Good guys and bad guys

Good guys and bad guys

Sep 28
Good guys and bad guys

It seems like a lifetime ago, but in that other life I was once a telemarketer.

At the time, I was estranged from my wife, but we were both living with her parents.  I was trying to pay bills, trying to mend my marriage, and I took the first job I could get.

Every evening, my wife and her mother would take turns telling me what a miserable human being I was.  The next morning I would get up and go to work and spend my day enduring the same thing from strangers.  From the moment I put on my headset, I dreaded the sound of the phone ringing.  To this day, the thought of calling someone still makes my stomach churn.  If I’m not careful, I’ll still chant to myself, “Please don’t pick up.  Please don’t be home.”

It didn’t help.  Those were the days of computer-dialing.  If nobody picked up, the computer would call them again later.  It would keep calling until eventually someone picked up the phone and told me “no.”  With any luck, that would be all they would tell me.  I’ll never forget one individual who was absolutely cruel to me.  He made it very clear that he thought telemarketers were the scum of the earth (but he didn’t phrase quite as politely).  It was mean.  Hateful.

I left the job after two weeks.  When I went home and announced that I’d quit my job, I was screamed at.  “What kind of man, what kind of husband, leaves a job without already having something in place to support his family?” demanded my mother-in-law and soon-to-be-ex-wife.  By the end of the week I had taken a job as a pizza delivery driver.  It was a relief in so many ways – I can’t tell you how grateful I was for that job!

It all seems like a lifetime ago, but I still can’t stop trying to understand why so many people felt entitled to be so cruel to me when I hadn’t done anything to deserve it.

I think it’s because I was the “bad guy.”  We all have one.  The “bad guy” is the person that we “know” is guilty, despite lacking any actual knowledge of the fact.  One person knew I was a “bad guy” because who else would accept a job as a telemarketer?  Another person knew I was a bad guy because her daughter said so (the truth of the situation came out much later).

When something goes wrong, we need someone to blame.  Naturally, we blame the bad guy.  Fill in the blank:  You what’s wrong with this country?  ______________________.  Democrats.  Republicans.  Conservatives.  Liberals.  Gun Owners.  Flag Burners.  Millenials.  Baby Boomers.  Bankers.  The 1%.  Big Oil.  Big Government.  Trump.  Clinton.  Drug Addicts.  Homosexuals.  White People.  The Godless.

Get the point?

You probably know who the “bad guy” is.  You know who to blame and why.

Have you ever been the “bad guy?”  You probably have.  How’s it feel to be treated as if you’re guilty of something when you haven’t done anything wrong?  Or maybe you’ve done plenty wrong, just not the thing you’re being blamed for.  What’s that like?  How do you react to being treated like the bad guy?

If you’re like me, then you’re tempted to actually be the bad guy.  If I’m going to be blamed for it anyway, I might as well earn it.  When I feel like I’m being treated unfairly, I have a tendency to speak and act with less care and concern.  What incentive is there to maintain or improve a relationship when the other person is already convinced of your guilt?

A few years ago I got a new land line, which came with a new phone number.  Shortly after the service was installed, I started receiving messages on my answering machine, stating that it was imperative that I call this phone number as soon as I got the message.  It seemed pretty clear that the calls were from a collection agency and that they were intended for the person who used to have my phone number.  They called every day.  I thought I would give them the courtesy of returning the call and letting them know they had the wrong number.

As soon as the phone picked up on the other end, I became a bad guy.  The person knew I was guilty and that I was trying to weasel my way out of paying what I owed.  They asked for my Social Security Number.  I said that I wasn’t comfortable giving that information until I knew what the call was in reference to.  The person responded that it was illegal for him to share that with me until he confirmed my identity.  I tried repeatedly to calm the individual and explain that he had the wrong person, which is of course what a bad guy would say.  He grew increasingly hostile and wouldn’t listen to me.  After a few rounds of this escalation, he hung up on me.

Admittedly, I kinda felt like I should get an achievement for having a collector hang up on me.  I immediately dialed the number again.  A different person answered the phone.  I asked to speak with a supervisor.  When the supervisor picked up the phone, I described the conversation I’d just had.  The supervisor listened.  After I finished, he said, “Obviously we have the wrong person.  I’ll update our records to make sure we don’t call you again.”  I thanked him for listening and I thanked him for taking care of the issue.  The call never should have happened.  The first person could have resolved it, if he hadn’t already known I was a bad guy.

To be fair, I get it.  When you make collections calls, a vast majority of the people you talk to owe money and aren’t paying it.  They really are the “bad guys” for your line of work.  It would get easy to assume that everyone you talk to is a bad guy because that reflects your experience.

Once, I was riding the “Waterboggan” at Silver Dollar City with my wife.  Before the ride left the top of the tower, the attendant would warn people against tipping the raft.  Many people would tip the raft to make the ride more thrilling, but every once in a while someone would tip it over and cause the ride to stop.  This particular time there was a delay, so we’re sitting in our raft waiting to go.  The attendant looks at me and says, “You look guilty, sir.”  I replied, “I usually do” (meaning that I usually look guilty).  He then proceeded to lecture me about how dangerous it was and how serious it was and that I absolutely should not tip the raft.  Again, I was a “bad guy” despite having done nothing wrong.

I share those stories in hopes of putting some perspective in some things going on around the nation.

Suppose you’re from a particular social or ethnic group that many people have already labeled as “bad guys.”  You realize that nothing you can say or do will convince them that they are wrong.  No matter what you say or do, they will interpret it in the worst possible light.  What is your incentive to try to “get along” with the people who treat you as if you’re guilty?  Why bother to live the way “good guys” do when you’ll never be seen as one of them?  Why is it your responsibility to convince people of your innocence?  Why does it lie with you to prove people wrong?  Why do you have to suddenly answer for their assumptions about who you are, what you’re like, what you do?

What if you spend most of your day dealing with “bad guys?”  Would it become natural for you to make certain assumptions about people you deal with, based on your experience?  Would it be easy for everyone to become “bad guys” in your eyes, especially if they fit the profile of the type of bad guy you’re used to dealing with?

Suppose a police officer shoots someone.  What can you immediately assume about the person shot?  It was a “bad guy,” right?  Because the police are good guys and they only shoot bad guys.

Do you see the problem?  A lot more black men are going to get shot before this gets better.  If it ever gets better.  You and the police already know that black men are bad guys.  If an officer shoots one, it was probably justified.  Nobody is going to mourn one less bad guy.  Except his family, but they’re either delusional or bad guys, too.

To be clear, it is reasonable to be upset and angry if someone treats you as if you’ve done something wrong when you haven’t.  It is reasonable to be at least a little agitated and perhaps even uncooperative.  People don’t deserve to die for it.

I’m sorry, but “do what the police tell you and you have a better chance of surviving” doesn’t sound like something we should be saying in The Land of the Free.

That sounds more like what I’d say if I lived in North Korea.  And I would feel like I had every right to be angry for being treated like I was guilty when I hadn’t even been charged with a crime, much less actually guilty of it.

I’m tired of seeing black men killed by police.

I’m tired of seeing social Darwinism.

I’m angry.

I want the killing to stop.  And I don’t believe for a second that the answer is for the people we assume are bad guys to change our perception of them.  We are innocent until proven guilty, unless we’re black men.  Frankly, I don’t blame anyone for being pissed off about it.  I’d be angry, too.  Be honest — when was the last time you heard about a black protest and you didn’t expect there to be looting?  If we’re going to treat them as if they’re already guilty, why shouldn’t they go ahead and do what we already “know” they’re doing?

While every police officer should get to go home every night, I can’t accept the justifications for all of the shootings.  I don’t believe our police are such pansies that they are so frightened for their lives by unarmed black men that they need to shoot them in order to feel safe.  I cannot accept that refusing to cooperate with police deserves a death sentence.

However, if I had children, especially black children, I’d tell them to hop on one foot if an officer told them to.  I’d tell them to lick his shoes, if that’s what he wanted.  I’d tell them to suffer every indignity, no matter how humiliating.  I would tell them this because I wouldn’t want to risk my children making an officer afraid.  I wouldn’t want to risk how he’d react to them sticking up for themselves.  Instead, I want my children to have just as much right to come home as the officer giving them orders.  But the more I felt like my children were picked on, the more I felt like they were forced to hop on one foot or lick shoes, the more I would despise the police.

Maybe it’s only to a small degree, but I’ve been treated unfairly.  I remember the outrage at being labeled and treated as if I’d done something wrong.  I remember people treating me like something less than human.  I remember how angry it made me, how outraged I felt.  I also remember how powerless I felt to stop it, especially when every day there was someone trying to convince me that I deserved to be treated that way.

Once upon a time, our forefathers felt like they were being deprived of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  They held a demonstration.  They protested a government and a culture that they felt treated them unfairly.  They destroyed property.  They looted tea.

We called them patriots.

If anyone does it now, we call them bad guys.


  1. I always play a game in my drama class to show the kids how our perceptions are powerful.

    I have the kids stand in a circle with their hands behind them. I tell them they’re going to close their eyes and I’m going to touch the hand of one of them and that person is going to become “the liar.” I will walk around the circle and act like I touch all of their hands so that no one can “cheat” by trying to watch. After I’ve made the circle I have them open their eyes and just mentally — not saying anything out loud — decide who they think “the liar” is. Then I repeat the process one more time.

    After the 2nd round I ask, “Okay, does everyone remember who they thought ‘the liar’ was the first time? And… does everyone remember who they thought it was the 2nd time?”

    Then I have them raise their hand if I touched them the first time.
    No one raises their hand.

    Then I ask for the one I touched the 2nd time to raise their hand.
    Everyone raises their hand.

    I was the liar.

    It gives them a lot to think about because no matter what the person does — laugh, not laugh, give strong eye-contact, avoid eye-contact, etc. — if they have decided that person is “the liar” they will read every action into that belief.

    • I want to experiment with this so badly. I’ll have to find a group or two that I can try this with and see the results.

  2. Sarah

    First a side comment Chris–excellent writing! Being a writer myself, I always notice the flow of an essay first, and then I have to remind myself, hey, it’s not your job to grade it, just read it for content! It doesn’t help that as a homeschooling mom, I have to grade essays often.

    My first reaction–Chris being accused of being a miserable human being? No way no how! So sorry you had to endure hearing such a lie, and repetitively. Really sorry.

    Side note again–I can easily imagine your face upon you responding ” I usually do” at the amusement park. A line that works well in private company, but not so well in public. I guess the attendant wasn’t in the mood for jokes.

    False accusations, been on both sides of that coin. But at least made it into my twenties before I was falsely accused of something pretty hurtful. But as soon as it happened, in the next second, I was cognitive that Afro Americans get treated like this as early as preschool, if not sooner, and yet I had been spared that injustice for over 20 yrs. And I was very angry about that one injustice. Ha! And to suffer who knows how many times since prekindergarten? I seemed to be complaining about losing one penny of my dignity in comparison to the thousands of dollars of lost dignity some of my Afro-American friends had endured.

    I am always hearing, “everything in moderation.” Never thought of this before, but sounds like we need to apply that moderation to perception of others too!

    God Bless–Sarah

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