Judge The Words

There’s a lot of quotes that I’m particularly fond of. "We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses," by Abraham Lincoln, is one. "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its entire life thinking it is stupid," by Albert Einstein, is another. A third is “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.” Not only is it somewhat supported by psychological studies, (if you want to see how statistics versus stories impact giving, check out this article here), it’s a remarkably wise insight into humans: it's hard for us to care about vast swathes of people, but we can easily be motivated to feel deeply for one or two.

Every so often when I mention this quote, someone gasps in horror and asks, “don’t you know who said that?” What immediately follows is a long game of them trying to make me guess the name, and eventually just coming out and saying it: the quote I’m fond of was originally coined by Joseph Stalin. I'm then always asked if I really still espouse it, knowing who said it, and I always have the same answer: of course I do.

These interactions reveal a curious phenomenon, in which we judge people who hold ideas based on other people who've thought those things instead of on their own merits or the merits of the idea. In some ways, of course, this makes sense. We react with virulent disgust (as we should) to people who've committed atrocities, and quoting these people or espousing their ideas is a kind of invoking of them. It's understandable that our instinctive reaction is to judge these people, who at first glance may seem to be supporting them. But claiming that anyone who supports a strict immigration policy is evil because, say, Hitler held the same idea, is just a little bit ridiculous, and we should refrain from it. Ideas are independent of the people that hold them, and can be good in spite of their wickedness.

Is this to say that I laud the actions of people like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong? No, of course not. They were responsible for horrendous genocides and barely deserve to be called human (I also, for the record, do not favor a strict immigration policy, but I don't pretend to know enough about immigration to claim with any certainty whether such a policy would be a good or bad idea). But it would be naive, shortsighted, and frankly dishonest to assume that deplorable people who did horrid things said nothing worth listening to. Wisdom can come from unlikely, and sometimes uncomfortable, places. If I don't embrace it even when it comes from such places, how can I ever claim to have it?

With excitement and optimism,

Alex