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 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.
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.