Grim truth has few friends
Were we to base people’s actual character on that public face we’d all seem like pretty decent people; you would have a hard time readily identifying all the bad people you know must exist in order for there to be any actual cruelty and criminality the existence of which each passing day produces an infinite supply of ironclad proof.
Think of all the times you passed people on a sidewalk, stood in a supermarket checkout line, sat in a movie theater, stepped into an occupied elevator. How many times did you stand next to a rapist, a child molester, a murderer? Even these despicable creatures can put on enough of a public face so you are not alarmed. You just go about your business, and when you get home to your loved ones you don’t say, “I stood next to two murderers, a crooked city employee and a rapist today. The rapist had a gun and a badge, too.”
The public face spares us from having to process all that while we are standing in front of these people. They don’t say to you when you stand in the elevator alone with them, “Hi, I’m Steve; I raped the lady up the street from you. I even raped your high school algebra teacher. Don’t worry, I have my public face on now, I won’t rape you.”
Many times I run into some person I don’t like because I know they don’t like me, and have said awful things about me, but I smile and sometimes even shake their hand when really, all I want to do is dangle their fresh scalp from my lodge pole.
What stops me from doing such, but doesn’t stop those others from taking that final step over the line of decency and human compassion? To a large extent it is obviously self-interest; I don’t want to be punished for it. But I like to think it is mostly because my mom raised me right. Even though she was Oglala and raised us poor in North Rapid, and she didn’t like humans in general, especially Wasicu and Lakota (the two things she was), she still managed to instill two things in me that are a blessing and a curse — a sense of compassion, and the courage to stand up to bad people.
Bad people do not reside in an isolated underground lair, well, maybe one or two megalomaniacs do, but most are not clearly labeled, operate in the light of day, and sometimes hold positions of power and authority. They are respected, their opinions valued, their actions often honored. We like to think that eventually they pay for whatever wrongs they commit, whatever power they abuse, but truth is, they mostly don’t.
We all assume that a tribal chairman, a city mayor, a police chief, a county sheriff, a states attorney, are all decent people. As a journalist I dealt with these people all the time, and I can tell you, they are generally no more decent than the citizenry they police.
But they have so much more power than that citizenry, and most of us given that power, would abuse it to some extent. Human nature, and yet you can’t write off evil acts because none of us are perfect, or because we would do same if given the chance. You can’t write off the Fall River County States Attorney who abused his authority to get even with people who accused him of abusing his authority to get even with people. Or the Rapid City mayor who killed all the neighborhood cats as a teenager. If you accuse such people directly of bad behavior the public still can’t see past the public face, they will honor these people because propriety has always dictated they should, and internally, a warped sense of perception develops, they lose the ability to recognize honest-hearted people when they meet them, worse still, dark-hearted people abusing power. They have lived too long in a society where public faces have distorted character, and so they decry dishonesty in principle, but in practice support the corrupt over the ethical.
Anytime there is a mass movement like with the water protectors up at Standing Rock no long term good will be achieved if a critical number of the leaders are hiding behind public faces. It is not that we should assume our leaders suspect, but no matter how deeply we pursue a just cause dear to our hearts we should never surrender our ability to independently assess the validity of an assertion, the quality and character of the person asserting.
Before we can be strong as a people we have to individually man-up, and be strong and principled internally, so we don’t believe every fool thing that rings genuine to our ears, and disbelieve every grim truth that forces us to reconsider.
(Contact James Giago Davies at email@example.com)