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Working with (Good?) People Who’ve Done Bad Things

By Suzanne Ghais, Ph.D. (sghais.com)

I experienced an upsetting thing recently. My husband and I learned that a very good friend–someone we’ve both known for many, many years–has been accused of sexually harassing several women. The severity of the alleged actions could be worse, but let me be clear: I am a big supporter of the #MeToo movement, I’ve got my own #MeToo stories, I’m inclined to believe most accusers, and I don’t think our friend’s alleged behavior is at all acceptable.

Yet I still like him and care about him.

That leaves me feeling uncomfortable and conflicted. How can a good person have done these bad things? How can I reconcile my image of our friend as an upstanding citizen, a generous friend, a kind father, with these things he seems to have done?

In fiction, there are the good guys like Luke Skywalker and bad guys like Darth Vader, good gals like Cinderella and bad gals like her evil stepsisters. We like to think of ourselves, and the people we associate with, as the good kind. In reality, though, humans are complex. How many of us can say we’ve never hurt someone? Certainly, some people have done far more evil deeds than others, but many such evil doers have themselves been traumatized. (Saddam Hussein, for instance, was rejected by his mother and violently abused by his stepfather.)

One good treatment of these complexities comes in the movie Dead Man Walking, in which Sister Helen Prejean befriends a convicted murderer, Matthew Poncelet, who is trying to overturn his death sentence. When she meets the family of one of the murdered, sharing their pain and anguish, they commend her for “coming over to our side”–but she had not, in fact, abandoned her death row inmate. She was able to hold the murderer’s innate human worth in one hand and the pain of the loss he had caused in the other. It’s an extraordinary feat.

It’s a feat mediators and peacemakers must aspire to. I say “aspire” because I doubt anyone does this effortlessly. Adam Curle, the late Quaker peacemaker, described this in his 1986 book In the Middle: Non-Official Mediation in Violent Situations. The mediator must “befriend” the conflict’s leaders so as to “diminish the psychological tensions” that could lead to destructive actions. The first step is “to think of them with respect and liking. But how is this possible when some of them may have a most unattractive reputation for…  cruelty and violence?”

Curle admits, “I have struggled with myself before going to meet a leader” guilty of “great barbarity.” Working past the urge to blame or, alternatively, suppress his own revulsion, he reminds himself “how people may be driven by circumstances, and that I had no cause to reprobate in others what I would have done or felt in their place” (p. 27).

To intervene in a conflict in hopes of finding durable peace, one must believe that people who have committed atrocities–blown up cafes, recruited and brainwashed child soldiers, raped villagers–can become proponents of and co-creators of a collaborative, peaceful future. It requires deep, compassionate understanding of the wrongs the wrongdoers themselves have experienced and how these have affected them. It’s no surprise that both Curle and Sister Prejean were motivated by religious faith, but one could also be driven by a humanistic faith in the nugget of good that lies inside every person, no matter how deeply buried.

Such faith, friendship, and compassion in no way preclude accountability. Sister Prejean worked with Poncelet to accept responsibility for his crimes as a path to salvation. She opposed the death penalty but not his life sentence. Peace processes are increasingly rejecting the “peace-versus-justice” dichotomy and actively seeking justice and avoiding blanket amnesties. Accountability is important both for deterring future war crimes and for healing the pain of atrocities already committed. But alongside this, compassion for all antagonists is a critical path to peace.


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