Black or White, or Maybe Not

When we were children we were taught right from wrong.  Don’t steal.  Don’t tell lies.  Help your brothers and sisters.  If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.

The problem is that we get older.

Remember how the chocolate chip cookie pile shrank when no one was looking, despite the clear command to leave the plate alone because you’ll spoil your dinner?

And the older we get, the worse we get.  We realize that some moral directives, so simple to state, are devilishly hard to execute in the real world.  Who hasn’t wrestled over what constitutes an acceptable white lie?

Well, that’s the way it is in the real world.  Black and white almost never happens.  Our most important decisions are typically made in widely varying shades of gray, as we wrestle right vs. wrong, or more likely mostly right vs. sort of right , or maybe a little right vs. maybe a little wrong but only a little.   When it happens we make our best decisions and move on.  Sometimes things work out.  Other times they don’t.  But at least we weighed our options, and took the best path we could perceive in our morally challenged world.

But we take an entirely different approach when it comes to judging the decision-making of others.   Because even though we understand that there are shades of gray in our own decision making, we are highly critical when we see others doing it.  White lies are okay for me, but not for you.

Example:  Four years ago I was amazed when the Republican party, after years of earnestly proclaiming themselves the party of marital and biblical fidelity embraced a serial philanderer with an astonishingly crude attitude toward women to be their standard bearer.

At the time I considered their choice to be evidence of utter moral hypocrisy, which had the effect of souring my opinion towards the party that, up to that point, had served as an often necessary check on the flimsy morality commonly displayed by the other guys.

Well, back then I was just a kid in my early 60’s.  I’ve grown a lot since then.

In 2016, Republicans looked at Trump and liked what he said about the economy, immigration and America’s place in the world.  I’m reasonably certain they weren’t a fan of all Trump’s messing around, but, in balance, they found more to like than to hate.

In other words, Republicans weighed good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, benefits and deficiencies and made a nuanced choice.   After decades of presenting themselves as moral absolutists, they revealed themselves to be steely-eyed pragmatists.   And (no surprise in retrospect) pragmatism won.

Now the Democrats are facing the same struggles.  Do they search for a presidential candidate who’s resumé contains not a single example of behavior at odds with the current zero-tolerance for any action or policy that no longer fits our modern view of society?  If so, I wish them luck.  They’ll need it.

Because in the end, there’s a central truth we tend to ignore in politics, society, and even our own lives.  We judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions.   I had a reason for fudging.  You, however, lied.

This is why Democrats were astounded that Republicans supported such a horn dog, but Republicans were judging Trump by his perceived intentions, not his past actions.  Game, set, match.

And now the shoe is about to switch to the other foot.   Whoever the Democrats nominate, you can expect the Republicans to judge him (or her) solely by past actions while ignoring the context in which those actions occurred.  It’s how the stupidly ugly game is played, and both sides are masters at it.

To both my Republican and Democratic friends I offer this thought:  Despite what we all wish was true, social values are not absolute in our gray and muddy world, and they change by the decade, year, or sometimes even by month.  Lots of things are bad, but they’re not all equally bad.  Sometimes you must overlook what’s partially bad in someone in favor of a greater perceived good.  That’s not compromise, it’s maturity.

Let the games begin.

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