Growing up, I was kind of a golden boy. My teachers thought I was smart and respectful. Strangers complimented me for being honest and polite. Friends thought I would be a big success. I had a family I could – and did – brag about. Society liked me and I liked society back. We had created this virtuous ouroboros of trust, good will and respect. I was nice to others which made them respect me which made me nice to them ad infinitum. I believed that, should I continue on the path of virtue, I could expect this happy arrangement to last until I died.
By the time I was 16, two major things had changed. First, my perfect family was dissolving. My mom and dad wouldn’t divorce for another three years, but, in hindsight, they should have just gotten it over with. My sister’s behavior started to fluctuate between sad and scary. I thought it very likely one or more of my mom, dad and sister would die before I graduated high school.
This threatened my ouroboros of virtuous reciprocity but, honestly, could not destroy it. Things had gone wrong at home, but I still had friends. My teachers still liked me. My neighbors still thought I was a good guy.
But unfortunately, I also got poor. It didn’t happen immediately, but as my shirts got older, my pants grew holes in the crotch and I stopped paying for haircuts, the social part of my happy little ouroboros disintegrated at least as much as my family had.
I noticed that professors would often smirk when I offered an opinion, like they were saying “aww, the unwashed savage is trying to play at intellectualism.” A classmate was actually trying to compliment me when she said “I’d assumed you were dumb, but now that I know you, I think you might actually be average. Keep trying!”
As my housing went from nice country house to lower class apartment building to living next to meth labs, the way society perceived me changed as well. Where before I could count on others assuming my benevolence, now others began to think of me as a potential criminal – as someone to hide the women from.
I am a proud man and, as such, it hurt me more than it should have when others assumed me stupid, assumed me dangerous, assumed me inferior. At first I was simply humiliated. Then I reflected on my ideas of justice. We modern people, after all, don’t judge others simply by their clothes. We are mature and thoughtful and we look inside. We value character and hard work. And I had not stopped working hard, my character had not yet changed. As such, my conception of justice said that I deserved to be treated the same as before. I deserved to be the golden boy. I deserved respect but I wasn’t getting any.
Because I thought I deserved justice, my embarrassment progressed into a generalized hatred. Who the fuck were these evil people who didn’t care about my hard work or character? What the fuck sorts of assholes judge someone on their bank account balance alone? Who the fuck did they think they were, looking down on me? Me?
My reasoning for this hatred was tied up in Christian and humanist ideas of morality. I believed in honesty, justice and fairness as a-priori expressions of good. I believed that treating others well and trying my best would guarantee my place in any moral society. I believed that good people repaid good deeds in kind.
I believed in these things so strongly that when my moral universe fell apart I still didn’t question the usefulness of justice. I was so in love with the idea of what people should be – or rather what the disciple Paul/Immanuel Kant/Richard Dawkins thought people should be – that I completely devalued what people are. My humanist ideas weren’t wrong, the entire human race was wrong.
It was at this point that I discovered that my hatred came with some delightful surprises. I found that most folks, confronted with undisguised loathing and naked malice, become fearful. I further learned that it’s very difficult to disrespect someone you fear. My hatred and revenge created cowardice in others. Cowardice in others created respect for me. The respect of a coward bred contempt in me. Contempt in me gave rise to more hatred and revenge. I had a new ouroboros.
I was able to maintain this equilibrium for about two years until I sat down at my desk, contemplated a pile of empty beer cans and collapsed on the floor. It wasn’t really the isolation that broke me down – I was annoyed enough at the human race to prefer isolation at the time. It certainly wasn’t the disapproving looks of my “betters” – people whom I relished punishing, humiliating, hurting. I stopped partly because hatred is really hard work but mostly, it’s because a deceptively simple idea popped into my head.
To hell with justice.
Why wouldn’t people judge me on my clothes? It makes just as much sense as anything else. Why wouldn’t status matter more than hard work? You can’t pay for groceries with diligence, after all. Why wouldn’t people assume poor equals stupid? It’s not like they have a better way to protect their moral outlooks.
The sense of liberation I felt in that moment is difficult to explain. I felt like some enormously fat dog had been lying on my chest for years. I felt like I’d just stretched out on the beach after an 85 hour work week. I felt like a child again.
My antipathy towards justice has lessened over the years. I still don’t think I’m entitled to justice, I still don’t expect it, I still don’t take it seriously – but I do think it exists in the same sense that penny slot jackpots exist. Strictly a nice surprise, in other words.
But the central epiphany of that day hasn’t faded. What I think people should be is far less important and infinitely less real than what they are. Throwing away the justice and the humanistic morality has opened the door to simply understanding people.
There’s no longer a need to separate people into good and bad categories. There’s no longer a need to measure them against Thomas Jefferson’s heavily borrowed ideas on virtue. There is only discovery. There is only a chance to look at the wonderful, myriad human beings around me and try to understand them. For that I am grateful.
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