When Bad Men Do Good Things

Katherine Sandoz, when bad men do good things, evil that men do, men's rights

Can people be so tainted that even when they do a good deed, it somehow isn’t?

Jennifer Kesler wrote about the death of Margaret Thatcher under the heading, “Sometimes Bad People Do Good Things,” including a little story about the time Thatcher destroyed food rather than feed the poor. Though lauded by some as a feminist icon, Kesler writes, “Thatcher’s policies harmed women. She didn’t break barriers for us. Any civil rights gain from her actions was despite her, not because of her.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has written on at least a couple of occasions about the actions of men’s rights activists—individuals who have killed, including the murder of more than a dozen women in an engineering college, down to anonymous trolls on the internet who spew misogynist hate and threats. A couple of websites get named by the SPLC, but the organization has not named any single men’s rights organization as a hate group.

The name of men’s rights has been sullied, some would say irreparably, by ugly voices online and actual hate crimes against women. Men focusing on their own rights are shamed as selfish, myopic, or weak. But even the SPLC admits that some of these men have legitimate grievances, and have endured shocking abuses that deserve justice. Earl Silverman was a Canadian man, a domestic violence survivor, who created the only men’s DV shelter in the country. After years of denigration and repeated rejections for federal aid for his shelter, which Silverman funded from his own pocket, he took his own life. Reportedly difficult to work with and a trauma survivor, Silverman was a complicated man. His shelter was his one great work. Was it also the one great work of the men’s rights movement?

Men’s work should be done, and it’s being done, both by men who call themselves men’s rights activists, and also by men who do not accept this label. What’s in a name? Everything. What makes a man a gay man? There are men who are out and proud gay activists but still virgins, and there are famous schadenfreude-inducing cases of homophobic lawmakers being caught in same-sex affairs. I’m a bisexual man who’s been told bisexuals don’t exist, that we’re suffering from internalized homophobia, that if gender is a spectrum the term bisexual is too limiting. I agree that bisexual is a problematic word, and it doesn’t sufficiently describe my sexual orientation. But when I moved to New Jersey, was new in town and looking for queer community, the first people I met were active in a bisexual organization. I eventually served on the board of BiZone, and still call myself bisexual, because I met such wonderful people who called themselves bi, and accepted me just as I was. None of our desires were simple or binary, nor were our notions of gender. Language is not enough, and yet it’s all we’ve got.

So I go on calling myself by terms that are merely off the rack fits—the cuffs brush my fingernails, the pleats gape. I’m not an orthodox enough model of any fashion to wear its label confidently on my sleeve, and yet I do. Some of what I wear is what last fit me best, or out of fashion, or both. I still hold fast to Jewish identity even while there is little in my life to point to as Jewish practice. I go through long periods of doubt that G-d exists. But I’m Jewish because this is the faith tradition I respond to; this is the G-d I doubt, not another.

It’s important to understanding me, to know that I am Jewish, and bisexual, and also that I am a mother, that I’m transgender, and a hippie, a trauma survivor, a Virgo. They tell you when I live, and where, and how: what I think is important to know about me, the context in which I’ve developed. The labels I choose matter to me and to others. Not just the ones I proclaim loudly but the facts I let people presume about me—that I’m striving to be a good man, for instance, because I am Managing Editor of a magazine the explores the meaning of modern manhood and because I write frequently about ethics, or because I’m a locavore, or a yogi.

We call ourselves The Good Men Project, and this section, The Good Life—aspirational terms, as far as the “good” part goes. We accept that sometimes good people do bad things, because no one is perfect. Neither is anyone perfectly bad. Some of my favorite articles in this magazine have been from perspectives I would describe as cynical, even evil. “I’d Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying” might be described as an example of one good act of warning by a bad person. Jack Donovan’s “On Being a Good Man” delineates the difference between being a good man, and being good at being a man, while pointing out our strong preference for the latter over the former.

There is a tradition in my faith of the sinner who “turns,” and someone who has done this in a big way as being a “master of turning”—a Ba’al T’shuvah; we speak of sin as “missing the mark.” It is possible to hit my mark for goodness this time and the next, and to miss it further down the line; it’s also possible to miss it very often and then, rarely, to hit it.

In the call for submissions for this series—to which there were no submissions—I got some flak for what was perceived as picking on a man who’s turned his life around. My intention in capturing Mike Tyson holding a pigeon was not to illustrate the Ba’al T’shuvah, but the boxer and rapist who also, paradoxically, nurtures birds symbolic of peace.

Someone I know starts a new “I’m starting a new healthy lifestyle” blog every six months or so, then abandons it as her Facebook account reports more frequent visits to local comfort food establishments. We can turn and turn, but it might not change us: we might just be whirlers. The archer will go on shooting, because none of us can help but to keep on trying, to do something. But for his aim to have more intention behind it of hitting his mark, not simply letting his arrow fly: that is the possibility. That we can do more than live: we can strive. That is the hope, anyway.

Generally, we believe things are as they mostly seem. We don’t come to the lone correct answer made on a test, and conclude that here is a sign of hidden excellence. We believe in the odds—of stopped clocks and failed tests—of a low but non-zero rate of accuracy among the broken, bad, failing, losers of society. Yet odds deny such things as long shots at goodness, currents of change, glimmers of potential, thwarting forces, hope.

Kesler points out that none of the good that an evil person does is lessened by the fact she has done bad things. If Thatcher opened doors for women, then those women are still benefitting, even while other people in the world are starving to death because of her decisions. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, while six million men, women, and children perished in the Holocaust, a few animals’ lives were spared by Hitler’s vegetarianism. Speculative, or alternate, historical fiction—a popular subgenre within science fiction—hinges upon such human potentials being opened up in the crucibles of history.

When things are at their worst, people do not behave most nobly. Because we are so much a product of where we live and who we live among, it is startling and awe inspiring when bad people do good things, and when progressive movements arise out of tyranny and suffering. The point is not to weigh the great darkness against the spark of goodness, one against the other, but to take inspiration from wherever you possibly can. This skill is essential, as it’s without a doubt that you will most need it in the darkest hours of your life.

Whether men’s rights activists can do more good in this world than bad is not yet known. The odds are against it, but I’m not a gambler: I’m a believer.

Read more by Managing Editor Justin Cascio on The Good Life.

Image credit: Katherine Sandoz / Facebook / Twitter

About Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a writer, trans man, and biome. His most recent publication is a short memoir, "Heartbreak and Detox," available on Kindle.
You can follow him on Twitter, Google, and Facebook.


  1. OirishM says:

    I’ll stay away from the “MRA or not-MRA” debate – I think it’s incredibly important that we do validate good things done as good, maybe to some degree independent of who does them. I think it’s all the more important that when troubled individuals do make correct/better choices, we validate and encourage them, no matter how difficult that may be.

    One may be uncertain whether a person is doing good acts as part of an overall plan to commit evil, but ultimately I think our problem is a tendency to oversimplify people. We like to paint them as either good or evil, and it’s never that simple.

    “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  2. Nurse Payne says:

    Enjoyed the article Justin!
    I am certainly not an expert on any of the issues raised in your article, and most certainly not into any political “left” or “right” stuff..just a reader of on the site, supporter/fan of “The Good Men Project”. I am a woman but have two sons who are “good young men”, ages 19 and 20. I feel the Project is a worthwhile cause and I enjoy the site.
    I am wondering, though, if maybe the article complicates issues needlessly. Or maybe I just over simplify things..I feel like people are neither “bad” nor “good”. We all make choices that are “bad” or “good”. Humans, however, gravitate toward what is good, or rewarding. We are creatures of pleasure, not pain. People are influenced by nature and nurture to make choices that result in actions that are “bad” or “good”. Subsequently, if that person who makes a choice to do something “bad”, later perpetrates an act of kindness and goodness, why would we not, as a society, give the person “full credit” for that action? Holding someone’s past mistakes against them is counter-productive and just plain cruel. It smacks of Nurse Ratched in Ken Kersey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. I spent several years as a nurse in a correctional facility. I know from experience that even people who have committed heinous crimes have the capacity to do good. Given the right circumstances, they can develop the ability and the desire to do so. We can’t expect people to rehabilitate if we don’t show them respect, dignity, and kindness. Saying their act of kindness or goodness has less meaning than ours is not affording them those things.
    Albert Camus said, “To assert in any case that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no-one in his right mind will believe this today.” We, too, are human, and to err, is human.

    • Mostly_123 says:

      Nurse Payne- really enjoyed reading your post there & very much agree with your sentiments. I often feel individuality (talking about ‘people’ rather than us/them, women/men) gets lost in talks about gender roles and such. Thank-you.

  3. Men focusing on their own rights are shamed as selfish, myopic, or weak.
    Because just like any walk of life someone that tries to speak up against the mistreatment they suffer is bound to get mistreated. For any number of reasons they don’t want to speak up (or at least not speak up in a certain way).

  4. The Southern Poverty Law Center has written on at least a couple of occasions about the actions of men’s rights activists—individuals who have killed, including the murder of more than a dozen women in an engineering college, down to anonymous trolls on the internet who spew misogynist hate and threats. A couple of websites get named by the SPLC, but the organization has not named any single men’s rights organization as a hate group.
    One thing to be mindful of is which acts are actually perpetuated by MRAs and those that are done by other types of men (and maybe some MRAs with ID with it). I wonder if you are talking about Polytechnique when you say, ” including the murder of more than a dozen women in an engineering college” because from what I understand while he was very much an anti-feminist he was not an MRA (unless you know something I don’t maybe).

    I think the first thing that needs to be done is actually get a clear bearing on who we are talking about before going around declaring them bad.

    • You may have a point here, Danny. Very often we assume a person’s ideology. And you’re correct about the killing being specifically anti-feminist, but not specifically pro-men’s rights. There’s an article here on the SPLC website about violence against women that makes these connections.

      • And that article pretty much proves my point. It went from mentioning what Lepine did and then slides in to mention some of the incorrect stuff some of today’s MRAs believe. But as far as I know Lepine had to claims or ties to being an MRA. He was a disturbed and violent anti-feminist but just feminist doesn’t equal man-hater its also worth keeping in mind that violent anti-feminist doesn’t equal MRA.

        Slights of hand have been pulled like this before like when Hugo Schwyzer and Manboobz tried to say that Anders Breveik was MRA when the only chatter I saw out of MRAs on that massacre was saying he needed to face justice.

        There are no doubt some vile MRAs out there and some MRAs who have both vile and valid ideas (such as Paul Elam) but I have to ask if they are so bad then why go to such lengths to smear them with lies and made up connections?

    • Mostly_123 says:

      “The Southern Poverty Law Center has written on at least a couple of occasions about the actions of men’s rights activists—individuals who have killed, including the murder of more than a dozen women in an engineering college.”

      Danny, you got there ahead of me, but I’ll add in my post anyways…

      Justin, just one historical point of note: If you and the SPLC are referring there to the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique shooting in Montreal, I am incline to point out that it would historically false to refer to the shooter, Marc Lepine, as a Men’s Rights Activist.

      Lepine was a profoundly disturbed individual who’s violent and delusional paranoia (against society, against women in general, and feminism in particular) was articulated only in his suicide note found after the shooting. He not a political activist of any sort, made no statements prior to his death, nor was he involved with anything akin to a men’s rights movement, as there was no such thing (at least, as it is known and understood today) in 1989. Regardless of one’s stance on the MRA, and regardless of abhorrence of extremism within & without it, it would be historically inaccurate, to say the least, to characterize Lepine as a ‘men’s rights activist’ and/or a product, or purveyor of it.  

  5. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Thanks, Justin! Neat article. I’m personally fascinated by moral entrepreneurs, who often become oppressive by doing good, but can’t see it. People who got after the supposed nursery school molesters (mainly trumped up) fall into this class. I often have problems with feminism or the Left (and I’d include myself in these categories) for this reason, too. It’s what Jung called “projecting the shadow.” We see the evil we think we are in others (but don’t consciously see it.) Some of the biggest moralists are prisoners who beat up sex criminals in jails, even though they too have lived exploitive lives. Also, as someone who is naturally poly, although out of practice at the moment, I wince every time I see something about “cheating.” Sex is one of our biggest areas for projection.

  6. Aw, come on! Play nice! The folks at Fathers and Families appear to be good men –and women– doing extraordinary things on behalf of fathers and children.

    • What’s not nice? I acknowledge that men are doing the work in my article, and women are doing the work, too, though this was not what my article is about. I also point out how rare it is for anyone to do anything that’s truly different and good, as a movement for justice does.

      And yet I believe it will happen. Why? “Because the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

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