“It Depends”–But Sometimes It Doesn’t

I don’t know who Susan Hennessey is, but I think we are probably what used to be known as “kindred spirits.” The reason I came to that conclusion was the following paragraph from her post at Lawfare:

 “Much of my education has been about grasping nuance, shades of gray. Resisting the urge to oversimplify the complexity of human motivation. This year has taught me that, actually, a lot of what really matters comes down to good people and bad people. And these are bad people.”

For years, I have included some form of the following statement in my courses’ introductory lectures: You will find, during the semester, that I can be an opinionated professor. Your grade in this course absolutely does not depend upon agreeing with me. My goal is not to inculcate policy positions.  I will, however, consider that I have been a success as an instructor if, after you have taken this course, you use two phrases more frequently than you previously did. Those phrases are “It depends” and “It’s more complicated than that.” If you are better able to recognize contingency and complexity after being in this class, I will have done what I set out to do.

I have often criticized Americans’  knee-jerk, “bipolar” approach to issues, the tendency to see every debate in shades of black and white, good versus evil. We live in a world that is largely gray, with complicated problems that don’t lend themselves to solutions by way of  bumper-sticker slogans and rigid ideological mantras.

I continue to understand arguments about policy and governance that way–most of the issues we debate are what lawyers call “fact-sensitive,” dependent upon context, factual distinctions, the art of the possible. But it is getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that not every argument is nuanced, or conducted in good faith, and not every party to our ongoing national debates is honorable.

Not every conflict is between persons of good will who simply see things differently.

There really are bad people. Not people who are simply misguided, not people who just don’t understand the issue, not people who are “coming from a different place.” People who are deeply flawed, and utterly devoid of the qualities thought essential to membership in a civilized and humane society.

The challenge is to tell the difference between the people who simply see things differently and the people who are irredeemably bad. At this point–at least with respect to the gangsters in Washington–I think we have enough evidence to make a determination.


  1. Amen,
    Thank you
    I believe the gangsters have been elected also country wide, and world wide.
    As the evidence begins to come in we must make a determination.
    That has become democracy.

  2. Thank you. Your daily writings always clear my mind and it is a good start of each day.

  3. flaws,i was watching c span, with VP Pence talking his spiel to CPAC ,seems pence is tottaly in tune with the facts,, those big corps who got those big tax breaks they , gave ALL their valued employees that big $1000 bonus,and he remarked,how ungreatful most were,and how far that $1000 can take a family.. he was acully convinced,that big bonus would rise a family out of poverty or dire straights,and how damn ungreatful we were,as the working class,and ,not to throw ourselves unto the feet of the great greed.. after watching the panning of the camera over the crowd,seems most of them were either unimpressed by pence,or pisseed they gave anythingnto anyone…no smilling faces… wonder what they would look like if they were told to give back what we have been screwed out of since wages stagnated in the 80s

  4. “…You will find, during the semester, that I can be an opinionated professor.”

    Your self-descriptive words above are exactly why I voted for you to become my Senator in 1980; your “opinions” were based on situational facts which were easily proven by anyone paying attention to situations at that time. Your word was your bond and remains so today. There are always two or more sides to all issues facing us today but facts are missing from leadership at the federal level and in most states. Those currently in control speak out of both sides of their mouths; promising a better life for all from one side while laughing at our gullibility from the other side. I use the term “our gullibility” because we have played a part by our inaction and our disbelief that these conditions were remotely possible, we have allowed them to become the selling off leadership of this nation to the wealthiest and control to those with the biggest weapons.

    Our only hope appears to be the one “good guy”; Robert Mueller, against the entire pack of “bad guys” who have shamed this nation and made a joke of the presidency. That is a terrible burden for one man to carry for an entire nation because, ultimately, the outcome encompasses the world. There are no two ways of looking at our current condition as a nation because they no two ways to view those in control; they are the bad guys and are no longer bothering to try to hide the fact.

  5. While it is easy to see nothing but the “bad” in those who are systematically destroying the government; it is not so easy to brand my Republican neighbors and relatives who voted for those bad guys as such. As hard as it has become to remain on friendly terms with those who hold views I see as undemocratic, treasonous even, still I see it a duty to stay calm, civil, and persevere with efforts to restore reason and sanity to the country I love. When they start to round up the dreamers, however, all bets are off.

  6. I always used this quote from Shavelson and Stern, who summed up the major findings of social science as: 1. Some do, some don’t; 2. The differences aren’t great; and 3. It’s more complicated than that.

  7. “It depends, it is more complex than” shades of gray.

    Photoshop offers an excellent example: a random 8 x 10 color photograph taken with a decent camera and displayed on an 8-bit computer will be constructed of 7,200,000 tiny color chips out of a possible 26 million colors the average camera is technically capable of recording, only a tiny fraction of which are shades of gray. It is likely that a healthy human eye detects multiples of that 26-million-color palette.

    Unless one is color blind, nothing is revealed to us in shades of gray, let alone black and white.

    I can make an argument for defining three basic intellectual classes of human beings as:
    1) Those who see things in black and white;
    2)Those who see things in shades of gray; and
    3) Those who see things in at least 26 million colors.

  8. Sometimes things have to break in order for things to change. I still have hope in the moderates. And now even more so in people who are realizing that we all have to be part of the fix.

  9. This reminds me of the early debates in graduate school about Hitler being a “great leader”.

    No doubt he accomplished great things and convinced the German people to follow him into the abyss.

    But, was Hitler a moral or ethical leader?

    When we witness the elaborate schemes developed by the Koch brothers and their corporate partners and other billionaires to not only take over our government but convince voters/citizens to support their endeavors despite many of the policies/laws going against the voters own self-interests, they are clearly bad actors.

    If our “leaders” use their influence to manipulate us, they aren’t ethical or moral. I believe Plato said we need “Philosopher Kings” at the helm.

    The sickest development I see is the “religious-right” supporting the “leaders” who clearly violate basic moral codes. It’s twisted.

    The “leaders” of our federal, state and local governments are captive workers for the Donor Class who oppress, not lead, we the people. It’s not just women, blacks, brown, gays, etc.

    These so-called representatives of our republic are oppressing all peoples because they aren’t serving us. One of my favorite quotes:

    “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

  10. “irredeemably bad”

    I find this hard to accept, fearful to contemplate, and shocking to hear from one for whom liberalism is almost a religion.

  11. JoAnn and I are on the same wavelength today. Before reading her contribution I had just emailed my daughter that it may be Mueller who brings our democracy back from the brink since the Congress and Wall Street are not interested. Indeed nuance and shades of gray are involved in issues state, local and federal, from household to global societies, and teaching a mix of the approach and the substantive simultaneously can be tricky, but such is our task, and I like Sheila’s means of setting this out in opening lectures to her classes.

    My now deceased wife in her opening lecture to her classes used a similar leavening and get acquainted effect by telling her students that they could call her Dr. Stinson, Mrs. Stinson or Lillian, and that she would not stand on ceremony. She, like her husband, was a liberal, but understood that not everyone is, whatever we thought of their motivation or lack thereof.

    There have been and are now truly bad people in this world, as Sheila suggests. How else to describe a Hitler, a Stalin who killed more of his own people than Hitler, a Genghis Khan et al.? Not a lot has changed; we have bad people roaming the globe today in search of power and money, a homicidal dictator in the Philippines, a Putin in Russia, sundry dictators in South America and Africa, and a wannabe dictator in this country masquerading as a populist when he is anything but. However, we also have a Mueller – and we have been to the brink before.

  12. Did you see Marco Rubio try to squirm away from answering a students’ question about whether or not he would ever again take NRA money? How’s that for irretrievably….something. Not bad. Perhaps corrupt. Absolutely beholden to somebody other than the constituents. He tried to nuance himself away from the truth.

    BTW, in photography, there are 256 shades of gray. The best B & W photos use them all.

  13. Your essay today has made me think of a couple of things I should have told my high school students during that first day of class but didn’t because I just never thought about it:

    “You will be moving from the world of ‘does’ and don’ts’ to the world of ‘maybes and mights’.”

    I did often say that high school is the time of growing apart from and becoming independent, but that doesn’t have the ring needed for imprint on the memory.

  14. Nancy C: “1. Some do, some don’t; 2. The differences aren’t great; and 3. It’s more complicated than that.” Wonderful!

    It’s not a surprise that we are so diverse in opinion, we have always been. What I think is different is the now pervasive notion that all of those opinions are equal in importance and reliability and all reflect reality and “informed” has become optional.

    Someone came up with the notion that “appeal to authority” was a logical fallacy and the roof collapsed.

    “Authority” can mean powerful or exceptionally informed. Appeal to power is of course what authoritarians do which is a logical fallacy, appeal to exceptional knowledge is what smart people do and is not fallacious.

    I remember reports from the Chinese Cultural Revolution that Mao took advantage of wherein the educated were demoted and the ignorant promoted to power. My thought, that’s going to end badly for everyone, is of course what happened. What stupid people not to know that!


    Yesterday I learned that Sigmund Freud’s nephew was an Edward Bernays who made a fortune in the US inventing and perfecting propaganda/advertising. While he’s dead now his invention was empowered by pervasive media to the point that our cultural evolution is no longer the product of social interaction but of make more money regardless of the impact on others. You got money? You want more? You want a specific trend? Bingo! Edward’s your man.


    So people with money listened and learned and applied and got what helped their bulging bank accounts. A culture of the easily led because they are the least informed.

    One thing about robots and computers and humans is that they are born in a state of empty and need to be filled with knowledge to be useful. Those who know how to fill them get power by what they fill them with. That was the tragedy of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and is of the American/Russian White Man’s Revolution we are suffering from now.

  15. Morton Marcus,

    “I find this hard to accept, fearful to contemplate, and shocking to hear from one for whom liberalism is almost a religion.”

    Are you saying that liberals are not allowed to be in reality?

  16. “I can make an argument for defining three basic intellectual classes of human beings as:
    1) Those who see things in black and white;
    2)Those who see things in shades of gray; and
    3) Those who see things in at least 26 million colors.”

    I love this passage; it is so poetic and so very true. Gray is the absence of hue, and there are plenty of grays, black, and white in the world. For most people, however, ignoring hues requires intent, like an artist making a grayscale drawing. The world in gray scale can be quite beautiful, but color adds a whole other dimension to the discussion: depth, focus, interest, etc.

  17. Thank you. I feel so odd sometimes when I tell people that there are such things as really bad people and they look at you like – “Oh they are basically good, they just need a chance…” – Some people are not good – at all. Some people do not have the humanity it takes to engender any form of compassion – they are black void and guiltless and they just act without regard. Yes, there are such people. But there are people who are pictured as such – and aren’t. I have learned in my mere 65 years of life that the way to approach it all is as looking at a !Qbit. There is the right side – the left side and the other or superposition which can be anywhere in-between or even out of the realm of mental conception. Humans are very very complicated. And we have to ask: What engenders people who are just ‘bad people’? And even more: What do we do to stop them from destructive behavior among us – can we? Before they act? Are we at this point in our country’s history merely attempting to plug a pore hole in a massive crumbling dam that is rotten from the inside out?

  18. Whenever the Trumpet (Agent Orange) or Pence (VP Dense) I think of : Shakespeare’s Macbeth >> By the pricking of my thumbs,
    Something wicked this way comes.

    In psychology there terms which describe certain behaviors. There maybe a term for profound indifference, that is the ability not to care, no empathy. I would place the Republican Party in this category. There is another level of indifference, the ability to be aware but to do nothing. I would place the Corporate Establishment Democratic Party here.

    The current debate on gun control is a good example. The Republicans are casting about trying to deflect the debate into friendly ground for them: arming teachers, etc. There is a good article here: How to Argue With Gun Nuts – http://www.smirkingchimp.com/thread/bernie-horn/77875/how-to-argue-with-gun-nuts

    Fred Guttenberg commenting on the death of his 14-year-old daughter Jaime said, “My house is broken, and honestly I don’t know how we fix it”. “I don’t want to hear people say they got shot. They got hunted and this was the only weapon that could do it,” he said. “My house is changed forever because she got hunted at school. These kids were killed by a weapon of war in our schools and these weapons need to be removed from our streets. We need to make it impossible for people to get those guns.”

    This is not a student movement against assault weapons, it is a parent and grandparent movement too. Who wants to send their child off to school and have them come in box because our politicians lack a backbone???

    The big question to me is will the Democratic Party seize this opportunity to strike back at the gun lobby, or will it be another case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, by doing nothing???

  19. I recently read Ursula Le Guin’s thought provoking “Lathe of Heaven” in which the main character’s dreams literally change the world. He is working with a dream researcher who tries to make the world better by hypnotically suggesting improvements – which also conveniently augments his esteem and finances . We can all imagine where this goes. In one later dream the Dr was trying to eliminate prejudice; People are changed to all gray. Works about as well as the dream to deal with over population.

    My take away point being that change is tough even if one has the best of intentions. It’s even tougher when one doesn’t.

  20. “This is not a student movement against assault weapons, it is a parent and grandparent movement too. Who wants to send their child off to school and have them come in box because our politicians lack a backbone???”

    Monotonous; this is a deeply profound statement about this movement, I hope and pray it IS the beginning of a movement. It touches all of us; brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, friends, neighbors, the circle surrounding each of those children we have lost in these school shootings – and the teachers – have taken away parts of our future that can never be replaced. The fact that our military installations are legally “gun free zones” and our schools and churches are targets in the cross hairs of a few due to lax laws and uncaring lawmakers weakens the entire country. And the world is watching and waiting.

    Rhett Butler in “Gone With The Wind” made a statement to a group of southern plantation owners at the start of the Civil War that I have always remembered, “There is as much money to be made in the wrecking of a civilization as in the rebuilding.” We are witnessing the wrecking of our civilization day by day but will we have enough left to rebuild as Trump continues his rampage and determination for a nuclear war with no apparent effort – or way – of stopping him.

    “It Depends” – But Sometimes It Doesn’t

    There appears to be no redeeming factors in the current administration, Congress or Senate as they continue making money while wrecking our civilization and we are paying their salaries to allow them to continue.

  21. JoAnn,

    “We are witnessing the wrecking of our civilization day by day but will we have enough left to rebuild as Trump continues his rampage and determination for a nuclear war with no apparent effort – or way – of stopping him.”

    As you have so well stated, we’ve lost too much of our democracy. Just talking won’t do it anymore. There has to be COUNTERVAILING ACTION taken in order to regain our EQUILIBRIUM. It won’t come from partisan politics. The battle for one man, one vote, was successfully fought in Dallas through the 80’s and early 90’s, and it wasn’t won through the efforts of either the Democatic or Republican parties.

  22. Hollyd, “Lathe of Heaven” is one of my favorite movies. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

    Per WIKI > After its initial broadcast in 1980, Lathe was occasionally shown over the next eight years. PBS’ rights to rebroadcast the program expired in 1988. The Lathe of Heaven went on to become the most-requested program in PBS history. << I have the movie in VHS format.

    JoAnn Green, what I observe is the way the Second Amendment is bubbled wrapped by some (NRA) and cannot be limited. Our First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances".

    We do have limitations on freedom of speech, and press. As an example we have laws that allow legal remedies to libel and slander. The right to peaceably assemble is limited too. Many towns require some type of parade permit.

  23. Monotonous Languor –

    “The big question to me is will the Democratic Party seize this opportunity to strike back at the gun lobby, or will it be another case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, by doing nothing???”

    I can come up only one answer: It is we, the voters who will do the seizing by voting straight Democrat up and down the ballot in November, 2018. Do not weaken your protest vote but join together with many of us to make the majority needed to overcome and replace the GOP Congress.

    That will be a start and we will be happy knowing that we have not lost all control as the runaway Trumpist GOP Party overwhelms us, makes us miserable, and stifles progress.

    Let’s usher in professional governance by sweeping out these stumbling amateurs. Many good Americans are waiting to serve. Our wounds will be healed.

  24. Monotonous; I find it curious that freedom of religion is included in the 1st Amendment with freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble to petition the government for redress of grievances. To me; religion is a separate issue and separate freedom and that freedom has now become obsolete as Congress passes laws established on the religious belief of a few and imposed as laws on citizens as a whole. But; as Fred Guttenberg so aptly stated after the brutal death of his 14 year old daughter due to Congress staunchly upholding the 2nd Amendment; they have bastardized the Constitution. I wonder how – or IF – the Constitution will be taught in Devos’ education system when it becomes based on the Bible as “God’s Kingdom”.

    “It Depends” – But Sometimes It Doesn’t?

Comments are closed.