So “Everyone is Inherently Good” Hey?

I am an optimist. I don’t find it hard to maintain positivity and even when terrible things are happening to me I will look for an upside. Possibly I am annoyingly positive. I think because of this natural inclination towards positivity I used to believe in the ‘Everyone is inherently good’ argument. And thinking like that took me to some very dark and dangerous places.

I’ve been working with survivors of domestic abuse for about 7 years. In that time I would say that every single woman I worked with stayed (at least for a time) with an abusive man — who was doing everything he could to destroy her — because she believed that he was ‘inherently good’ and that if she just did the right thing that good side would emerge again. Now women will stay for many, many complex reasons, like being too poor to leave, having unsure residency status or not having a support network, but at some point in the relationship you can bet that that woman stayed because she believed that her partner was actually a good guy. Underneath it all. Underneath the sexual abuse, the controlling of her life, the belittling remarks, the yells, the punches — whatever — there was a good guy.

We thought that way because we were socialized to believe it. As a girl I never recall anyone saying to me, “Here’s a list of dodgy behaviours to look out for from men. If you see any of the things on this list, get the hell out of that relationship as that guy is dodge.” I don’t even remember anyone saying simply “If you don’t feel respected, get out.” Cause actually that pretty much sums up all we need to be imparting to our teens. But here’s the thing, people with abusive mindsets are SO easy to spot — when you know how. Having now worked with so many women, and witnessing how their exes interact with them (and being a survivor myself) I can spot someone (male or female) with an abusive mindset very quickly. So why did no one teach me how to spot them when I was a teen? Why are we now not focusing lots of energy on teaching teens how to spot a dodgy bastard?

When I hear, “I guess I’m different to you, I just see everyone as being inherently good”. I see someone with a huge amount of unacknowledged privilege. See people who have been raped, abused, beaten, psychologically tortured, discriminated against, bullied or oppressed don’t have the luxury of choosing to see everyone as “inherently good”. They also know that it is a lie.

Where I live the domestic abuse services say unofficially they believe the stats are 2 in 4 relationships in my area are abusive. That’s half of everyone in a relationship in the county I live in who the local Domestic Abuse Services would consider to be in an abusive relationship. (We don’t have official statistics in Ireland as the Irish government doesn’t prioritise violence against women and therefore doesn’t collect statistics). The point I am trying to make is that even those people who claim to not have experienced any type of badness in another person are fooling themselves. We are ALL surrounded by it.

While I certainly no longer believe everyone is inherently good, I also do not believe anyone (aside from a sociopath) is inherently bad either. Our world is just not so black and white as all that.

Did the man who raped me have some good points? Of course he did. He was my friend before he was my rapist and back then we had fun together. He was a great dancer, he told funny stories, he was warm and he seemed caring to me when he was my friend.

Likewise the man who abused me is not all bad, he is a rounded human with good qualities as well as bad ones. Let’s face it, if people were inherently bad then we’d run a mile from them, they’d never get anyone to even go on a date with them.

I often wonder if people who say “I see everyone as inherently good” actually know what they’re saying. Here’s what I, as a victim of sexual and domestic abuse hear when someone says that to me:

  1. I have either had a life of privilege whereby no person has ever deliberately hurt me or I am choosing not to acknowledge that any person has ever hurt me.
  2. I am a better person than you. You are just seeing the world wrong. You may have a more nuanced take on the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but you would be wrong. All people (even the one that raped/abused/bullied/oppressed you) are good people.
  3. I have no line/boundaries. As I see all people as good then I will take this strongly held worldview into all my interactions with others and it will possibly put me (and my children if I have any) in grave danger as I will not be able to see someone’s ‘badness’ for what it is.
  4. I negate your experience of abuse. All people are good therefore the person who raped/assaulted/abused/oppressed you is also good. Why don’t you just be more like me and see everyone as inherently good? It is your more nuanced approach that is making you a victim — not the abuse you’ve experienced (as how could you even have experienced that as — everyone is good?)

By this strange logic even Hitler would be ‘inherently good’. I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade or stop people being positive or having happy thoughts, but do we not have a duty of care to each other to have a bit more empathy and self awareness?

I used to be the person I’m talking about. I used to believe that everyone was good. That belief did not serve me. It harmed me in incredibly damaging and life altering ways. I would ask anyone who holds this idea to ask themselves this: “Does it serve me to hold this idea?”, “Does is keep me safe?”, “Does it show empathy for my fellow humans?”, “Does it role model safety to the young people are in my life?”

How ‘bout a more nuanced and subtle approach? How about judging people by their actions rather than a blanket idea of ‘goodness’? How about realising that there are a lot of fucked up people out there, doing fucked up things and that some of the people they might be fucking up could be your friends or family?

I think if we are to truly inhabit kindness and empathy we would do away with the harmful belief of inherent goodness. There is far too much grey in the world for such a black and white idea. I prefer to see the humanity in people. I see the humanity in the men who have hurt me, just as I see their entitlement, their abusiveness and their cruelty. I see the damage that was done to them by a culture that raises so many boys to hurt women. I see the humanity in the women they have abused. Brave strong women who do not have the luxury of seeing goodness everywhere they look. Women who want to raise daughters to not look for good everywhere but to view the actions of the men around them with eyes unclouded by rose-tinted ideals of ‘inherent goodness’.

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Taryn De Vere

Joy bringer, writer, podcaster, mother of 5, colourful fashionista