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Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Infinite Shades of Grey

Some of our horror at the bad things which happen in "good" places, such as Salt Lake City, is rooted in our preference for black-and-white categories, instead of infinite shades of gray. That preference is actually dangerous.

Bad Things, Good Places

The body count has been unusually high in Salt Lake City in the past few days. Last Friday an allegedly intoxicated 17 year old drove his SUV into a local Mormon bishop's Volkswagen Jetta, killing the bishop's pregnant wife and two of their children, and putting the bishop himself and one child in the hospital. (Another child was not with the family that evening, as they drove home from a basketball game.) Then last evening an 18-year-old gunman opened fire at Trolley Square, apparently at random, killing five and critically wounding a few others, before he was killed in a gun battle with police.

To be sure, these casualties seem almost trivial in comparison to the daily death toll in Baghdad. But Salt Lake City is not Baghdad. It is not even Philadelphia, where another gunman yesterday killed five people before turning his weapon on himself. We seem to be shocked just now not so much at the bad things that can happen to good people, but at the bad things that can happen in good places.

This sort of shock doesn't just happen in Utah, of course. It can even be a national phenomenon. The shock and horror here on the Wasatch Front this week is not qualitatively different from the wider-spread shock at the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

(For my part, I share the horror but not the surprise. On September 11, 2001, for example, I was less inclined to wonder, "How could this happen here?" than to wonder, "How did we go so long here without this happening?" I suppose I'm more of a pessimist than most folks.)

At least some of the shock at such times comes from our fondness for simple, binary, black-and-white categories. If it's not good, it's evil, and vice versa, and never the twain shall mix. End of story.

If only the world were that simple, it would be -- what? Easier to understand? Exquisitely boring?

Imperfect Good, Incomplete Evil

I do not doubt that pure good and pure evil exist. (I realize that's a controversial statement in itself.) But few if any humans are completely good or completely evil. People mostly inclined to evil sometimes do good, and people we consider good often dismay us and themselves by their capacity for evil.

Even if we prefer basic black and white, we are somewhat acquainted with shades of gray in people. Consider this: The Trolley Square gunman apparently killed no young children last evening. Maybe that was just dumb luck. But what if we learn that he deliberately spared the children, even as he was killing others? I'm not saying that happened, but if it did, would it not slightly alter our evaluation of the murderer? It would not make his rampage good, but that good thing would make him slightly less evil in our minds.

Our fondness for absolute, black-and-white categories extends to places and peoples. We -- at least we in Utah -- are much less surprised at yesterday's violence in Philadelphia than we are at yesterday's bloodshed at Trolley Square. This is not just because Salt Lake City is nearer to home (or is home). Philadelphia is a large city with -- Westerners commonly suppose -- a dubious reputation befitting a large city. We want to call it a bad place; it does not surprise us that people kill people there.

But Salt Lake City is a good place, or so we suppose. It's not just the Mormons, either, with their passion for strong families, their superb, enormous choir, and their lower incidence of divorce and lung cancer. For the most part, it's a clean, relatively safe, relatively well-educated city, a good place to live and raise a family. Trolley Square itself is fashionable and upscale; I enjoy going there, though I don't go often.

In our minds we paint both good and bad with too broad a brush. Salt Lake City has very good places and very bad ones, and many places in between; it makes little sense to call the whole city good. Philadelphia has very bad places and very good ones, and many places in between; it makes little sense to call the whole city bad.

Acknowledging that there are shades of gray in people and places, we still might be tempted to oversimplify our view of human behavior. We might suppose that, at any given moment, a person is -- or is doing -- either pure good or pure evil. But our motives for a single act may be a combination of the good, the evil, and the morally neutral. Imagine a celebrity who donates a large amount of money to a good cause in part because he or she really wants to help the unfortunate, in part for the sake of added publicity, and in part to make a rival look bad for not contributing. Consider the person who helps a neighbor partly because it answers the neighbor's genuine need, and partly because it helps him feel superior to that neighbor.

What to Do, or Not

Some of the young SUV driver's acquaintances have expressed surprise that he would get drunk or high and cause three deaths (or four, depending on whether you count an unborn baby). We'll hear a lot of similar talk about the gunman. We'll hear endless discussion about what causes youth to go bad to the point that they kill people, accidentally or deliberately. Lots of folks will talk and write about how to prevent such things from happening in the future. Many will do so in self-serving ways, promoting a particular cause or interest; others will reason more sincerely. Some people will want to ban guns; others will want to loosen existing firearms restrictions. Some will want stiffer penalties for driving while intoxicated, or perhaps even suggest raising the driving age to 18. Programs will be proposed for the public schools, as if they didn't already have enough to distract them from reading, writing, and arithmetic.

From the earnest wondering and the unctuous pontificating will emerge some proposed legislation, at least at municipal and state levels. Some of that legislation might pass, and some of what passes might actually be enforced. So maybe a bit of substance will emerge from all the posturing, and maybe some of that substance will really be beneficial. We can hope.

Meanwhile, I don't know how to keep these evil things from happening at all. But I do know that complacently thinking of oneself, one's people, and one's community as safe and good, and of others and their communities as bad or evil, does not help. Thinking "it can't happen here," that we don't have to worry about the evils that occur elsewhere, because we are a good community -- whoever and wherever we are -- is childish. It is also dangerous. It is an open invitation for bad things to happen here -- wherever here is -- while our heads are lodged firmly in the sand.

If you think -- consciously or subconciously -- that your community or nation is good, you likely will not take the necessary steps to prepare for and prevent attacks or other evils. If you think that crack houses are something found in other, bad neighborhoods, but not your own, good neighborhood, you likely will not notice, worry about, or report the very suspicious activities of your new neighbor, three doors down, with his steady stream of visitors. If you reason that, because they are good, the people with whom you attend church would never beat their spouses or children, you may be blind to otherwise obvious signs that your friend's husband is abusing her. And need I mention the wrongs to which a human is prone when he is convinced of his own surpassing personal righteousness?

So a partial solution to the bad things that happen in "good" places is to promote a healthy appreciation of infinite, dynamic shades of gray. Happily, the same attitude adjustment which allows us to consider the prospect of evil in generally good places, among generally good people, also allows us to expect, detect, appreciate, and encourage good in places and among people we might otherwise dismiss as bad.

Seeing genuine good in "bad" places and understanding the potential for evil in "good" places is motivating. We are a little less preoccupied with our own jobs, our own entertainment, and our own church and other activities. We pay a little more (mostly positive) attention to our neighors, our neighborhoods, and our larger communities, and work a little harder for their welfare. Doing so, we can prevent some severe problems altogether. We can catch some other problems early, before they blossom into full-blown horrors. We will not banish evil altogether, but we can keep it at least partially at bay.

So It's Not Easy . . .

I don't claim this is easy. Some knowledge is required. We have to know our neighbors and communities, know how our governments work and what they're doing from week to week, and know, for example, the telltale signs of drug dealing in a neighborhood, the symptoms of abuse in a child, and even the reasons why sensible communities safeguard their residents by enforcing reasonable zoning laws.

Some effort is required, not only to learn how things work but to stay vigilant and informed, and sometimes to organize and rally like-minded people to a worthy cause.

Some courage is required. Courage speaks out despite the near-certainty that some will disagree or oppose. Courage defies inconvenience, pain, or even danger to defend what is worth defending. In fact, a certain courage is required simply to trade our comfortable but dangerous black-and-white world views for those more realistic, infinite shades of gray.

We don't have to jettison all sense of good and evil; that would make our world much worse. We simply should apply that sense more realistically and intelligently -- at once more skeptically and more charitably. Pure black and pure white still exist; there is no merit in denying it. But as to places and people, an appreciation for the shades of gray will serve us far better than an unreasoning attachment to black and white.

. . . And it's not that big or traumatic a change, is it, really? Consider the familiar black-and-white photograph. It can be beautiful, eloquent, and powerful. We're quite comfortable with the medium. But please notice that such a photo is almost never just black and white, despite our calling it black-and-white. Most often, like the real world it represents, it is composed of countless, subtly different shades of gray.

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