Is Goodness Perceived as Weakness?

Guest post by wordssetmefreee

Is goodness seen as weakness in our culture?

What are some ways in which ‘goodness’ is displayed in our culture?

A woman is ‘good’ when she

  • seldom disagrees
  • fits in with society’s norms
  • respects the wishes of those who feel they know better than her, what is good for her (parents, in-laws, husband)
  • keeps the peace, maintains the status quo rather than tell others they are wrong

In all of the above, ‘goodness’ is seen as meekness and compliance. There is nothing surprising about this interpretation of goodness in women, as our culture (like many other cultures around the world) tends to be sexist.

But, when we look at goodness in men (since they are more free of sexist expectations), it becomes more interesting.

How is goodness perceived in men? Who qualifies as a “good man” and is goodness a quality that is admired in men?

Indian men who are considered good tend to

  • be honest in their dealings, especially at work/business
  • not bribe people, lie or cheat
  • remain unassertive in their personal lives and cannot say ‘no’ to domineering parents
  • feel genuinely pained by their wives’ suffering in joint families but are helpless and cannot stand up for them
  • behave with kindness and understanding toward their children
  • in some cases, allow their grown children to take advantage of their meekness
  • be passed over for promotions, in favor of other ‘aggressive’ men who are willing to lie, cheat, or at least fudge the numbers
  • may passively watch wrong and unfair behavior among their families and in public spaces without objecting

In other words, our culture seems to define goodness as meekness, regardless of gender. There are very few examples of strong and good people that we see or hear about, be it politics, business, or popular media.

When I was 16 and about to take my driving test, my uncle suggested to my father that he could get me a driver’s license without going to the test. All my father had to do was pay a certain amount of money to someone my uncle knew.

My father got upset with him and said, “Aren’t you ashamed of flaunting your dishonesty in front of a child?”

To which, my uncle responded, “We can’t all be Gandhi – or we’ll starve like him.”

Lying, cheating, bribing, cutting in line, indiscriminate rule breaking, and cutting corners are seen as strengths and the qualities of the capable male. And the alternative is presented as meekness and the willingness to be a doormat.

Goodness, kindness, honesty, and compassion seem to be associated with unassertiveness, personal unhappiness, and professional failure.

Taking a step back, let’s look at the misconceptions embedded in my uncle’s Gandhi reference. We may not agree with everything Gandhi did. Some of his decisions can be called into question. He was not without flaws. But here was a man who was anything BUT meek.

Gandhi’s strength came from his conviction. He had an unwavering set of values that served as his internal compass. He stubbornly persisted with his goals. For a physically diminutive man, he demonstrated immense mental courage and grit in the face of the mighty British Empire. He presented supreme confidence in the face of their condescension. Here was a display of a strong kind of goodness.

People who’ve made me understand this

Some good and strong people I’ve known in my own life –

  • My father who fought against my entire extended family for my aunt’s right to wear all colors (after she lost her husband), to get back to school, get an education, a job, and the right to get remarried. Which pretty much brought an end to the tradition of “widows in white” who remained marginalized all their lives, within my extended family.
  • My son’s kindergarten teacher, a small, kind woman who fought with the school authorities to keep ADHD and ASD children in her classroom. She fought for their right to be educated in a regular classroom with supports and not be isolated and “written off” as failures.
  • My grandmother, married at 12, sent to her in-laws at 15, fought for her daughters’ right to be educated. In a generation when most daughters were barely allowed to graduate from high school, she fought with her entire joint family to make sure her daughters (my mother and aunt) graduated from college, went to work, and married the men of their choice.

Some public figures whom I admire for this combination of goodness and strength –

  • Aung San Suu Kyi who continues to fight for the slim chance of a democracy in Burma.
  • Carl Sagan who forewent a lot of research funding when he took a stand against Reagan’s Space Defense Initiative, and shoved the “climate issue” into policy makers’ faces.
  • Bill and Melissa Gates who could remain content leading a privileged life, but choose instead to be involved with solving global challenges that affect us all.

I especially admire privileged people who could easily spend all their lives unaffected by unfairness, poverty, and illness, but CHOOSE not to. They choose goodness. It is an active, conscious choice.

This is why I like re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird because Atticus Finch chose not to sit back and enjoy his white male privilege. This is why I keep going back to A Separate Peace. Because Finny gets it and Gene doesn’t, not until the very end. Not until it’s too late. Both Finch and Finny chose goodness and fairness. It takes discipline and strength to hold on to a value system that demands nothing less than generosity, compassion, and fairness.

The Connection

The connection between goodness and strength is really quite simple. Goodness requires you to abide by a value system. Adhering to a value system requires self-discipline and active vocalization of our beliefs. Self-discipline imbues us with quiet inner strength. Vocalization of our beliefs in the face of opposition, disapproval, and possibly even hate builds an extra layer of strength, a protective armor, if you will.

The other way to look at it – Strong people take control of their lives. Control over one’s own life gives one the luxury of being in a position to help others. Strong people are secure enough to acknowledge their own weaknesses. This allows them to be empathetic to other’s flaws. Strong people persist in overcoming their challenges. This gives them the know-how to mentor others. Thus strength also leads to goodness.

Strength and goodness can thus feed off of each other and become inseparable.

Misconceptions

Goodness is not meekness. Strength is not meanness. It is much harder to remain honest and true to oneself than it is to “go with the flow” and lose our identities. It is much harder to remain fair even to our enemies than it is to paint them in an unflattering light. It is much harder to fight for the underprivileged than to ignore or pretend away their plight with cynicism. It is much harder to forgive those who act in ignorance than to take revenge on them. It is much harder to give a voice to those who lack one than to remain silently sympathetic.

Sometimes, I feel meek people inflict a lot more damage than mean people – such as  people who stare at a woman on a bus and allow her to be harassed. People who passively stand in line and allow certain people to cut in. People who don’t take bribes but watch others do. We are inflicting harm when we do not take a stand, when we don’t use our privilege to help others, when we allow crimes to happen, when we don’t fight for anything worth fighting for. There is a terrible relationship between the mean and the meek. Meek people become the enablers of those who are mean.

Goodness, in the true sense of the word, is therefore a difficult, risky, conscious, active, courageous, and powerful choice on our part, and not a meek, passive reaction to the domineering forces in our lives.

32 thoughts on “Is Goodness Perceived as Weakness?

  1. Your post is SO insightful. I’m loving your blog. I especially like this line, “The other way to look at it – Strong people take control of their lives. Control over one’s own life gives one the luxury of being in a position to help others.” This is so true, but unfortunately, women are not always given the same opportunity to be in control of their lives. I think the latest viral video that Deepika is in hits on this point, and why it is so important to be able to give women a measure of choice and free will over their own lives. It leads to strength, and strength leads to progress in all walks of life. I tried to address more about the video in my latest blog post, check it out if you’re interested🙂

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    • Summer Rain, I think this does happen – especially with women. Women who are strong (genuinely strong as in being capable) tend to be seen as “aggressive” (maybe even get labelled as “bossy” or “b****y”) for things like disagreeing with someone’s views or refusing to comply with someone’s wishes or demands. Yes, this is another, very important side to the strength discussion.

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  2. I think that good is synonymous with righteous. Sometimes it means being assertive, sometimes it means backing down. Meek = submissive and easily oppressed, and that is just the opposite of good.

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  3. More than weakness, I have more problem with it not considered ‘normal’ ! Arrey,people call you an idiot sometimes on ur face if u are good ! When did being chalu,over smart,extra smart become norm ?

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    • Yes, we seem to have created a culture where honesty is perceived as foolishness and cheating is seen as clever. Blurring the difference between right and wrong is so detrimental to the growth of our communities. So many misdemeanors are committed not just because of improper law enforcement but something even more fundamental – the wrong doer doesn’t see anything wrong in his actions. I lost my birth certificate and had to wade seven oceans to get another copy without paying a bribe. At every step of the way, I was reminded that I would make my life easier if I paid off someone. I was told this without a trace of shame. It was also justified – “a poor man needs to do what he can to support his family”.

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  4. Reblogged this on me and India and commented:
    Brilliant, thought-provoking piece, I can relate to so much of this. I guess this was the breaking point for us, I am all for strength, empowerment, and doing what is right an moral, but for my western background this is quite normal. ‘Indian men who are considered good tend to remain unassertive in their personal lives and cannot say ‘no’ to domineering parents’ – Nail hit on the head there.

    ‘Goodness is not meekness. Strength is not meanness. It is much harder to remain honest and true to oneself than it is to “go with the flow” and lose our identities. It is much harder to remain fair even to our enemies than it is to paint them in an unflattering light.’

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        • I’m not up to date with India Pak relations. But if country A repeatedly invades country B, then “pardon” is a completely ineffective strategy and doesn’t qualify as “goodness”. Goodness is not ineffectiveness. Countries A and B need to work together, have discussions, negotiations, decide on what to give and take, bargain for a solution that works for all sides involved. A and B also need to figure out what the real agenda is on each side (in India and Pakistan’s case, neither side is actually interested in their respective country’s progress – they are more concerned with staying in power, hence the “talks” really end up being a show for the international community). If despite a genuine (genuine within a political context) attempt at working together, one country keeps invading another, then protecting one’s borders and taking a tough stance against the invading country is most definitely warranted. Taking a firm stand against an invading country is not “badness”, because protecting your country and your borders is your responsibility toward your citizens.

          Personally I don’t think India’s “goodness” is being exploited. The Indian government doesn’t give a damn about Indian people. The Pakistani government couldn’t care less about Pakistani people. Leaders on both sides are doing what they can to “look good” and stay in power. And they are not even succeeding in their fake attempts to “look good”.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, you are quite up-to-date with happenings! Yes, I agree somewhat. Touch stance is warranted now.
          India did return back all won land in 1962 war. Same with Bangladesh. That’s the kindness I was mentioning – all we got in return were terrorist attacks.

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  5. Yes I have noticed this too. Once I was out shopping with my family and the shopkeeper accidentally gave back more change than he had to, and when I went to give it back my family tried to stop me! And when I did anyway they were all tch tch?!? I also refuse to download/torrent music and movies illegally, and this too is met with lots of eyerolling. These same people are religious and defenders of the great Indian values, but I just think what values??? Apparently honesty and fairness are for losers.

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    • Sounds familiar:) I used to get a lot of eye rolls from some friends because sometimes I would wait several months before I could get a non-pirated original Hindi movie DVD. Now, we have so many Hindi movies on Netflix so that problem is solved. I remember waiting and waiting for Zindagi Na Milegi Do Bara. I would stop my friends from discussing it. After a while, they started discussing anyway and I would close my ears to avoid spoilers:) They would look at me and say, “You’re completely nuts! Go watch the movie already!” Every Indian grocery store owner told me without blinking that yes, they are all pirated copies, and what the heck is your problem, anyway!

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      • There is another aspect to this though. Doing what is legal is not always doing what is right. For example, I downloaded and watched India’s Daughter, and did not pay a paisa for it. I don’t feel I did anything wrong at all. I also watched Fifty Shades of Grey. Should I pass on a pleasure (well, FSOG was anything but pleasure, but you get my point!) because my Government has censorship rules that do not match my own values?

        Another issue is availability. I am a fan of Japanese movies, for example. I originally tried to get them on DVD but that was simply not a choice offered to me. Should I live out my life without watching these movies that give me some basic pleasures because I live in a country where things are not available? Regarding your problem with Hindi films in USA, why aren’t there legal channels to sell these DVDs there, considering the huge population over there. Something is wrong somewhere, and it’s not the people watching the pirated shows.

        All this is not because I don’t want to pay. I generally pay for Hindi movies because I have the facility to do so. Also on the availability issue, there is a huge problem of multiplexes only running the big-name crappy movies for weeks and weeks, while the more interesting stuff disappears within days. For example, I went to watch the documentary, The World Before Her, which was aired only for a few days. I was lucky but if I had been busy during that short period, because there are no DVDs, no second screening, nothing. I would have had to resort to torrents. The market is being manipulated by some big players and if someone does not want to play their game, I don’t consider they are doing anything wrong.

        All this pretty much applies to most other aspects that involve governments and large corporations, but this was a good example for me because my interest in movies encompasses a wide variety of languages and genres.

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        • I definitely believe in watching banned movies and reading banned books! Here the censorship or denial of freedom of speech is absolutely the bigger issue. The other example you mentioned is (of big players) is a grey area. I sometimes wonder about the same thing…… should we refuse to play their unfair game? But then, the world is full of unfairness…. most products we are able to buy are not necessarily the best, but the ones that have used unfair means to make it. So, where do we draw the line? I don’t have a good answer …

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        • I try to buy stuff that does not use slave labour, child labour, animals or come from conflict areas, and don’t much care about the legality because all this stuff is legal somewhere or the other. But in spite of this, the world is constructed in such a way that one simply cannot BE ‘good’ and we do consume things built on another living being’s oppression. We all have to draw this line ourselves.

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        • I agree to some extent. I also choose products that are free of child labor and animal testing. The grey area is when some products don’t even make it into a certain market.

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  6. A lovely post!🙂 I have seen time and again how good people are taken for a ride, how they are given extra work because they are too good to say no, etc. Our society worships goodness and fairness but doesn’t encourage it in our daily lives. One has to have strong role models to look up to understand that goodness, decency, fairness, generosity are the real strengths. How we conduct ourselves when nobody is watching is who we really are, aren’t we?

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    • But Kavs, being taken for a ride and not being able to say ‘no’ should not be viewed as goodness. Isn’t this the view of goodness that we should try to alter? Goodness is not passively watching rights and freedoms being violated. And that includes our own rights and freedoms. Our own right to say ‘no’. Goodness is not allowing ourselves to be victimized, because that rewards unfairness.

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  7. I felt I was conversing with a friend when I read ur post! Brilliantly articulated! My 2 cents- I feel True good can emerge only when one is true to own self! And our society discourages authenticity while rewarding compliance and yes-men (and women). If only we get more compliant with our own belief systems, can we be good n spread real goodness…ironically , in our society, people who stick n are vocal about their belief n value system are labeled as rebels😀

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  8. There’s only one definition of being ‘good’

    And that is being respectful and giving equal treatment to EVERYONE, regarding of race, culture, ethnicity, how old they are, what they look like, their social status…etc. They also don’t judge and criticize on superficial things like we Indians tend to do alot. Just because you do something different from the norm does not make you a bad person, or if you feel something different from another..it does not mean your bad. What’s wrong with differences? It’s good to be different because it helps you look at things at a different angle. Unfortunately most Indians don’t do that.

    i learned this on my own, and believe me, I’d choose to be a rebel and make things better for everyone than just confine to societal norms and be oppressed.

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