There’s a line from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, a book which I’m a little ashamed to have read this late, that really hit home for me. It’s from a conversation about one of the main characters, Lennie, who is arguably the tragic hero of the novella.
Lennie is a tall, stout man whose physical brutishness stands in complete opposition to his tender nature. He is dependent on his friend George for guidance because his lack of insight and literally bone-crushing strength get him into all kinds of trouble.
Lennie’s plight, his fatal flaw if you will, is that he never means to cause harm but always does so inadvertently, be it to the little mice he just wants to pet or his fellow workers, a lot of whom share his dream of settling down one day and tending to a piece of land of their own. The quote runs as follows:
‘He’s a nice fella,’ said Slim. ‘Guy don’t need no sense to be a nice fella. Seems to me sometimes it jus’ works the other way around. Take a real smart guy and he ain’t hardly ever a nice fella.’
It’s a simple, almost painfully obvious thought, but it resonates nonetheless. And I don’t know about you, but I sometimes need a reminder that ignorance and stupidity as such can’t make you evil; they make you vulnerable. I’m not going to argue that knowledge is power and power corrupts. On the contrary, I wonder why I still fall victim to the assumption that people who make an impression on me, be they quick-witted or knowledgeable, charismatic or just different, are automatically good people.
It’s a straightforward fallacy, but one I find worth discussing because it’s so pervasive. I’m easily intimidated/inspired by a person’s talents or unique perspective, but even if I don’t idolize them, I take it as a given that they’re my “moral allies”; that is, I presume that they treat the problems of others with restraint and kindness. When later I find them saying something really narrow-minded or disrespectful, it completely catches me off-guard. (And I’m not talking about a slip of the tongue, either. If I can work up the courage to confront them, they’ll get defensive about it.)
I know this all sounds like I’m flattering myself, like I feel morally superior somehow. But that’s missing my point. See, I’m by no means a role model; rather, I desperately want the nice people I meet to become role models of mine. But apparently my desire to learn something from them hinges on their ability — or rather effort — to imagine the needs and boundaries of others complexly. Everyone struggles with that. Because selflessness is no more than another way of saying someone’s less self-involved. (Besides, not everybody’s got as much love to give as Lennie.)
Why, then, am I so quick to assign moral traits to people whom I’ve just had a couple of refreshing conversations with? Why is there such prejudice in favour of intelligence, knowledge, and experience?
Just because somebody’s been raised speaking multiple languages or travelling to remote places doesn’t make them open-minded. Just because somebody’s informed about politics doesn’t make them sensitive to minorities’ causes. Just because somebody’s well-read doesn’t make them understanding. Sure, there’s all sorts of correlations there, some even backed by statistics; but I think we’d do a lot better if we didn’t give a damn about how “interesting” somebody is in contrast to us but instead judged everyone, especially ourselves, by how serious we are about changing perspectives once in a while. As Ray Bradbury put it,
[I]sn’t that what life is all about, the ability to go around back and come up inside other people’s heads to look out at the damned fool miracle and say: oh, so that’s how you see it!? Well, now, I must remember that.
I want to remember, even if it’s hard — even if I can’t help hurting people unwittingly. I want to be taught how to remember and pass that skill on to others. Because in my experience, those who remember rarely forget to be kind.