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Bad Guys, White Hats

February 15, 1987|CAROL TAVRIS | Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and writer, is a visiting scholar in psychology at UCLA.

Americans have seen too many Westerns. If a man is wearing a white hat, they assume that he is the good guy--never mind that he rides with villains or behaves like them.

This lesson was brought home to me sharply at a recent dinner party. One of the guests, a young woman who works for a prestigious magazine, arrived late, breathless and excited. She had just come from an interview with one of the vilest corporate raiders in America, a man I'll identify simply as Bad Guy. And, he is, make no mistake: In playing his paper-money game, for the lark of manipulating millions, B.G. has caused thousands to lose their jobs, ruined dozens of companies and set Wall Street on its ear. Naturally the guests were interested in the young interviewer's opinion of him.

"I thought he was terrific," she enthused. "You know, much to my surprise, he was charming. I mean, I'd heard such bad things about him, but he was absolutely sweet."

"And why wouldn't he be?" my husband asked her. "What did you expect, fangs?"

"I don't see what that has to do with anything," she said. "I'm just telling you how nice he was to me."

"Look, Hitler could be nice," said my husband. "This guy. . . . "

"I can't talk to you if you're going to bring Hitler into this," she said, and stormed out of the room.

Unfortunately for their aborted debate, my husband was wrong to bring Hitler into this; B.G. isn't Hitler. But neither is he the sweetie that the young woman found him to be. My husband committed merely an error of hyperbole; she committed an error of moral judgment.

This lapse is not uncommon. If a person's words are eloquent or charming enough, many people are likely to ignore that person's actions. If a villain doesn't drool, snarl, shout or stutter, if he or she is physically attractive, if he or she is rich enough, many people--too many people--will let that villain get away with almost anything. The fans of Claus von Bulow and John Z. DeLorean will not, I think, turn up at the trial of Richard Ramirez rooting for his acquittal.

Consider the pubic-opinion polls that judge American attitudes toward President Reagan. In their important article in the Atlantic last year, "The myth of America's turn to the right," Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers observed that "Americans, for whatever reason, want to believe that their Presidents are nice people." According to the polls, Americans like the man who is President today as much as they dislike his presidential policies. By attending only to his smiling face, his head of hair and his folksy anecdotes, they forgive his outright lies and bumbling and dangerous behavior. He may be riding with villains, but he is wearing a white hat.

The unconscious assumption that good guys look and act good, and bad guys look and act bad, makes it difficult for many people to understand that perfectly "nice" people can, under certain conditions, behave in ways that are cruel, bigoted or unethical. And people who are, in certain situations, cruel, bigoted or unethical can be perfectly doting spouses and parents, even pillars of the church.

But instead of judging people by their behavior, many Americans regard evil as if it were a constant quality of the personality, like a sense of humor: you have it or you don't. Bad actions, in this view, can only be committed by someone who is thoroughly evil. A nation with whom we are in conflict is an "evil empire." Conversely, a nice guy can do no evil. Both conclusions are morally and politically dangerous. The former error admits no chance of seeing the good in an enemy. The latter error admits no chance of seeing the bad in a friend.

Oh, yes, about that dinner party. As the young woman stomped out of the room in a huff, another guest came in and wanted to know what juicy argument he was missing. "We had a disagreement about B.G.," said my husband.

"B.G.?" he said. "That Himmler?"

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