Bad People or Bad Choices?

08c157706766b6c658696b9fb7a185b4In my youth, parents, principals, teachers, den mothers, filmstrips, and preachers taught that every action was a reflection of your character.

In fact, it probably went deeper than that: your very thoughts needed to remain pure, ideally never straying from avenues of indoctrination, but at the very worst, if you found yourself hankering to do bad, tempted to wander across the tracks to the dark side of town, that thought had to be doused, snuffed, strangled, eliminated.

Reputation was a commodity of immeasurable worth, more precious that bullion. One misstep could obliterate a lifetime of probity, sullying forever your once good name and by association tarring your otherwise innocent family with the pitch of ignominy.

The public elementary school I attended that taught these lessons blithely ignored the separation of church and state. We prayed to Jesus every morning, were served fish sticks in the cafeteria every Friday. However, the teachers weren’t so much saying that your eternal life was on the line, but that bad habits metastasize like cancers, and the progression downward could be precipitous, a lie begetting a theft, a theft begetting a life of crime, and the next thing you know, you’re wearing stripes in Sing Sing, or in my case, at the Columbia Correctional Institute.

Well, as Mr. Dylan predicted, the times have changed.

Half a century later, at the Episcopal School where I teach, we don’t condemn students’ misdeeds as character flaws but refer to them as “bad choices.” Just because you cheat on a test and get caught doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll cheat one day on your taxes. Impulsiveness is no longer the prompting of Satan but, more plausibly, the product of pubescent chemical imbalances, and even premeditated malfeasance can be attributed to immature brains still in the process of growing, a process that science now claims is not completed for most people until the age of 25.

east-of-eden-julie-harris-james-dean-1955Although I disapprove of the cliché the phrase “making bad choices” has become, I do think it wise not to declare someone ultimately a bad person for making even a serious moral mistake. If someone thinks he’s inherently bad, like Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s film of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, he might conclude that fighting his immoral inclinations is a lost cause and use his self-assessment as an excuse to do whatever the hell he wants.

Poor Cal had adopted the persona of a self-romanticizing narcissist, a very bad choice indeed.