Posted on 8 mins read

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.

~ Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”

Grok, if you can, the utter inability of human beings to describe other human beings neutrally. Almost all adjectives, even the most objective, become a value judgment when used to label a person—words like “short” and “plump” and “withdrawn” invoke an emotional response in many readers. This presents a challenge for people writing, speaking and thinking about other people: how can they describe them fairly and inoffensively? Is it possible to do so? The layman may suggest “sticking to the facts,” but a person is not merely a collection of facts, and even a presentation of raw facts tends to tell a story. Take, for example, the New York Times’s recent profile of a white nationalist, which has drawn criticism for its tone of impartiality and tolerance. Journalists writing about people of public interest, even when striving to be factual, are regularly accused of either “demonizing” or “normalizing” them.

So let it be with Caesar, for example. Caesar was not a puppet show villain. He did good and he did evil. Sometimes at the same time. One guy. So how should we talk about him?

To speak of his successes alone, factual though they may be, is to paint him in a positive light and—what’s worse—to implicitly ask our audience to accept him in such a light. We may know (and even acknowledge) that he had flaws and did evil things, but to give secondary attention to those things is to downplay them. And this comes off as approval.

To speak only of his tyranny and violence, again factually, isn’t much better. How is it fair to ignore the empire he built and the populace who loved him? Either way, we flatten him against an ideological wall, ascribing motives to a figure we don’t truly understand and asking our audience to accept an incomplete picture.

So what do we say about him? Was he ambitious or ruthless? Powerful or abusive? Cunning or cruel?

Let’s start with the basics. The value of an act, I think, should be independent of the person who does it. Feeding the hungry is good, even if done by an abuser. And an act of violence is no less evil if done by a humanitarian. Leave motives aside for a moment: assume the person abuses out of malice and feeds out of compassion. So the abusive humanitarian, assuming that such a person exists, could be nominated as the exemplar of our problem. It is possible to write even-handedly about such people, but then one runs the risk of sounding too neutral, which is also a value judgment—we know this because it’s so obviously wrong to write neutrally about people who were entirely evil. Pardon the cliche: should anyone write even-handedly about Hitler? Wikipedia says:

Hitler’s actions and Nazi ideology are almost universally regarded as gravely immoral … Historians, philosophers, and politicians often use the word “evil” to describe the Nazi regime.

This is almost so detached as to defy integrity, but we can give Wikipedia a pass because neutrality (even on non-controversial topics) is one of their publicly-acknowledged core principles. In any other media, a tone of outrage, indignation and shared regret would be the only right way to talk about the Nazi regime.

So if it’s wrong to describe evil neutrally, is it also wrong to describe “mixed bag” people—people with a evil side and a good side, people like most of us—neutrally? Lately we’ve heard more than a few stories of men who, despite leading seemingly-virtuous lives in public, have committed gross crimes against women in private. Everyone has the right to be angry about this. People we look up to, people we expect to represent us, are turning out to be violators and criminals.

In this context, we should examine the word “hypocrite”:

Definition of HYPOCRITE

1 : a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion

This is troubling to me because I am a Mormon, which is a type of Christian, which commits me to principles plainly laid out in the Biblical Gospels. I believe in being meek, but sometimes I am rude and demanding. I believe in being humble, but sometimes I look down on others. I believe in being pure in heart, but sometimes I am greedy and vindictive. Yet I don’t see myself as a hypocrite. Does anyone? Where is the threshold between flawed but earnest believer and unauthentic charlatan?

How do we feel about our heroes when we discover that they have told a lie? Or cheated a donor? Or had an affair? Or neglected a pet? Or conducted a drug deal? At what point are we obligated to write exposés instead of vignettes, lest we be accused of tacitly approving their behavior?

When we do write that scathing exposé, will there be anyone standing up in the back row, protesting that we’ve said nothing of the hospitals our subject has built or the lives they’ve saved? Or will everyone join us in blanket condemnation? Maybe they should, at least sometimes.

I’m no moral philosopher. But I’d like to live in a world where we can despise the sins of evildoers and appreciate the things of value they create, without either thing mitigating the other.

I keep typing out names of celebrities or politicians I’d like to use to illustrate my point, but it doesn’t feel right. So instead I’ll use a book. I recently read The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu. I enjoyed it a lot. It was gripping, scientifically literate, well-written, and surprising in all the right ways. Due to my own privilege and naivete, I never noticed its most glaring flaw: a dismissive and occasionally condescending attitude toward women. After I finished it, I was browsing reviews of the book on Goodreads and found one by two women, Ana and Thea, who astutely pointed out its casual sexism. Ana says:

[The novel’s] treatment of women throughout is appalling. Enraging. It is so bad, it almost transcends “bad” into comical. There are no main female characters of any significance apart from perhaps, two or three … their spotlight is short-lived. … Throughout the novel, other women appear but they go unnamed, have no stories.

All of these things are fair and accurate to say. But to claim that the book is nothing but a sexist parade would be a pretty flat assessment. Ana allows that “parts of The Dark Forest are are bloody fantastic.” And Thea gives us an important synthesis:

And that’s where the conflicted part of my brain kicks in, because for as much as I hated the first 200 pages or so, I absolutely loved the … 300 pages that followed. … I abhor the misogyny of the book’s first half—but I will be back to read [the sequel.]

It’s a rare moment when a writer does this, taking the good with the bad, not allowing one to spoil the other. Yes, the book is unapologetically and unacceptably sexist. But it is also other things: beautiful, terrifying, entertaining. By many measures, it’s an impressive book.

And books are far less complex than human beings, so is it fair to ask if humans can be like that? Can a person achieve important things and also be despicably sexist?

In one sense, yeah. Isn’t that a tale as old as time?

In another sense, I hate the idea of it. I want good people to be good and bad people to be bad. I don’t want my heroes and forefathers to be serial harassers and slave-owners. But sometimes they are.

So return with me to our Platonic example of the abusive humanitarian. To speak about them fairly is certainly to condemn the evil they’ve done. But I hope it’s also to give them credit for their humanity. The challenge is to do so without apologizing for them or blunting our condemnation. There should be no figurative “but” between evil and good, or between good and evil. Perhaps there should be no conjunction or transition at all. A paragraph is not an equation—there’s no requirement that it sum up to a whole number.

I’m reminded of NBC sitcom The Good Place, a series that takes place in the afterlife. One of the most thought-provoking running jokes of the series is each character’s “number”: a figure calculated from the choices made during the character’s life, each of which is assigned a positive (good) or negative (evil) score. Those with extremely high numbers—that is, those who did many good things and few evil things—go to heaven (the titular “good place”), while those with lower numbers go to eternal torment.

I think this is intentionally ridiculous. No person’s virtue can be judged on a quantitative scale. Yet we do it all the time—possibly because it’s hard to accept the complexity of the truth. Referring to someone as “a good person” or “a bad person” is easy to do, but it only sets us up to defend a straw man.

It’s a hard problem.

So how should you write about Caesar? Maybe with two pens.

comments powered by Disqus