Is it common for people to judge one’s character before they know them well?
Another shooting and another news reporter or TV anchor will ask why? Journalists are often obsessed with finding a motive after a tragic shooting; I often wonder if that will make a significant difference in our society if one is found. Reporters have a job to do and have a penchant to search for anyone who will speak to them about this crime. This may include neighbors, fellow students, people vaguely familiar with the accused shooter (we’ll call the accused Paul) and may also include family members and friends. If the crime occurs in a quiet and civil neighborhood, it’s common to hear this reply from a neighbor, “I’ve been a neighbor of Paul’s for over 15 years and I’ve never seen him get angry or upset with anyone.” Others down the street may claim he’s the most mild mannered individual they’ve known. Other friends may support the perception of his good character by saying, “he (Paul) was always willing to lend a hand to a neighbor or friend. It just doesn’t make any sense or seem possible”
Whether the accused shooter is convicted of the crime is another matter. That’s something for the criminal justice system to adjudicate. My focus here is on people’s characterization of someone who they think they know but in actuality, this relationship is superficial and in fact, you don’t know them well at all regardless of seeing them go about their day for so many years.
What would be my response? Would I be rational and cool under pressure? If my fictitious neighbor Greg, who I’ve known for 10 years is accused of shooting a co-worker, what would be my reply if an aggressive newspaper or TV reporter stuck a microphone in my personal space? What’s my candid response, knowing it might make the evening news?
I’d love to say: Look, I don’t know if Greg did this horrendous crime but if he did, I’m very sad for those terribly affected by this tragedy. In my mind, he appears to be a fine neighbor, however, I don’t know him that well. We’re civil, cordial and neighborly to one another when our paths cross. I know him enough to send him a warm Christmas greeting between the digestion of my Thanksgiving food and before another year calls it quits. When he drives by in his sports car and trying to hold onto his youth as much as possible, I wave to him when I’m out in my front yard. He and I exchanged house visits some 10 years ago within a span of about 8 months – I’d like to say I know him pretty well but I don’t. I’ve never lived with him or gone to school with him. And in terms of work, I know you can get to know a person well when you work with them, especially during stressful times but I’ve had no exposure to him in that capacity – formally or informally. I’ve rarely see him out in social situations so I’m not sure I’ should be shocked if he shot someone. Or should I be?
Many of us are capable of doing horrible things due to mental illness, financial or life challenges or highly stressful situations. If I’m quoted by the news media, hopefully I would have the sense not to say, “he didn’t seem like a guy that would do that.” Again, I hope my awareness and logical thinking would deter me from saying something that may indicate I’m a lousy judge of character. I hope I might say, “It’s a terrible shame this tragedy occurred and I feel terrible for the victim(s) and the families involved. If I feel pressured to say something, maybe, “No comment” would suffice. I might also state he appeared to be in good standing in the community although I didn’t know him well so I can’t comment on his character or his potential for carrying out such a deed.