One of the favored arguments of the guns-for-all campaign is that the best response to a gun in the hand of a bad guy is a gun in the hand of a good guy.
Don’t worry; I have no intention of taking us into any of the usual quagmires. I am not going to talk about rights, tyranny, the Constitution, or the meaning of a militia- let alone the placement of a comma. Rather, I want to confront something that should reside safely on common ground: the difference between a good guy, and a bad guy.
We obviously can’t throw around those terms and not require them to mean something. If they do mean anything, we should be able to say what it is. Of course, it’s possible that good guy and bad guy, in common with pornography and junk food, are easier to spot than to define. But let’s try just the same.
I think one readily agreed upon distinction, as it pertains to the guns in hand with which we began, is that a bad guy cares a lot less about who s/he shoots than a good guy does. A bad good with a gun is, in order to be a bad guy, presumably willing to shoot a good guy. A bad guy with a gun is obviously willing to shoot another bad guy who isn’t on the same team.
A good guy with a gun, in contrast, is obligated to care about who s/he shoots with it. I trust we can all agree that not caring who you shoot surrenders your right to be one of the good guys. That should be an easy one.
But now we have a potential problem with that original proposition. A bad guy has a gun, and is quite willing to use it and find out after, if ever, the particulars of the chap at the receiving end. A good guy with the very same gun, in order to be a good guy, has to verify those particulars quite carefully before pulling the trigger.
All other things being equal, it’s pretty clear who is likely to win this shootout. But as I hinted at the start, this isn’t about guns- it’s about good and bad- so let’s move on.
What’s true of bullets is almost identically true of innuendo. A bad guy wielding verbal abuse and propaganda against an adversary doesn’t have to check facts; they can just fire away. A good guy, whether seeking retaliation, or self-defense, or even a preemptive assault- can’t get away with that. If they try, they no longer qualify as a good guy. By definition, a good guy can’t use the methods that make a bad guy bad. They can’t just make stuff up.
This gets ominous for good guys pretty fast. Imagine that a bad guy, in service to their bad ways, finds bad things to say about a good guy they oppose. Imagine that what they say is distorted, and out of context, and more false than true- but with just a bit of truth for good measure. The good guy, though basically good, is nonetheless human and imperfect, of course.
The good guy, being good, feels obligated to address that bit of truth, however disproportionately small it may be, and whatever it may represent from human imperfection, to a loss of patience, to a slip of the tongue, to a lapse in judgment. As soon as they do, the bad guy, being bad, is at liberty to pounce, and shout: See! I told you so. His/her friends shout along, too, generally using social media as a megaphone, and amplifying the distortion.
But put the shoe on the other foot. Any given good guy may at times spin a tale in a direction they favor, or exaggerate. In general, though, they stick far closer to the objective truth than the bad guy because, again, if they didn’t…they wouldn’t be good in the first place.
So the good guy criticizes the bad guy with an argument that is mostly true. The bad guy’s response? Deny it, and disparage it. Bad guys have a weapon in their arsenal that good guy’s simply can’t use: bad guys can lie about lying. They can lie about having lied about lying. Once you’re good with being bad, there are no rules. It’s a position that makes you practically bulletproof.
A good guy can’t do this, because if ever they do, they are no longer good. This is all implied by Edmund Burke’s famous admonition regarding evil in the world, but was consigned to the fine print.
My point, obviously, is that a hail of innuendo, like a hail of bullets, is apt to favor those who fire without compunction. Compunction is clearly part of what differentiates good guys from bad guys in the first place, in any definition worth considering.
If you’ve discerned that I might be writing from personal experience and proprietary passion, you are quite right. I am far from an exception to the rule about human imperfection, but I try very hard to be a good guy, and to do good in the world. When I want to know if I am trying hard enough, I look into the eyes of my wife and my children. I have fought the very fight I am describing- and despite the burdens of innuendo, have every intention of fighting on. But I do concede that at times, the burdens of innuendo are heavy.
Lately, I have had cause to think such burdens put me in some rather rarefied company. I’m not the only one to reflect in that direction.
Whatever else they may be, presidential candidates are humans, and thus subject to these same exigencies. But presidential candidates don’t live normal routines. Their every gesture is scrutinized, and when opportune either to garnish or tarnish, amplified ad infinitum. It’s as if some tiny epidermal blemish were blown up a thousand times and posted as your profile picture. Saying it was you wouldn’t be false, exactly, but no one who knows you would recognize you.
Consider the implications as the spirit moves you. As for me, I will be rooting for the good guys to win in the end, in spite of it all; doing my utmost to remain on the right team- and hoping no one gets shot.
Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Senior Medical Advisor, Verywell.com
Founder, The True Health Initiative