Lessons We Never Seem To Learn

The Music Lesson – Jan Stolker after painting by: Gerard ter Borch (II) – Rijsksmuseum

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with a friend who mentioned he’d met a certain right-wing provocateur in person and found him to be really nice and “gentle” face to face, contrasting with this person’s online persona. 

I was reminded of this today, as I watched far-right politician Geert Wilders give his last address to the court in his “minder Marokkanen” case. In-person, Wilders is an affable guy. At a party, he’s probably funny and easy to talk to, if you were unaware of his political ideology. 

Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that people like that, people who make disgusting and racist remarks on Twitter, who argue in favor of discrimination against marginalized people, who incite hate, are all Disney villains. They have sharp, angular features (or they are fat, it’s one or the other,) thin mustaches and they want to skin your dog to make a coat. In all interactions, they are mean, rude and absolute trash. Their sole source of power comes through fear. 

We absolutely know that this isn’t true. Serial killers are forever described as “charming” and “just like the guy next door” as if being a sociopath is incompatible with being a friendly neighbor. The idea that normal, ordinary people commit acts of atrocity is not new. We’ve known this for a long time. We’ve read articles about it. Watched documentaries about it. Read books about it

Of course the guy on Twitter who argues that a Muslim hoard is invading Europe or the Jews are starting a race war is a nice guy in person. Most people are pleasant in person. You can have a conversation with most people at a party. Bad people are just like the rest of us. Because we’re bad people. 

There isn’t an “us” and a “them.” There isn’t a black and white, good and evil, Dark Side and Light Side. It’s just regular, ordinary people who make terrible choices.