Throughout graduate school for social work, when the professors were teaching us about how to establish a working therapeutic relationship with a client, they repeatedly drove into us to “have unconditional positive regard for the client.” Implied in that phrase is the stance that we cannot accurately help someone we have prejudged. We learned first and foremost to see the valuable human being behind the behavior, to have compassion, and understand the reasons that brought a person to their present circumstance, even if it is criminal behavior.
People in the helping profession are there in the first place because they are hopeful about making a difference through their work and tend to be optimistic about the processes that make that happen. Therapists believe that people can be honest with themselves and effect change in their lives. We see it happen before our eyes. We believe in the core goodness of human beings.
We see the good in others
Even if you’re not in a helping profession, you were probably raised with values that directed you to treat other people well and see the good in them. We are taught early on to be “nice” to others. If our sibling or friend hurt us, we were trained to make up with them. Most of us are taught that if a rift happens between us and someone else, we should take an honest look at ourselves and take responsibility for our part, not blame the other person. Many of us are raised with ideals, religious or otherwise, of forgiveness and non-judgment, which foster the idea that others should be valued and regarded with compassion and understanding. We should overlook a person’s faults as much as possible. We are taught to “listen to our conscience” to know when we’re doing something wrong. And, if we find we are doing something wrong, then we should change it to the better or right thing. It is expected to think that all humans have this same social concept of a conscience.
Bad behavior in movies
As Americans, we have all been influenced in our perceptions of criminals and bad behavior by movies and TV shows. Scripts are written to be layered, so they will usually show background psychology of why a person has gone wrong, always including some type of brutality or hardship from their past. If you have any heart at all, you have probably felt some compassion for this person. These portrayals encourage that same concept I ingested in graduate school, that people are inherently good. People start out good, and if they do bad things, it is because circumstances have molded them. So, wouldn’t it follow that with the right help or rehabilitation, they could resurrect that good person who got lost along the way?
We do tend to draw the line of redemption before the extreme savagery of, say, a serial killer, a “grudge collector” who opens fire at a crowd or schoolroom, or a terrorist — what the media may refer to as a “psychopath.” A show like “Criminal Minds” makes no bones in graphically portraying the savagery of the sadistic killer, making it hard to perceive that behavior as anything but evil. But, when the show traces his path from abused or neglected child to adult killer, in spite of ourselves, we can feel a twinge of pity for him. It is in the nature of people with consciences to feel empathy, if for no other reason that s/he is a human being like we are.
To make matters worse, we are raised on endless movies about the “bad boy,” or girl, turning around through the power of another’s love, romantic or otherwise. They inspire our faith in humanity. Some of these stories are even true. We cut our teeth on movies like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” driving home the “diamond in the rough” theme, that encourage us in the belief that people are inherently good and are capable of change. They affirm our belief in love.
Hard to accept evil
It’s easier for us to accept badness on a grand scale. There are a multitude of examples throughout recorded history of tyrants dehumanizing or annihilating people in their ruthless grasps for power, and on a lesser scale, cults. We have no problem calling this “evil.” We may understand people like that as having gotten too much power that has clearly corrupted their conscience. But, a regular individual in society must have that core of human goodness that can be turned around. Aren’t they the same as we are? So, they can change, too, right?
We don’t even like to judge people as bad or “evil.” That feels a little evil itself, doesn’t it, because of how we are taught to not judge and give a person the benefit of the doubt?! We don’t consider that everything in nature and psychology is on a spectrum, including the gradations of human evil. We certainly do not recognize evil in that disarming and charming person right before our eyes. Because we’ve been conditioned to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, and that hope springs eternal, we don’t recognize danger behind those eyes of love. We don’t second-guess love.
This is why we are so we are so completely surprised at the devastation wreaked in our lives once those eyes target us.