We live in a grey world. And its people are not black and white, divided into heroes and villains, good and evil, strong and weak, wise and ignorant, kind and cruel, meaningful and meaningless. No, it’s not that simple. Despite what the various media outlets and personalities vying for attention in our social feeds would have us believe. As Solzhenitsyn put it in The Gulag Archipelago:
“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Another way of thinking about how we think about people—aside from the useful concept of black-and-white versus grey— is the notion of smooth-versus-spiky.
Imagine our perception of a person is illustrated by a circle. A large circle indicates that we like/trust/respect/will listen to that person. A small circle indicates that we don’t like/trust/respect that person and won’t listen to them. That’s generally how we judge individuals. We choose one measure and extrapolate from that to form an estimation of someone’s character. If someone performs an act of overwhelming kindness for us, we will hang our perception of that person upon the record of that act. Conversely, if someone stabs us in the back, we will never forget it and forever remember them as a double crosser, despite the goodness of their future deeds. It’s not pretty, but that’s the system default of our mental faculties. Of course, it’s a misrepresentation of reality. People are spiky, not smooth.
Instead, imagine that we rated each person in hundreds of different categories. In some categories, we would score them highly. Perhaps they’re fun, talkative and make others feel appreciated. In other categories, we’d score them lower. Perhaps they’re also unreliable, quick to anger, and a tyrant in relationships. We could visualise the results of such a comprehensive survey using a circle, but this time the surface would be high in some places and lower in others. There would be peaks and valleys. Sharp, not smooth, rounded edges.
This representation of a person is far truer to life. No one amongst us is all-good or all-bad. We are both, all at the same time, in many different ways. Naturally, thinking this way invalidates some of our blanket beliefs about the world and its people and forces us to reform them. But the inconvenience is worth it because it brings us closer to an accurate, reliable picture of reality.