A Presumption of Goodwill

Biking along the glittering Tisza in the morning (on the embankment bikeway, which is more elevated than the dirt road shown in this picture), then passing through the Rose Park before locking up my bike outside the school, I start my day well. The Zagyva was beautiful too, but I like this slightly longer itinerary. When I lived by the Zagyva, it took just five minutes to get to school. Now it takes 10-15 minutes, and I enjoy every bit of it.

But the day starts well for other reasons too. I have been thinking a lot about the importance of a presumption of goodwill (in any educational setting, and in other areas of life). At Varga, on the whole (with exceptions and complications), this exists. People assume and support a basic good in each other. I see little if any defensiveness, little if any tendency to put others down. This does not mean that people have only positive things to say about each other. To the contrary: they criticize frequently. But the criticism is pointed, not generalized. That is, it refers to something specific that can be addressed.

In the U.S., there is a pervasive defensiveness that goes beyond any particular school or institution. If one person is praised, that means (to many) that the others are being put down. People suspect each other of not being everything they’re made out to be. Unraveling someone’s reputation is not only a pastime but an addiction. Finding that fault–and then dismissing the entire person because of the fault–takes so much time and focus that people often ignore the serious problems in their midst.

The problem manifests itself sometimes in political and racial controversies, but it derives from something even more pervasive. So when I read the story of the professor who was removed from his course for mentioning a Chinese filler word that happens to sound like a racial slur in English, I thought this was ridiculous (especially the administration’s decision) but didn’t see it as an outlier case. It doesn’t have to only with race. It has to do with the common hypervigilance, the practice of watching eagle-eyed for the slightest offense and then jumping on it.

Not everyone does this in the U.S., and the tendency isn’t absent from Hungary. It’s part of human nature, economic life, institutional life, and (especially) political life. But in my experience, teachers in the U.S. are much more on edge about the possibility of getting in trouble, saying the wrong thing, or being derided or dispataged. You want to gain enemies? Show that you are intelligent and dedicated. Someone will find a reason to tear that down.

Some would attribute this to the American tendency to think in terms of a “zero-sum game.” If one person is doing well, that means I can’t be doing well at the same time. But I think it also comes from celebrity culture and its double urges to prop someone up and tear the same person down. Lester Bangs wrote memorably about this (in relation to music):

The fact is that Lou [Reed], like all heroes, is there for the beating up. They wouldn’t be heroes if they were infallible, in fact they wouldn’t be heroes if they weren’t miserable wretched dogs, the pariahs of the earth, besides which the only reason to build up an idol is to tear it down again, just like anything else. A hero is a goddam stupid thing to have in the first place and a general block to anything you might wanta accomplish on your own. Plus part of the whole exhilaration of admiring someone for their artistic accomplishments is resenting ’em ’cause they never live up to your expectations. Plus which they all love the abuse, they’re worse than academics, so the only thing left to do is go whole hog nihilistic and tear everyone you ever respected to shreds. Fuck em!

This sounds over the top, but it captures a truth about American life. In many ways the idols do seem to be there for the beating up, and it’s a cherished ritual.

But you need a presumption of goodwill in order to do your work. That doesn’t mean being told you’re wonderful all the time. It just means having your basic integrity recognized and assumed, unless there’s a serious reason to question it.

There is much more to say on this topic. Another time.

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