Innate goodness of people

Among the key ideas I find myself emphasizing as I travel the country is the following: I believe people are born with innate goodness and they are in search of ways to express it – especially nowadays. This may seem like either pure pablum to some people or obvious to others. But in my travels, neither is true. Indeed, when I remind people of this notion – when I voice it publicly – their faces quickly show a sign of relief and possibility. What I am not suggesting is that evil or bad things don’t exist; we all know they do. But so too does our innate goodness. Of course, this goodness is seen clearly and convincingly from time-to- time when we are called to respond to a major crisis like Hurricane Katrina, or when we witness it in our individual private lives. But in public life the notion of innate goodness is too often missing or even belittled. It has been crowded out by the acrimony and divisiveness thrust upon us; by a politics which gauges a candidate’s success by their ability to raise record-breaking amounts of donations, even if the candidate fails to reflect our concerns; by an obsession with the personal destruction of opponents and the near-constant questioning of each other’s motivations. The result of these and other trends is to denigrate and cheapen public life. They signal to people that goodness has little or no place in our public arena. They warn people that unless they are ready to do battle under the current rules of engagement, they will be run over or run out. Just when do we say enough is enough? When do we say to these purveyors of mistrust and mischief that they have no right to take over the public arena and make a mockery of people’s genuine concerns and heart-felt aspirations? Last week I visited Hartsville, South Carolina and just weeks before, I was in Newark, New Jersey. I suspect many people would think that these two places could not be more different from each other – here, a Red state and Blue state; a rural community and an urban area; one place in relatively good economic shape, the other still desperate. But in reality people in both places had similar things to say – and most of them are tired of a public life and politics that takes us no place good. I have said much about how to improve public life and politics here in this space; yes, I believe that progress will come by building small pockets of change to propel us forward; by us standing publicly next to good leaders who need our support and for whom we must vouch; by creating boundary spanning organizations that can span across dividing lines and help up us to see each other and work together. But today, what I want to say most of all is what I have come to say over and over again on the road: People hold an innate sense of goodness and it is waiting to be expressed. The task of our leaders and of ourselves is to make room for this innate goodness – to give it space to emerge and find its expression; to harness it in ways that enable people to join together for productive common purposes; and to tell stories that reflect its power and persuasion. But let’s be clear. Emphasizing our innate goodness is not simply about charity or volunteering. It is about our most basic orientations in public life and politics – about whether we hold the belief that we are capable of finding ways to come together even amid our disagreements and dislikes, or whether we will retreat to the sidelines to allow negativity and inaction to win the day.