Dear President Trump,
As I see it right now, I think the two primary factors needed for someone to behave badly and get away with it are motivation and opportunity and I’m going to start with the latter. [It might seem logical to start with motivation; in many ways it is the simpler of the two and seems like the primary proximal driver of bad behavior such that we can chalk bad behavior up to individually-based badness and go the “one bad apple” route. I will get to motivation but I want to start with opportunity because I think some of the nuance there is critical for us to understand why bad behavior is allowed to take hold and persist.]
I started to pay attention to the first aspect of opportunity I want to dig into as a new graduate student in clinical psychology focusing on coping behavior and the disconnect between how variable our behaviors are across situational contexts and our perceptions that we are consistent across contexts. Of course we allow for a little flex across situations, but overall we are apt to see far more consistency in our behavior over time than is objectively there.
So, how does this inform opportunity for bad behavior, particularly of the abusive misogynist type? Well, my sense is we are conditioned to believe that people behave pretty consistently across situations so if all we witness are decent behaviors from someone this gives them cover to behave badly in other, more private or isolated contexts. They are able to claim, and others will believe them, that they would NEVER do that bad thing and the accuser is just a liar in the classic “she said, he said” sense. It helps a lot if the person doing the accusing is of lower social standing and it’s possible to impugn their motives in coming forward or to find dirt in their background to suggest they aren’t being truthful or they somehow asked for it or led the poor guy astray such that he somehow wasn’t himself when he did what he did, if he even did it. I’m sure this is all sounding super familiar since it is the classic tear down of the rape victim by the accused person’s defense team. We desperately want to believe that the person we know to be a good guy really is a good guy and wouldn’t, couldn’t do what he allegedly did. It messes with our world order if we have to allow that people can behave decently in most contexts but horrendously in a few. But we have to get over this and accept what Hannah Arendt framed as the banality of evil and call it out over and over and over or we will stay stuck and stunted forever.
May we all be safe no matter where we are and who we are with.
May we be happy to be our best selves in all situations.
May we have healthy flex in our behavior.
May we help each other stay accountable to the common good.