When I was in elementary school I learned that George Washington never told a lie. In the pinnacle of character-defining moments, I learned 6 year-old George admitted to his father that it was he who had chopped down the family’s cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” he said, bravely. “I did cut it with my hatchet.” The fact that this oft repeated story is a myth, a lie, is ironic and significant.
I learned that Washington was six feet tall, which made him an imposing giant of a man in the late 1700s. I was taught that he was polite, brave, and eloquent and that the fledgling American citizenry practically begged him to become King of America, an offer he modestly refused.
My elementary school didn’t teach me that Washington inherited 10 slaves when he was 11-years old. Or that he owned over 120 slaves and managed a total of 317 at the time of his death. I didn’t learn that Washington rotated his slaves out of state every six months to prevent them from being freed under state law. I wasn’t taught that 22-year old slave Ona Judge escaped Mount Vernon when she learned Washington intended to give her away.
I didn’t learn those things in junior high. Neither did I learn them in high school. In fact, until I reached my later college years my perception of our first president was one of undisturbed perfection. My educators simply could not bear to teach, or perhaps believe themselves, the hard truths of America’s most revered Founding Father, even while transmitting myths like the cherry tree and the offer of kingship.
I do not suggest that Washington was not a great historical figure or that he does not deserve a place of honor and respect in the American memory. Whatever his faults, he is a uniquely American symbol of wisdom, modesty, restraint, dignity, and perseverance; a reputation he earned through his words and conduct. Washington’s farewell address is a stunning example of self-mastery and foresight. The enclosed warnings against regionalism and partisanship were powerful and wise then and uncannily relevant now. This particular warning against extreme partisanship is especially prophetic:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Washington even recognized that slavery was wrong at the same time he operated a plantation dependent on slave labor. He expressed his hope for abolition in a letter to his nephew, in another letter to Robert Morris, and purportedly once said, “Not only do I pray for it, on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly forsee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”
Washington no doubt possessed praiseworthy qualities and serves as a deserving historical example in many regards, but he was not a god. Although he now seems larger than life thanks to centuries of patriotic deification, he was a flawed product of a flawed age. He was complicated, as real men and women of any time period tend to be. He, like so many others, was not left untarnished by the United States’ original sin.
I use Washington as my primary example, but history is rife with complicated people boasting varying degrees of virtue who have been sculpted into unblemished heroes or irredeemable villans.
I was taught that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. I learned he was a driven, industrious, brave man of faith. I was not taught that Columbus enslaved thousands of Tainos and, as brutal governor of Hispanola, had the dismembered bodies of native dissidents dragged through the streets.
Conversely, I was taught the Black Panther Party, formed in 1966, was a violent militant group. I did not learn the party was a self-defense organization in response to a culture of racially-charged police brutality in 1960s California. I did not learn the organization created a wealth of social programs, including providing free breakfasts to school children. I was not invited to consider how the racial injustices of a not-so-distant history and the perceptions of my mostly white community could affect my historical lens.
The examples go on and on.
Deifying and vilifying the giants of history exposes our reckless tendency to grossly simplify complicated people, topics, and events. We want heroes and villains, not complicated human beings. We want people to be “good” or “bad,” not a muddled combination of both. We have learned that heroes have no vices and villains no virtues. And so when we are confronted with a virtue or vice where it does not belong we pretend it does not exist, is not important, or we conversely refuse to acknowledge anything else with no sense of proportion.
Beyond propagating false or incomplete characterizations, we are training ourselves to be less able and willing to grapple with complicated modern-day topics. Instead, we are far more prepared to accept the simplified perceptions and misconceptions dictated by our communities. This drives us apart and makes it far more difficult to come back together over honest discussions of complex topics sometimes lacking any one right answer. It would seem Washington’s warning against regionalism and partisanship was apt.
When a new police shooting is caught on video, so many quickly retreat to our previously-defined corners, inflating the facts that suit us and disregarding the rest. That is simply done. No real consideration is necessary when we’ve already decided who is “good” and who is “bad.” Each time the abortion debate resurfaces, we fall back on predetermined opinions without honestly examining the widely varying circumstances and ethical dilemmas posed by a nation built around peacefully coexisting, diverse belief systems. When we face the growing tide of anti-Muslim sentiment, evidenced by a steady increase in hate crimes, our decisions are often dictated by our group-identity, not guided by an earnest diagnosis of our fidelity to the First Amendment. Each time a school shooting occurs we are so easily manipulated into a misleading dialogue where the only solutions are “all guns” or “no guns” with no moderation to discuss the fluctuating balance of security and regulation already in action via existing gun laws. These are complex conversations and, despite every opportunity, we aren’t really having them. And we often aren’t having them because an honest conversation acknowledging the complexity of an issue is not always advantagous in defending the hill we’ve chosen to die on. Instead we post up on our chosen hill, facts, complexities, and circumstances be damned.
During the time I spent as a criminal defense attorney, I was struck by how readily the public at large was prepared to immediately label my clients “bad” and their accusers “good.” Never mind the presumption of innocence, burden of proof, or the side-effects of extreme poverty and addiction often experienced on both sides of a criminal case. A full consideration of which would require a good look at complex legal principles and ageless social quagmires. It is so much easier and definite to determine that defendants are the villains from the outset, a presumption our fiction often reinforces.
When public officials wallow in blatant corruption and visible bad judgment, we have recently become accustomed to hear them excused as “good guys” or “good men.” This perplexingly implies that Good Guys are beyond reproach. If they are “good,” then surely they could not have done something all that bad. Good Guys can brag about sexually assaulting women — at least in the figurative, all-encompassing locker room. Good Guys can use public resources to enrich themselves. Good Guys can be autocrats and tyrants. Of course, being a Good Guy in this context isn’t about being moral or ethical. Being a Good Guy, in this context, means being likable to one particular person or belonging to (or being valuable to) a particular political party.
But it’s not enough to be a Good Guy. Being likable or a member of a cultural or political group is not antithetical to being unethical, crude, dishonest, or any number of negative traits. It allows one positive or shared trait to obscure a lack of so many others which are probably more important in the moment.
This recognition is hindered by our well-meaning, willful failure to acknowledge that even racists, dictators, abusers, and so on have family and friends who like and love them. The worst of us can still tell a good joke. The worst of us still go to barbecues and laugh around dinner tables. They, like all humans, are on a series of sliding scales of virtues and vices. Recognizing this doesn’t make poor conduct any less reprehensible, but mentally revoking another’s complex humanity for our own comfort prevents us from honestly approaching a conversation on common societal ills. Instead, we treat negative, durable human flaws as rare outliers and ironically become more prey to excusing misdeeds as the simple, unimportant foibles of Good Guys.
I am not proposing we adopt an extreme version of moral relativisim wherein nothing can be condemned. I would also caution against our all too common tendency to find malicious intent in trifles or deliver total, viral condemnation with no room for scope or forgiveness. But taking one another as complicated individuals and public issues as complex allows us to react with proportion and thoughtfulness instead of simple rage and hysteria. Sometimes that leads to condemnation; sometimes to understanding; and, sometimes, it warrants both. History’s true monsters are not any less monstrous when we acknowledge their complicated humanity, but it may help us understand how to produce less of them. The reverse can be said of our heroes.
Likewise, we should be wary of feeling so comfortable immediately determining public debates depending on which side — our side — is the “good side” before we exert any thought or effort. We should resist the tendency to simplify everything in the light most favorable to us and instead wade into the uncomfortable, but more honest middle ground where complex ideas can be considered and weighed on their merit.
There will still be selectivity in what traits and deeds we choose to promote. Returning to a historical example, I would suggest a flawed George Washington still deserves a measure respect for establishing and maintaining our young democracy on the shoulders of his temperance and judgment. He quite literally enabled the existence of our country, and we can grant respect for this valid and momentous contribution while also acknowledging his moral failures. This measure of respect is something I would not extend, for instance, to Robert E. Lee — whose primary contribution to history, despite some admittedly positive attributes, was leading the army forged to preserve American slavery. And for those who still, perplexingly, want to quibble over the primary cause of the civil war — he fought to divide and destroy the United States as we know it. He is the opposite of an American hero.
While the simplest solution may often be the correct one, we cannot arrive there unless we understand the problem first. Real problems, like real people, are generally more complicated than we would like them to be. And we will never be able to understand and respect one another across disagreements if we are unwilling to try and reach a basic understanding of foundational ethics, facts, and morals — all of which cannot always be honestly discussed and explored in the real world within the bounds of “good” and “bad” or “mine” and “yours.”
Maybe a good place to start would be an honest look at our history. We must carve out time and resolve to have these difficult conversations. Although some summary is necessary for the sake of digestibility, bypassing the complexities of reality altogether cannot be an option. Instead of writing and learning a comfortable fiction, children and adults alike, let’s teach ourselves how to earnestly analyze a sometimes uncomfortable truth. This kind of discipline and thoughtfulness is sorely needed in an age dominated by tribalism and ad hominem. Maybe then we can begin the real work of tackling a world of complicated problems without immediately falling back on our simplest, easiest prejudices. After all, we can’t become what we aspire to be unless we can square with what we are and what we have been.