Statement One (about a former fling who did not want to be seen out with me as her Romanian friends would have teased her for being seen with a black man): ‘She’s not a bad person, just a stupid one. Doesn’t want to hurt anyone, so doesn’t want to say or do anything bad to anyone. Hence she then hurts everyone. Although she might say otherwise, I sometimes think people like this hurt others on purpose.’
This month’s blog is a simple one. We live in an age where we strive for goodness so much of the time, that when we are called out on our failure to pay £5 million in taxes that we deny we have done anything questionable lest we be seen as bad. We go silent when we are accused of having been racist or homophobic towards someone, or we bring out the tears when we are accused of using our privilege to assert some kind of gendered or class domination over a colleague or a peer. We live in an age where to be seen as good is the ultimate goal. To be seen in all our narcissistic glory as special, as perfect, where any flaw is denied. And if there are any flaws upon us, the humanity of the other is brought into question as a means of justifying the multitude of horrors and hatred meted out upon the other.
Statement Two (A man who was called out for making sexist comments about a female colleague): ‘I happen to have a lot of compassion for others and their struggles in life. I am a carer and nurturer. It’s in me. But when you are trying to corner me and get angry for me not feeling the same as you then I am seen as a bad person. I am not a bad person. I am a good person.’
Proffering obvious examples, when we come back to the social constructions of identity, the sense of goodness and badness is always attached to whichever side of the identity divide one has been ascribed to. For example, de Beauvoir, in her recognition that patriarchal society prescribed what it was to be a man versus what it was to be a woman, also noted that man was seen as good, and that woman was seen as bad as a consequence (Beauvoir, 2010). This was the same for blackness in its description by whiteness, and for the working classes by their de-notion by the upper classes (Ahmed, 2014; Piff & Moskowitz, 2018; Turner, 2018).
In religious circles, God, as an example, becomes that ultimate arbiter of these religiously constructed rules of behaviour. We are dictated to as to how we should be, act, react, our rules as men and women and children defined to make us comply. If we are bad then we are challenged to confess our sins in the home or our lord, and given penance in order to find our way back into God’s good books and avoid his ultimate wrath (Earl, 2001; Pereira, 2016).
Goodness was held over the other, racial, gendered, sexual, class etc, by their compliance within said centrally defined description of identifiable otherness. If they complied, if blackness shucked and jived, if woman performed, if those downstairs did their duty for those upstairs, then goodness fluttered down from on high like confetti. To step outside of these confines was to be marked out as bad. Punishable by anything from ostracization to death.
The weaponization of socially constructed goodness is therefore a passport to inflict shame and pain upon either ourself or the other. We strive for the comfortable egoic shelter of narcissistic goodness. We want to avoid the psychological destabilisation of human badness. We want to live, not to die. Our very existence is reliant upon being seen as good, as on the right side of the argument. We avoid the shame of expressing the wrong emotions for our socially prescribed gender, or acting outside of socially prescribed norms for our race, or outside of the class defined limits of our privilege. We cannot sit in the middle space of not knowing, or risk disobedience, as to do so places us outside of goodness, outside of partiarchial, white supremacist, capitalist created definitions of goodness at least.
Statement Three (a woman who was in tears after being called out for making racist comments about their Muslim colleague at work): ‘If you make me feel bad about what I have done then I am a bad person. I beg of you please, I do not want to be a bad person!’
A side note, but a relevant one. The media also presents goodness in this age as something we should aspire to. We therefore look up to heroes as one means of achieving. For example, Superman is an idol of the American Dream, constructed at a time when the Axis Powers were seen as a real threat to the supposed harmonies of the West. Designed to be the ultimate reciprocal act of goodness and strength, he was sent to show us how to be good people in the face of such evil, and how to fight and remain on the good side at all times (Saunders, 2011).
Yet, this was not the way with all superheroes, if I use this metaphor for goodness. Wonder Woman, who came to life not long after Superman, was a heroine whose stories caused a lot of consternation within patriarchal and white supremacist environments. So much so that many of the original stories were burnt or banned in the 1950s and 60s, as many families saw her as a lesbian who had too much power. As she was seen as a bad influence, or just as Bad. Her powers, seen as too much of a threat to white male superiority at this time, were even watered down, so much so that it was only in the 1980s when she was brought back to the fullness of her strengths (Saunders, 2011). The use of the story of Wonder Woman here is to highlight that goodness, that the right to be seen as right, as righteous, has regularly been co-opted by the social construction which is white, patriarchal, supremacy again and again over the years.
Conversely, for us to decolonise this adapted goodness we need to begin to acknowledge that we are flawed, bad beings. We do bad things. We cheat on our partners, we betray our friends, we steal from our neighbours. We are moulded by social constructions not to be good, but to be compliant within said systems. Therefore we are built to be bad. We are built to be homophobic. We are built to be sexist and racist. We are built out of our own need to marginalise out of fear and anger. Goodness is therefore not just ascribed from the centre, it is also proffered as a narcissistic consequence of our continued compliance within said systems of marginalisation.
Conversely, true goodness needs to be recovered from our own inner morality. This is where we need to recognise how our compliance with said systems of patriarchy, whiteness, of capitalism has desensitised us to the impact upon the gendered, sexual orientated, racialised, planet, other. When we wake up from our systemic sleep then the first thing we have to acknowledge is our guilt, our shame, and our horror, at just what we have wrought upon those close and far from us. Only by wading through this morass of badness, by crying the tears of guilt, and feeling the sharp welts of shame, can we then even begin to tiptoe along the path back to rightness. Can we then even begin to actually become Good once again, Good for the very first time.
Statement Four (Me): When I speak up, when I call out all that has happened to me (the betrayals, the racism, the pain I have endured), I do so to give myself back my voice. To give myself back my humanity. I also do so to remind You of all the pain you have caused, the terror you have wrought. I don’t do so to make you feel bad. I do so to put you on the path towards Goodness. I do so as without my mirror, without my presence, without my pain, true Goodness, moral Goodness, is denied not only you and me, but the whole world.
I speak up for all of us.
Ahmed, S. (2014). The politics of feeling good. Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, 10(2), 1–19.
Beauvoir, S. de. (2010). The Second Sex. Alfred A. Knopf.
Earl, M. (2001). Shadow and Spirituality. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 6(3), 277–288. https://doi.org/10.1080/13644360120100450
Pereira, J. L. (2016). The Roman Catholic Church and Slavery in José Evaristo d’Almeida’s O Escravo (The Slave). Dialog, 55(3), 239–246. https://doi.org/10.1111/dial.12260
Piff, P. K., & Moskowitz, J. P. (2018). Wealth, poverty, and happiness: Social class is differentially associated with positive emotions. Emotion, 18(6). https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000387
Saunders, B. (2011). Do the Gods wear capes? Spirituality, Fantasy and Superheroes. Bloomsbury Academic.
Turner, D. D. L. (2018). You Shall Not Replace Us!: White Supremacy, psychotherapy and decolonisation. Journal of Critical Psychology Counselling and Psychotherapy, 18(1), 1–12.