Without Villains

July 7, 2021

It’s natural to conclude that some people are bad based on negative behaviour. Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Hayley Chan, however, asks us to think more deeply about the world, toward an appreciation of the contextual complexities that humanize us.


My mom was telling me about a conflict she was having with one of her friends.


She was upset because this friend – let’s call her Emily – basically accused my mom of excluding and using her.


What was most upsetting for her was that Emily didn’t use much introspection when coming to this conclusion.


One misunderstanding completely painted my mom as a bad friend in Emily’s eyes. In this scenario, it could be said that Emily was a bad person because she didn’t see things from my mom’s point of view, and didn’t try to do so before sending a vindictive email.


But with a little bit of empathy, my mom was able to understand why Emily was acting like this. She took the time to see things from Emily’s point of view – to understand that she knows this person has trust issues and is easily insecure in her relationships. This was possibly because of her distant relationship with her mother, who was cold and unkind.


Maybe those insights were just guesses and are not correlated to Emily’s behaviour. But what counts is the effort made to understand; My mom had empathy for someone who characterized her as a bad friend and person – something she is not – even though she wasn’t given the same courtesy.


As explained in attribution theory, when someone does something wrong, it’s easy for others to attribute those actions strictly to the person they are. On the flip side, when we do something wrong, it’s easy for us to attribute it to external circumstances.


The saying “Treat others how you’d want to be treated” is relevant here in terms of questioning whether empathy is the key to ending the good guys vs bad guys mentality, and I believe it is – especially in a society where “cancel culture” is a habitual response. When people make insensitive comments, whether they be racially insensitive, emotionally insensitive, etc. their entire character is not just questioned, but assumed to be entirely immoral. People often rush to these conclusions and then boom – you’re banished from the good graces of Instagram.


And ironically, one of the things a lot of people try to promote on social media is self-love, forgiveness and growth. Although these messages are often supportive and positive, when someone does something “wrong,” these same people preaching positivity and growth aren’t giving the same encouragement to those ousted by society for making a not-so-conscientious comment.


Maybe if we refocus our energy on trying to understand others and where they’re coming from, we’ll be able to see the words and actions of others more clearly, rather than deeming them strictly good or bad.


It seems like it would just be easier to be more understanding to ourselves and others. However, I can understand why most people talk the talk about empathy and kindness without following through. Empathy is not always easy. Taking the time to understand others is probably the hardest part of taking an empathetic response to a problematic situation. It’s so easy to see things through your own perspective because it’s a daily habit. For example, if your friend is talking to you about their partner who is not a great verbal communicator, and you have just come out of a bad relationship with someone who lied to you constantly, are you likely to first acknowledge the fact that their partner is probably busy with school or work and shows affection with quality time? Or is the first thought that comes to mind more likely to resonate with the fact that most people cannot be trusted and if they seem like liars from one observation, they probably are? 


How often do we first see things from a different perspective than our own?


Some people may be more naturally empathetic than others, but it is not necessarily a subconscious decision to think critically about the behaviours of others. Like any good habit, you must put in the work to ingrain it into your mental library of routines. And with practice, it gets easier to instinctively pull that habit from the shelf.


I think empathy can end the good guys vs bad guys mentality, but empathy, putting yourself in someone’s shoes, is not always a natural instinct, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make Emily, my mom’s friend, a bad person for not being able to practice empathy in the scenario I described. And it doesn’t make people on social media bad people for preaching more about forgiveness and growth than walking the walk. Practising empathy is a skill, and when learned and executed, can help us differentiate between a bad action and a bad person.

Can you recall a time when you were able to understand someone who hurt you? Tell us your story in the comments below or join our live discussions in a Conscious Connections meeting!

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