If President Obama were to kiss a baby, the Republicans would promote the story that Obama is intentionally spreading germs. Donald Trump, the UnRepublican, would suggest that there was something, he doesn’t know exactly what, suspicious about a president who kisses a baby knowing that his lips transmit bacterial agents. Behind the scenes, Mitch McConnell would suggest an investigation be launched to figure out how these agents circumvented the protective antiseptic barriers, thereby putting an innocent child’s life at risk. The NRA would suggest that the baby needed a gun for protection. The news media would discuss the baby’s race, religion and sexual orientation. Was that a pink blanket in the boy’s basket? Doctors would appear on talk shows assessing the risk. A call would be made for Obama’s medical records. We’d repeatedly see the video of the incident, in slow motion, so we could decide what happened. Did Obama glance over at his Secret Service agent before THE KISS? We’ve grown accustomed to focusing our attention on trivia.
Growing up, I thought Hitler was the incarnation of evil. I unconsciously presumed that someone so sick would spend every waking hour planning or enacting vile deeds. When doing some research for a course that included an amazing book written by Bert Lewyn (On the Run in Nazi Berlin), who hid from the Nazis in Germany during WWII, I found a video clip of Adolph Hitler laughing and engaged in friendly play with his young relatives. Cognitive dissonance. I also introduced the class to a NY Times piece about the opening of the Holocaust Museum that included photographs of the workers at a gas chamber, sitting outside, taking a lunch break. They looked like ordinary people, just passing time, before they had to go back to earning a living. Can you imagine lying to people to get them to take their clothes off before entering the gas chamber; sealing them in, turning on the gas, listening to their screams and impossible attempts to escape; striping their dead bodies of gold fillings, piling them up to be incinerated, and then turning your attention to the next batch off the train?
Some Americans would consider Hitler and Obama to be comparable in terms of the evil they have promoted. It’s not just the ultra-conservatives or the uneducated who essentialize. Those with different political leanings have compared Donald Trump to Hitler. We like to demonize people. A black and white world is easier for us to live in. Once we have decided that a person is vile, every subsequent action they take is seen through a darkened lens. Each action reinforces our prejudices when we interpret them as acts committed by a demon.
I’m not trying to deny that sociopaths exist, but even the worst of them shares some element of humanity with us all. We prefer to deny their humanity, so we can make all-encompassing judgments because it distances them from us. We rightly reject the horror of the atrocities people commit. But, those who live in the black and white world want the demon to be an aberration, an evil entity, that they could never become. It’s comforting, in a way, to think the cause for sociopathic behavior is a genetic disorder, mental illness, temporary insanity, brainwashing, or something else that strips them of their link to us as human beings. The gas chamber workers saw their victims not as human beings, but as vermin to be eradicated. We would prefer to think of the gas chamber employees as inhuman demons.
As a child, I once played in a father-son tennis tournament against Jeffrey Dahmer and his father Lionel. Do you recall the name? Jeffrey was an example of a sociopath, a person who lacked any empathy for others and acted without regard for their suffering. His enjoyment came from inflicting pain on others and trying to control them. His family lived a few miles down the road from my parents’ house. My dentist was his first intended victim, but fortunately for him, he did not follow his normal routine of running down Dahmer’s street on the morning when Jeffrey was hiding in the bushes waiting to ambush him. The first actual victim came soon thereafter. The victim was a hitchhiker who Dahmer picked up and convinced to come visit his house. He treated the body with chemicals, cut up the flesh, and disposed of the hitchhiker’s bones in his back yard.
As a child, Jeffrey tortured animals. In high school, he was the class clown who developed a drinking problem. As an adult, he spent some time in the Army, but was discharged. He later moved to be near his grandmother. He lured young men from nearby gay bars to his apartment, killed them, refrigerated or stored the remains, and ate various body parts. On the surface, during much of his life, he appeared to be a calm, rational, well-mannered man. I ran into his father a few times before his son was caught. He seemed like a good person. His book, written after Jeffrey’s conviction, suggested that he wanted to help his son with his alcoholism and other problems, but couldn’t. (Lionel did not know the extent of his son’s issues.)
In the black and white world, we tend to lump everyone together into either the angels or demons category. I’ve met a few angels in my life. I had the great fortune to spend some time with Bert Lewyn, who wrote the book I mentioned above. When he was a teenager, one morning, he heard a knock on the door, followed by the Brown Shirts breaking in. His parents were taken away to be killed by the Nazi’s, but he was spared so that he could work for the German War Machine. After a while, when he got word that his services would no longer be needed (nor would he), he fled. His story is a remarkable tale of courage and compassion. He died this year at the age of 92. I spent a few hours with he and his wife. This was not enough time to know if he really was an angel or not, but I concluded he was. I spent a short amount of time with another remarkable angel. I had lunch with Dwight Conquergood. He was a professor at Northwestern who worked in refugee camps, helped the Hmong refugees in America, and tried to get kids out of the Chicago street gangs. He was a communication researcher who lived among those he helped. His life and his work were intertwined. Dwight did not live in a well-to-do suburb in Chicago, which he probably could have afforded. He lived in a dangerous neighborhood where the street gangs operated. He was beaten up once, but he refused to move. Professor Conquergood made a difference in many people’s lives and inspired many to make their research count, not only theoretically, but in the world where people live. He died about a dozen years ago from colon cancer at the age of 55. His work still exists in his essays and film documentaries, one showing how street gang members were often just scared young teenagers, who had young lives quite similar to our own, including relatives who cared.
Extremes in behavior exist. But even in the extreme cases, we have to keep in mind that killing the “demons” won’t solve the problem. Both the angel and the demon are within us. The world is not black and white. We need to admit that there was some gray in Hitler and Dahmer. So too, there was undoubtedly some gray in Conquergood and Lewyn. There is probably a lot of gray in the boss you hate and in your ex-spouse. In the people you love, you’ll find some gray as well. Accept it or try to change it, but don’t deny it. When you look deeply at yourself, you won’t see a perfect angel (nor should you see a demon). I hope you’ll see a human being, neither an angel nor a demon, but someone struggling and generally successfully staying on the side of the angels.
Once you have a realistic assessment of yourself, don’t be afraid to kiss the baby. People living in the black and white world will judge you falsely no matter what you do. Try to shine the spotlight on the things you do that make a positive difference in people’s lives. Seek opportunities to provide examples of your angelic acts to inspire others. It’s our best approach for keeping the demons from surfacing. Don’t count on talk alone to do much of anything. Get engaged.