The actor Will Smith got punished last week for speaking truth. On December 22nd, The Daily Record, a Scottish newspaper, published an interview with Smith in which he said “Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, ‘Let me do the most evil thing I can do today.’ I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was good.”
Smith is right. Yes, there are psychotics who feel compelled to follow voices in their heads that they know to be evil. But even such sufferers typically report a strong desire to resist the evil voice, unfortunately overwhelmed by a stronger sense of powerlessness. As for the rest of us, the incredible truth about the perpetual plastic inventiveness of human intelligence is as the great filmmaker Jean Renoir put it, “In this world there is one terrible thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
If what Smith said was so unexceptionable, why did he get into trouble? First, because The Daily Record‘s reporter left his brain at home the day he wrote up the interview, so he chose to precede Smith’s quotation with an egregious distortion: “Remarkably, Will believes everyone is basically good.” Actually, what Smith said is that even the worst people believe their own actions to be good, quite a different point, and a much more defensible one.
The second reason Smith got into trouble is because he reached into the well of common vocabulary for a striking example, and unsurprisingly came up with the name that symbolizes evil as strongly as any other that might be uttered: Hitler. The hypersensitive knee of the Jewish Defense League got jerked, and calls were issued to boycott Smith’s new film, I Am Legend.
The third reason Smith got into trouble is the one that dismays me now: we persist in this illusion that there are bad people and good people, and the bad people know they are bad, consciously setting out to do harm. If so, I’ve never met a bad person, because all the wrong-doers I have encountered justified their own actions in the name of self-protection, revenge for greater crimes, loyalty to the group, and other worthy sentiments. Surely this is why so many of our efforts to arrest harm are ineffectual: they don’t take into consideration the way our own rationalizations immunize us against self-criticism.
I doubt any of us has escaped an archetypal experience along these lines. You know what I mean: someone has behaved badly, and without confronting that person, you contrive to condemn the behavior categorically. Even when the misdeed is trivial, the perpetrator almost never gets the hint. Say someone is always late to meetings, inconveniencing others. You make a heartfelt plea for the entire group to demonstrate respect for colleagues’ time. Every head in the room nods agreement—except the person who is always late. He’s busy texting his friend about having to waste his time in meetings.
The brilliant psychologist Howard Gardener, best known for his very useful theory of multiple intelligences, has put forward seven ways to change minds, all of them predicated on things people actually believe, rather than the pretense that we can be persuaded from destructive acts through scolding: Reason, Research, Resonance, Redescription, Rewards and Resources, Real World Events, and Resistances Overcome. To learn more about this alliterative array, download “Multiple Lenses on The Mind” from the Project Zero Website.
Will Smith is evidently a smart man who can take care of himself. His response to the accusations against him was to express anger at the reporter whose carelessness incited them, which was exactly right. By the following Wednesday, the Anti-Defamation League had publicly accepted Smith’s explanation, and so far as I know, this particular teapot is now tempest-free. But what about the people who can’t distinguish self-justification from virtue?
Big New Year’s blessings to know the difference (in ourselves and in others), to a year of conscious living, leading to greater knowledge, love, healing—and especially for you, readers, every good fortune!