an acceptance of this hate – full stop. The bystander is far more dangerous with his silent nod than the madman at the wheel.

I used to think people (as a whole) were inherently good. This election has made me seriously doubt that. I don’t trust people to do the right thing any more. I am still stunned. And I am terrified.

Reading in the summary of the play that “…the reporters declare that the shopkeeper has died of joy.” Chilling.

13 Justine { 11.26.16 at 10:24 pm }

My feed fills me with despair. I post, but feel like I’m posting into the void, because not enough people on my feed think differently from the way I do, and the ones that do aren’t listening. I feel a little bit like I’m watching a horror show unfold that both is and is not real. And I confess, I no longer think that people are good when given permission to be ruthless.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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