My grandfather was an alcoholic… I’m not bragging. I never knew him because he passed away from liver cancer before I was born… again, I’m not bragging; that would be dumb. The thing is, he was a really good man… for about half of his life. He was originally an old fashioned country boy who was well behaved and conformed to the guidelines of being a gentleman. He was an excellent partner for my very gentle grandmother… until they got married. For some reason something snapped after he got married, and in his late twenties he began a love affair with alcohol. He was still a hard working man who supported the family as a carpenter… not the profession you’d advise an alcoholic, but he did his trade well… somehow. At least hitting his finger with a hammer wouldn’t hurt as much. My grandfather was so bad with drinking that he would make my dad drive him to the bar, and then make my dad wait three or four hours in the car while he got hammered. Yeah, this wasn’t a good thing to do, especially since my dad was only thirteen. Where were the cops? Probably where the asphalt was since they lived in the very country part of the country: (driver) “Is this a road?” (passenger) “I think so; there’s flat dirt here.” Fortunately, my dad was a farm boy and had been driving since he could walk, so he was a competent driver. The problem still remains… besides it was illegal for my dad to be driving at thirteen… why would my grandfather do this? Was he stupid, mean or evil?
I believe my grandpa was none of these: he wasn’t stupid, mean or evil. Avoiding a very deep and philosophical debate, fundamentally, I believe people are good… so what’s going on? How can we do stupid/mean/evil things?
The other night I was driving home on a highway known for being patrolled by police, especially after dark. Doing five over the speed limit (at least that’s what I’ll say), I passed a few cars and changed lanes. The car behind me passed the same cars and changed lanes. As I continued at my current speed, I passed a few more cars before changing back to my original lane. The car behind me continued at my current speed and passed a few more cars before changing back to my original lane. This happened two more times. For a moment I thought: “He must be a tail. Maybe he thinks I’m a spy.” I was feeling so cool when suddenly a car flew by me and the car behind me changed lanes and followed him instead. This guy hadn’t been following me because I’m special (little did he know how special I am); he had been following me in case there was a policeman. If there was a cop, I’d get fined and he’d be fine; the ‘d’ is an important letter in this situation. He had been following me in order to avoid getting caught, and now he was following the other guy because he was going faster.
I call this Permission Theory. Permission Theory follows the principle that we are all capable of all types of evil; we just need some type of permission to do it. Guilt and the fear of getting caught/repercussion are great deterrents for doing something wrong, but if we’re given permission we’ll often do it. Whether someone tells us we can call in sick to work when we’re fine, or we take something from work because someone says it’s okay, we do this thing we were scared about now guilt free because we were given permission. This sense of permission can be from someone not qualified or in a position to give us permission, but we want to believe them so we do. This permission can even come from us as we justify hurting someone (in our head) “My partner was mean to me, so I have a right to yell at him and make him feel stupid,” or “My wife doesn’t appreciate what I do, so I have a right to not bother trying anymore.” Permission is dangerous.
This week two boys from Ohio made the news for raping a girl. Were these boys destined to be “rapists” or participants and proliferators of child pornography? My guess is no. Most people don’t grow up thinking: “One day I hope to get arrested for rape.” This is the same as saying: “One day I want to get destroyed in prison. Now, I’m not saying the boys are innocent; far from it, because their actions represent the arrogant jock mentality that I despise, but I would say they did this not because they are stupid/mean/evil, but because they felt there was permission. The day before if you asked them did they think taking advantage of a drunk girl was wrong they’d probably say yes, but in the moment they felt permission. As the cheers from their friends encouraged them, like in many cases of boys doing stupid things, they felt permission. Thus, they fell into the trap of being blind in the moment. Likewise, the boys who were taping the event and not stopping it if they were asked the day before did they think taking advantage of a drunk girl was wrong they’d probably say yes, but they let it happen because they felt permission: other people were there and they weren’t doing it. They knew it wasn’t the “right” thing to do, but that’s what made it all the more exciting. Permission Theory doesn’t justify the act, but it can help explain why people do such horrific things, especially when the perpetrator would likely swear they’d never do something like that if asked before the incident.
There are three major benefits of knowing this. The first is it makes forgiving easier. For instance, when we want to beat ourselves up for our mistakes, we can realize that we’re not stupid, mean or evil. Similarly, we can realize that the person who has hurt us isn’t necessarily stupid, mean or evil. Most people don’t wake up in the morning thinking: “Today I feel like being stupid,” (starts to wet bed) or “What a beautiful day to be evil,” (starts to urinate off of apartment balcony into a crowd of people). We simply fell into the trap of the moment.
The second benefit of knowing permission theory is that it points out that people need to know what they believe and why they believe it in order to fight simply following the crowd in certain moments. Finally, this also means we need to know what rules we follow can be stretched or ignored, especially for special occasions like an extra dessert on our birthday, which helps make these occasions all the more special.
This week may you start to rethink what you believe in order to protect yourself from making a foolish mistake in a bad moment. And may you forgive yourself for the mistakes you have and do make; to this I give you permission.