Saturday, December 20, 2014

Humans are complicated

If there is one thing I’ve learned as a journalist, it’s that the world is a complicated place. And people don’t want it to be.

Too many people aren’t capable of grasping the fact that the world isn’t divided, Disney-style, into heroes and villains. Everyone falls in a different place on the spectrum, but the truth is that we’re all a mixture of good and bad. Every single one of us.
People don’t want to hear that, though. They want their journalism like they want their fiction, with a clear-cut good guy and bad guy they can in turns root for and revile. And so they get angry if we tell the truth: that the murder victim had a criminal record, that the rapist was a straight-A student, that the two people in a conflict were both partly right and partly wrong.
I get it, it’s uncomfortable. Nobody wants to hear that Paul Ropp, who was sentenced last week to 30 years in prison for shooting a police officer in both legs and killing a police dog last spring during a robbery in Portland, is a gifted pianist with a penchant for jazz who played keyboard in my brother’s band. That he has a family who loves him. And that his partner in crime Steve-O has a magnetic sense of humor that made him well-liked by a lot of good people before he got mixed up in some pretty bad stuff.
Because if that’s the case, then one of your friends could someday go to prison for committing a horrible crime. And nobody wants to contemplate that when they could be merrily tapping away on their keyboard suggesting the villain should be, in the words of one Oregonian commenter, shot by a firing squad and “left to bleed out and die on the street.”
It goes the other way, too. Nobody wants to hear that someone they admire has any flaws, or that someone with flaws might also do some good in the world. And so they jump on the bandwagon to tear down anyone who hasn’t managed to craft an image of perfection. Exhibit A: The guy who is (depending on who you ask) either a sexist pig helping keep women from science jobs, or a brilliant scientist who landed a spacecraft on a comet before being unfairly victimized by oversensitive feminists.
Why can’t he just be the guy who is a great scientist and also made an unfortunate choice to wear a shirt adorned with scantily-clad women on television? Neither action cancels out the other, although you wouldn’t think so by reading Twitter.
People want to shut the media up about this mixture of good and bad we see in the world. They want to make all victims’ flaws off limits and all perpetrators’ good qualities forbidden. They want all of their news served up in a flawlessly-crafted narrative that allows them to be Team Darrell Wilson or Team Michael Brown instead of Team “We’ll never know exactly what happened that day in Ferguson, but it’s probable that different actions on either person’s side could have prevented a tragedy.”
I once interviewed them family of a dead 20-year-old and the family of the friend who dealt him a fatal punch during a drunken fight. One family wanted a story about their angel baby boy being ruthlessly murdered. The other wanted a story about their son’s life being ruined by a harsh prison sentence after he defended himself against an alcoholic drug dealer flying into a dangerous rage. The truth, it seemed after talking to the DA and police, was somewhere in the middle.
That’s almost always the case, which is why picking one side or the other to craft a hero versus villain narrative doesn’t do anyone any good. People need the full story, not the stereotypes. If I ever have a daughter I want her to grow up knowing that a guy with a “promising football career” can be just as dangerous as a guy with a trench coat and no friends. Both types have made news this year for becoming everything from rapists to school shooters.
At the same time, I also want my future children to see the good in the world. I want them to understand that people who make mistakes are still valued human beings in God’s eyes. That people who go to prison sometimes change their lives for the better and make a positive contribution to the world once they get out again, that the fact that someone is homeless because they made poor choices doesn’t change the fact that at the moment they’re cold and hungry.
I want them to understand that everything is connected, and that as much as the politically correct hate anything that remotely seems like “victim blaming” the truth is things don’t always happen in a bubble.
And so I’ll continue to write that the crash victim wasn’t wearing their seatbelt when they died, that the homeowner’s house burned down because they left food on the stove unattended, that the car was stolen because someone left it unlocked, and that the coroner said the victim of the fight would still be alive if he hadn’t been drunk when he got punched in the head. Because my writing those things might make the next crash victim decide to put on their seatbelt, or the next potential car theft victim decide maybe they should lock their car after all.
Humanity is a beautiful, complex, confusing thing. I wish more people would remember that.