Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What Makes People Good or Bad?

Yes, I know, that is a very big question that cannot be met with a single cut and dry answer. But it is something I have thought a lot about because of personal experience.

Longtime readers of this blog, well if you consider going back to this past January to be a long time, will remember I did a series about my oldest brother Bobby called "What About Bob?" To newer readers of this blog who may be unfamiliar with this series, I invite you to click on the link to my January 2007 archive to read all seven parts and the conclusion.

To summarize briefly, both Bobby and my other older brother John, who is the middle child of the three of us, did not turn out the way my parents hoped they would. By their early teenage years they already had issues with getting drunk, getting high and getting into run-ins with the law. Neither of them would go to college and both of them ended up working in construction, with Bobby becoming a bricklayer and John working as a spackler. They also both got their girlfriends pregnant and married them, and each ended up fathering three children. Both of their marital relationships were tumultuous to say the least and they both ended up divorcing their respective wives. Presently, John lives in Florida with his now ex-wife and three children in a rather odd arrangement, though at times he has lived with another woman until that relationship went sour. As for Bobby, I have not spoken to him in almost nine months (read the "What About Bob?" series and you will find out why) though I have heard through the grape vine that he is still going to bars and getting drunk. To put it simply, John is forever treading water while Bobby seems to be forever drowning.

My mother often compares us to the three children of her friend Rita. Sometimes I would hear her lament, "Rita's three kids all turned out okay. They got college educations, stayed out of trouble, they are all well off financially. I had three kids and only one of them turned out right." And it is true. Rita and her husband Tom had two sons and a daughter. One son made a fortune with his beverage delivery route business (and as an aside, how come when I was in high school no one ever mentioned this fucking possibility to me!?!) and the other son worked in finance. The daughter also got a college eduation, though her husband makes a good enough living that she had the option to be a stay at home mom and crank out lots of kids to help save Social Security.

My brothers and Rita's children, as I did, had the privilege of growing up in suburban environments. Rita's kids grew up in Bayside, Queens while we were raised in Hicksville. What, I wonder, made the difference in the outcomes between how my brothers turned out and how Rita's kids turned out? Why were my brothers bad and Rita's kids good?

For clarification, when I use the terms good and bad to describe people, I do not mean to imply that they are entirely evil or angelic or 100% good or bad. Though I consider myself to be a good person, I am certainly flawed and commit my share of mistakes and regret certain things I have done in the past. Likewise, though my brother Bobby would fall under the label of bad, it does not mean that he never was or still is incapable of good things. Several years ago, when he was living in a friend's houseboat in Seaford, he and another person pulled a neighbor out of another houseboat that was on fire, which probably saved that man's life. Despite my stint as a volunteer firefighter, I never got the opportunity to do something like that. But I would say that Bobby is a bad person based on the totality of his actions as a person throughout his life up to the present day.

Since I am six years younger than Bobby, I was not a witness to his early years as a child growing up in the late 1960's into the early 1970's. It was not until I entered elementary school in the mid-1970's that I was old enough to start understanding what was going on around me and to remember it. I do remember that by the time Bobby was already 12, he was already wearing his hair long as was popular at the time, and that he was already getting into trouble in school and with the law. As I recounted in Part 1 of "What About Bob?", one of my earliest memories of Bobby was when I heard my dad yelling at him in Bobby's room. I looked into Bobby's room and saw my dad on top of him on the bed wailing on him while Bobby had his arms held up trying to deflect the blows. I had already categorized Bobby as a bad boy in my mind by then, and out of a desire to help my dad punish Bobby, I pulled out a belt from the closet outside of Bobby's room and called to dad to take it so he could hit Bobby with it.

The great unknown for me regarding Bobby was at what point between when he was born up to the age of 12 did he go wrong and why? I know my father, raised in a strict Irish Catholic family and working as a cop in New York City, was not a warm, nurturing figure. Did Bobby turn out the way he did because my parents made mistakes in raising him, was there something inherent in him that made him bad, or was it a combination of the two? And that question applies not just to him, but to all people that could be loosely characterized as bad.

An excellent example from film of a character who is corrupted by his environment comes from one of my favorite movies, "Full Metal Jacket". One of the main characters in the first half of the movie, which follows a group of Marine recruits through their basic training at Parris Island, is that of Leonard Lawrence, a somewhat slow-witted but gentle giant played memorably by actor Vincent D'Onofrio. From the outset of the movie, Lawrence incurs the wrath of the unit's bellicose drill instructor for his bumbling and awkward mannerisms. This clip from the film gives but a taste of the abuse that Lawrence, whom the drill instructor derisively refers to as Private Pyle, receives on an almost daily basis. Be forewarned though that this clip contains a lot of shouted profanity, so keep that in mind before clicking on the link.

After Lawrence is violently hazed by his fellow recruits in the barracks one night, his behavior undergoes a radical transformation. His performance as a recruit swiftly improves, earning him the acknowledgment and grudging respect of the drill instructor, but his personality becomes dark and creepy. The Parris Island segment of the movie ends with Lawrence shooting the drill instructor in the chest in the bathroom on the last night of basic training before turning the gun on himself and plastering the bathroom wall with his brains. Leonard Lawrence epitomizes a person who turns bad because his psyche could not handle the cruel environment into which he was placed and in the end he snapped. Many of the shooters in the school shooting incidents such as Columbine and Virginia Tech were like Leonard Lawrence, kids who were often mercilessly teased and abused, until finally they lashed out violently at the society they felt was persecuting them. But while I know that Bobby was physically abused by my father, I suspect it was in response to Bobby's behavior rather than a cause of it.

Then there are those people who seem to thrive on being disobedient and preying on others. This clip from the 1979 film "Over The Edge" features an early Matt Dillon as the archetypal Seventies juvenile delinquent who appears to rebel against authority simply for the pure pleasure of it. There is an echo of my brother Bobby in Dillon's early film portrayals of bad boys whose personas combined equal parts swagger, menace, and charm. As shown in the clip above, even the threat of going to prison does not elicit any concern from Dillon's character, and in fact he seems to revel in the possibility of it.

And that is what has always baffled me about many bad people. Threats of punishment or even the implementation of it rolls off of them like water off a duck's back. My brother Bobby did a stint in Catholic middle school, spent time in a facility for juvenile delinquents, and served in the Marines, where he was let out early with a general discharge because of his insubordinate behavior. Nothing, be it harsh punishment or positive rewards, could straighten my brother out.

And while some people might like to point the blame for such deviant behavior on the Sixties, this is a problem that is at least as old as civilization. The Hongwu emperor, who founded the Ming dynasty in China in the 14th century, expressed his bafflement with government officials who continued to engage in corrupt behavior despite receiving harsh physical punishment. He wrote of giving "them countless lashes, I cut off their feet, and I showed all this to other members of the Board. With my own eyes I witnessed this punishment and my hair stood on end because of it. I was sure that there would be no repetition of the crime. But while the survivors were still in terrible pain and bleeding, and the corpses of the others had not yet been taken away, more misconduct occurred. I don't know how the world can be securely ordered." A book I have describes the punishment of one granary clerk accused of embezzlement, who was twice branded, then hamstrung, and then lost both kneecaps, but who still continued to pilfer supplies.

While the optimist in me believes that everybody has the ability to transform their lives to become good people, the realist in me, like the Hongwu emperor, is baffled and frustrated that so many bad people are seemingly incorrigible in spite of all of the punishments that are inflicted on them. Ultimately, is the best we can hope for simply to try and contain the damage that they can do to the rest of us?


Poodles said...

I'm not sure what makes people good or bad (I do know god didn't do it). But I think in some cases (such as your brother) there might be a "victim" mentality to them that they "deserve" to be what they are because of some horrible part of their lives.

I have 2 cousins one who is a productive member of society with a great husband and 2 great kids. The younger one was a "victim" because her parents divorced when she was young and her parents then started going to bars and leaving her alone. She got pregnant at 15, got married at 16, got divorced at 16 and 6 mos. and has always blamed someone else because she did drugs, worked as a prostitute and stole.

Her mom (my aunt) is just like her. She has MS and blames my grandmother for it because my grandmother "let" her first husband beat her when she was pregnant. I'M NOT KIDDING.

I agree that sometimes the only choice you have with people like this is to step away from their lives.

Everyone has shit that happens to them, it's how you react to it that makes you a productive person or not.

Earlier this year when I was first struggling with my rheumatoid arthritis (before it was diagnosed and treated) it came on very fast and hard. I could barely walk most days and my co workers kept wanting to help me by getting and doing stuff for me. I told them no, I could do it and I had to do it. I wouldn't be a victim to a stupid disease.

Sorry for the long comment, stupidity just irritates me.

Splinters of Silver said...

As a Christian, I know you know that we would consider the sin nature of the person to be why one rebels from that which is good. But, as you said, this does not mean “good” people are always good nor does it mean “bad” people are always bad. It appears that some people are born with more desire to rebel compared to other people, for I see this in my own kids. There is also reason to believe if some children only receive attention (although negative attention) because they do something wrong, they will continue to do wrong things just to get any attention at all. Sometimes it seems it could be that people “stay bad” simple because they have been stereotyped as “bad”, everyone talks, acts, and treats them like they are bad, so they continue to act as people see them as. I believe everything plays a part, such as personality, upbringing, choices one makes, but the battle is truly inside the person, and although I think we may can help them in some ways, the ultimate choice is that they have to turn their backs on what is wrong and decide to do right simply because it is right. Sometimes we would like to turn our backs on them, other times we may want to shake sense into them, but ultimately all we can do is hope something inside of them changes. (As for a Christian, we hope for salvation.)

Rhology said...

I'd be interested in knowing how you know what constitutes good and bad, as an atheist. ISTM that the furthest you could go would be:

good = what I like
bad = what I don't like

What do you think?


Tommykey said...


If it was really that simple Rhology, I would spend all my time doing what I liked and not doing what I don't like.

If you read the post below this one, you will see that I mentioned that I had donated blood last weekend and urged other readers of this blog who were eligible to donate to do so.

Now, I don't like donating blood. I have very little free time in my life to spare an hour of so on Saturday to go to the blood donation center. Add to that sometimes after donating I feel a little weak and lightheaded. But I do it because I recognize how important it is that there be a supply of available blood for people who have medical emergencies.

I like getting a full body massage from an attractive naked young lady, but I choose not to do it. As much as a really good erotic massage feels, the sensation is only fleeting but the money spent on it is lost forever.

But according to your distorted view of atheism and morality, I should be eschewing the act of donating blood while getting those erotic massages as often as possible. You make the mistake of assuming that atheists reject religion because we want to be able to do things that religion tells us we shouldn't do. It is possible that may be the motivation for some atheists, but the majority of us reject religion because we do not believe in the existence of the god or gods of the various religions.

For example, the Bible describes homosexuality as an abomination. I do not believe that there is a deity in the heavens that gives a damn if Adam kisses Eve or Steve. If two people of the same gender find fulfillment with each other, far be it for me to find any fault with it. I personally am not gay and I have no desire to engage in sexual relations with another man, so my disagreement with Biblical teaching about homosexuality does not stem from a personal desire to engage in such activity.

I will have to pick this up later, as I have to feed my kids dinner (yeah, some of us atheists are actually responsible parents, believe it or not!), but for now I would submit that I have demonstrated to you that your assumptions about me are wrong.

Poodles, my brother often tries to twist his version of events to make himself look like the victim. To people who don't know him well, he can be very convincing, but as time went by, I wised up to his bullshit.

Hi Tim, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Unknown said...

I stumbled onto your blog, Tommy. Mostly by chance.

"What makes people good or bad?"

Wow, talk about a great blog post.

The Hongwu Emperor... Despite his power... was never able to straighten out his corrupt officers. Whether he tried to use incentive to foster change, they remained corrupt. Whether he tried to use fear to foster change, they still remained corrupt.

That made me do some thinking about Iraq...

The country festers with sociopaths and anarchists. Even if they are a small number of the total population, in absolute numbers they still very likely number in the thousands.

The U.S. has not been able to straighten them out... whether through incentives (a la foreign aid) or through fear (a la an increasingly more pronounced military presence).

What could be done to fix it...?

More importantly... HOW could those that are villainous be reformed?

For my sake, give me an answer. Even if you don't know for sure how correct your answer is.

This is a riddle I've been grappling with for years in my mind.

Tommykey said...

Thanks for your comments VJ!

I wish I knew what the solution is.

I am generally an optimistic person, but my idealism is tempered by reality.

When attempts to help people fail because the person in question refuses to make the necessary changes in his or her life, then the best you can probably do is simply to wall that person off from your life.

I suspect that for some people, like my brother, certain negative characteristics develop early on in life and cannot be changed. In light of this post, the other day I asked my mom when Bobby started to go wrong, and she said it was around the age of 12 when he went with a crowd that was into drinking and doing drugs. I asked what about before he was 12, and she remembered that in elementary school there were constant complaints that my brother was bullying the other kids.

What made my brother so dangerous was that he was both good looking and charming. He had this way of making people who were angry at him feel bad for being mad at him. He would act like a sad puppy that you would end up feeling sorry for. These traits made it possible for him to get away with a lot of shit.

It took me a while to come to the conclusion that not all problems can be solved. For some, the best you can hope to do is manage them and limit the damage they can do. That goes for my brother Bobby and for Iraq.

Unknown said...

That was one heckuva reply-post, Tommy.


Yeah, I hate to admit it...

But even though it should be theoretically possible...

you're probably right that in some persons (or middle eastern countries) corruption simmers too strongly to be absolved.

But... maybe there are steps that can be taken to minimize the collateral damage.

Hmm. This talk of good and evil made me do some thinking. If I can track it down, I'm later going to provide a URL to a comicbook that reflects a little bit on some things we'd been discussing.

Unknown said...

If it worked... you can download it from here. - Star Wars Tales #05 (Yaddle\'s Tale, The One Below - 245 BBY).cbr


It's a STAR WARS comic. The majority of the stories contained within are mostly uninteresting, but the first story...

About the Jedi, "Yaddle", well, it can make you give you pause and consider what makes people good or bad.

You'll need a program that can read .CBR files. I recommend CDisplay. It's freeware.