Are you a good person?

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Do you ever wonder where your life is going?

Not geographically, I mean, but in the n-dimensional space where some locales are clearly assigned more value than others (jail is bad; heaven is good), do you ever worry about how your trajectory and destination rate? We envision ourselves curiously unbound by the cause-effect relationships to which we consign others. What happens when that happy illusion shatters — when we are presented with incontrovertible proof that we are no less beholden? 

I recently fell down the rabbit hole, Alice-style. My cesspool of choice was the subreddit r/AmItheAsshole, which classily abbreviates to AITA. The forthrightness of the question is only the first hint that AITA is a wacky wild world of its own. Just like how it isn’t caterpillars or hookahs on their own that are unimaginable so much as their combination, what makes AITA such a gripping corner of the internet is not its individual components — hallmarks of everyday life like friendship, money and relationships — but the questions they pose. 

My best friend’s wife died, but I’m thinking of not letting him stay over at my place anymore since he’s been at my house for a month. Would it be rude for me to kick him out? My daughter’s school used her EpiPen to save another child’s life but has declined to reimburse me for the cost. Should I follow up with the parents of the child who was saved to see if they’ll pay me back? My boyfriend’s parents are coming over, and my boyfriend has asked me to sleep in the guest room and pretend I’m his roommate. Am I a bad person for refusing?

The writers of AITA posts wonder about the moral rating of their actions. They need to know how their actions reflect on them — so pleadingly and desperately that they’ll risk a guilty verdict for the closure of a trial. What’s on the line here is the happy illusion of being someone good, a nonasshole, a person above the evil, the petty and the pure mean. Not to get too full circle on you, but we, humanity, have been doing this for eternity. Nonassholery is an exclusive kingdom, and entrance is not painless. St. Peter polices the pearly gates. The ancient Egyptian goddess Maat weighs human hearts against her feather. Alice’s Queen of Hearts is an unapologetic asshole, but she’s the exception that proves the rule. We’re all looking for the assurance that we’re good people.

AITA is the distilled survey of human suffering. It’s just as heartening as it is pathetic. A boss fires an employee after his parents die and then immediately offers his actions to the many-faced internet god for judgment. Let’s walk through that thought process: I know I did something, and I know that what I did was what I felt I had to do at that moment. And yet, I struggle with the indelible evidence that I’ve hurt someone, so I write a post. What do I search for that I cannot give myself? Absolution? Condemnation? Something in between — the acknowledgment that I did what I had to do?

We, despite our self-centeredness, hunger for justification. Albert Camus once wrote that those who need myths are impoverished. He’s saying that you’re a loser for needing a baby blanket to burrito your guilt in. The bald-faced ask for permission to accept or deny our flashes of empathy demonstrates our unease with the concept. If you’re asking, you probably already have an inkling that you might be the storied asshole. Arguably, the true assholes and the true not-assholes don’t post on AITA; they don’t need anyone to tell them who they are.

The range from juvenile (theater student tells the girl who kissed her boyfriend in a play that she’s desperate) to truly dark (former drug addict and dealer wants to go to the funeral of a woman he got addicted to heroin) is remarkable. People everywhere, in every situation, wonder if their actions are justified. Younger sister tells older sister to stop bringing up her miscarriage for attention. Disgruntled gardener sprays his strawberry-stealing neighbor’s kids with a garden hose. Man calls off wedding because fiancee almost got his dog killed. I have the sneaking suspicion that there’s no horizon either. Even if spontaneous abortions, strawberry-attracted children and dog death were to vanish overnight, I don’t believe that AITA would disappear. We’ll never quite rid ourselves of the problem of being humans in a world inhabited by other humans.

At the end of the day, AITA is just a newfangled solution to the age-old pastime of lying awake all night counting sins instead of sheep. It might be that we truly knew the price of our actions and chose to take them anyway, that we truly were not thinking about anybody but ourselves or maybe there really was no way to know how things would end. (In that order: Son refuses to be the caretaker of his father with brain damage; father asks 5-year-old daughter to lend him money for gas; woman makes her immunosuppressed boyfriend clean their cat’s litter box.) There are worries beyond the reach of chamomile tea, melatonin and NyQuil. With the certainty of judgment, we imagine that we’ll sleep in peace. As it turns out, no matter how we resolve our worries, we never stop thinking about what others think of us.

Casey Li writes the Monday column on popular culture. Contact her at [email protected].