The above title is a quote attributed to Mahātmā Gandhi, of whom you’ll see more quotes floating around on my blog, including the blog’s tagline. Recently I received some feedback from a friend, who helpfully pointed out that it might not be the best idea to have Gandhi’s sayings take such a prominent place on my blog because of, among other things, his treatment of women.
Now, I can’t say I know a huge amount of things about Gandhi, but I was aware of his treatment of women and of the lasting impact his visions on women and on sex have had in India up to this day. I know that he’s said and done a lot of stuff that resulted in modern-day India still not being a great country to be born in as a woman. For all the good he’s done and become famous for, he’s certainly caused a lot of pain and trouble for a lot of people too. Some of the things he did can even be considered hypocritical by our standards. Of course you’ll always have to take into account the zeitgeist of when he lived, and the culture he came from, but that’s no justification for the racist and misogynist things he said and did in his life, only an explanation.
I think it’s only fair to ask me why I nevertheless won’t take down his quotes and sayings. But here’s a deceptively simple reply: I’m not sharing any of his racist or misogynistic quotes, am I? I’m not sharing any quotes that I don’t agree with, and I think I can safely assume that the specific quotes I’ve included on my blog aren’t in any way demeaning or discriminating. But this issue is not just about the quotes, it lays bare a much deeper, more pervasive problem that I see in everyday life that I’ll delve into here.
We humans have the pernicious tendency to almost terminally judge people by their actions. We feel the need to say whether someone is a good or bad person based on their actions, and once you’re a good or bad person, it’s hard to change that perception. Animal shelter volunteers are good people, and rapists are bad people – that’s the type of thinking most people generally do.
That’s because we get some sort of cognitive dissonance from thinking that bad people might do good things, or good people might do bad things. We feel the need to disqualify those dissonant actions in some way. We explain away the bad things that good people did, and vilify the good things bad people did, and we often wouldn’t judge the same action the same way if it came from people we don’t perceive as equally good or equally bad.
Quick thought experiment: a random stranger notices that you forgot your wallet at a restaurant, and offers to take up the bill for you. They insist they aren’t lending you the money, you don’t have to pay them back, they’re just paying for your – let’s say for the purpose of this thought experiment – very expensive dinner. You’ve even taken out your phone to transfer the money to them by bank, but they insist, they just want to do a kind act for a stranger.
Now, imagine that afterwards, you’re somehow able to look that person up, and they turn out to be a serial rapist or a convicted pedophile, or they were responsible for the gruesome murder that occurred a few streets over from where you live. Now, I ask you to be brutally honest: would your opinion of their kind act in the restaurant, thinking back on it with this new information, remain unchanged? Or would you start doubting their intentions? I think most of us – including myself – will absolutely feel at least a little different about it.
A second case then: imagine that person wasn’t a convicted felon, but rather a well-known humanitarian, someone who spends nearly all their money on charity and invests it in important health care research, making lifesaving drugs affordable for people in developing countries, who feeds the poor every night, plants trees by day, and saves kittens and puppies on the weekends.
I think you would feel very different about their kind act than you would’ve in the first case. And I’m also quite sure that people would start doubting the stranger’s motives in the first example a whole lot sooner than in the second example. I’m not saying that most people would doubt it, just that people would doubt it sooner than in the second example.
In the second example, it’s clear: they just did that out of the kindness and goodness of their heart. Why would you suspect anything else? In the first example, it’s not so clear right away: what if they just did that to lull you into a false sense of security? What if they did it to later on blackmail you in some way? We have expectations based on what we know of that person. We know that that person has done terrible things, so we expect them to be able of more deeds like it.
And to be fair, in a lot of cases that sense of fear is somewhat warranted. I’d trust a situation a whole lot easier if a friend offered me a ride than if someone of whom I know that they’re a kidnapper offered me one. But if that kidnapper truly just dropped me off at the proper place, and I truly never heard from them again in my life, no consequences, I’d say that that was still a kind act.
That we’re a bit less likely to trust seemingly good actions coming from people of whom we know that they’ve done a lot of bad stuff, is fair. It keeps us safe, it keeps us alive. Many a person lost their life because of trusting a murderer too easily. But it’s not trust that concerns me here, it’s our judgment of any other actions after the fact. If someone who actively endorses slavery and thinks of black people as being lesser than white people jumps in front of a car to save a helpless kitten, and afterwards just went on with their lives, that kitten isn’t any less saved, and that act isn’t any less good.
And that brings us back to Gandhi. So here’s someone who led an unprecedented nonviolent revolt, that resulted in India breaking free from the constraints forced upon them by the British Empire. Someone who dedicated virtually all his life and energy to the service of others. He taught many people about love and compassion, even for strangers and enemies. But yes, at the same time there are more than enough sources telling us about a man that can easily be described as racist – at least in his younger years -, calling black people in South Africa barely more than animals and barely even human, and a misogynist, forcibly cutting off the hair of two women after they were sexually assaulted by a young man so that they wouldn’t attract any sexual advances anymore.
Are those acts good? Not in the slightest. They’re quite terrible, even. And I have no qualms finding those things terrible. Even though I’d call for a little slack considering the time period and the culture he was born in, the acts themselves are still condemnable. What I’d like to shed a light on, however, is the way people use those things to somehow disqualify the good he’s done, or worse, not allowing him the possibility to have changed later in life.
By judging people for their actions, we inadvertently deny them the opportunity of redeeming themselves. That’s the origin of pernicious sayings like “once a cheater, always a cheater”. But unlike what that statement implies, people can actually change. People can actually come to see the wrong in their actions and make amends, and choose to live their life differently.
But I have quite a few things to say about redemption and about people being able to change, so I’ll save that discourse for another time. Considering the usage of his quotes, whether or not Gandhi actually changed and redeemed himself is actually outside the question. Whether he was a good or bad person is outside the question.
What matters is that we shouldn’t judge his good actions for his bad actions, and we shouldn’t judge him as a person based on things he said and did, disallowing him the chance of having said and done good things too.Those good things aren’t any less good for the bad things he did, and the good things don’t explain away the bad things that he did, it’s as simple as that.
Regardless of his treatment of women or people of different colors and such, I applaud his nonviolent approach, and the love and compassion he’s taught people. And there’s a whole treasure trove of quotes attributed to him that a lot of people can learn a lot from, and that hold a lot of truth, that shouldn’t be dulled by others things he did irrespective of those quotes.
So here’s a suggestion: what if we stop judging people for their actions, and judging actions according to our perception of that person’s goodness? How about we just judge actions for the actions they are, separately of the person or their other actions? And just stop judging actions and people so much in the first place?
I’ll leave you guys with a question I haven’t found a definitive answer to yet: why is it even so important to be able to judge some people – not their actions, but people – as good or bad, instead of people doing good things and bad things?
Hate the sin, love the sinner.