A couple weeks ago, I used a somewhat risky pedagogical tool to get my students thinking about political rhetoric and assignations of “good” and “evil” identities.
They were reading an essay by Edward Said that criticized another essay written in the wake of September 11 that divided the world into two spheres: “The West” and “Islam.” Islam, the essayist wrote, was a war-mongering culture of extremists whose sole purpose in life was to destroy Western ideals of free enterprise, democracy, and blah blah blah. The West, it stood to reason, was a kind of Utopian ideal in which everyone was always happy and nobody was oppressed or harmed. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.
On the board, we made two lists: “The West” and “Islam.” I asked the students to define qualities of The West–where it is, who it is, what kind of government it has, what kind of economy it has, and what its primary ideals were. Then I had them brainstorm the same ideas about Islam. Which they couldn’t do, of course, because Islam is not a place; it is everywhere. It is American. It is elsewhere. It is us and not us. It is democratic and restrictive; it is oppressive and freeing. It cannot be limited to one facet of its being, just as the idea of “The West” really can’t either.
At the end, I asked them to determine which was good and which was evil.
“The West is good,” they said. “Islam is evil.”
I was struck by how easily they a) participated in my false binary and b) decided an entire religion was evil. We talked about why Islam was considered evil by The West.
I explained to them how my colleague Jaime once shared an acting tenet with me that I’ve never forgotten. She said no character is truly evil, that all characters’ actions are borne out of justification. I was reminded of a quote on a friend’s Facebook page: “We judge others by actions and ourselves by intent.”
It is easy to characterize actions as evil and we would like to believe that people who commit those acts are also evil. But it just isn’t the case. No one–aside from, perhaps, a few psychotics, seek to commit evil. They commit acts of good–their justifications for their actions are never evil. Even Jack the Ripper was certain he was furthering the evolution of society by murdering prostitutes.
I said to the class, “So we can all agree that killing is always evil, right?” Yes, they said. Except one student who shook his head. “It’s not evil when you’re protecting yourself or your family,” he said.
“When you’ve justified it,” I said.
“Yes, but it’s not evil then,” he said.
And he was right. The act of protection is not evil, even if the act of killing is. Yet it is so difficult for us to assign this binary to the real world. Our enemies are always evil; our allies are always good. Even when our allies charge into countries and kill unarmed civilians, the act is not evil because the intent is not evil.
We are talking a lot about bullies these days, people whose actions are inspiring children to commit suicide out of fear and self-loathing. We understand the result of the bullying is something evil. We also insist that the bullying is not an act of good but an act of evil.
I doubt we have a generation of children running around finding joy in committing acts of evil, though. Don’t they believe they are simply reinforcing the “good” in our society by bullying children who don’t conform or fit in? Isn’t this essentially a mechanism we would otherwise call “peer pressure” that encourages peers to just shut up and fit in?
When we call bullying evil, we aren’t solving the problem. Bullies don’t self-identify as such because they don’t consider themselves to be doing anything wrong. It is very, very difficult for the human animal to subvert all its years of social conditioning, moral education, and legal understanding to commit an act of evil because it is evil.
We cannot address bullies as bullies. They do not know who they are.
They believe we are speaking to someone else.
And so, the bullying continues.
It is true that if we took a long, hard look at ourselves, we would all recognize the bully in us. We are all responsible for someone else’s misery. We have all inflicted pain, misery, and shame on other people–usually without intending to do so, or without intending to do so much harm. We are simply reinforcing the order to which we ourselves conform. And one thing we truly do not value is difference.
We cannot stop bullying by decrying the bullies. We must change our relationship to the value of difference. We must teach our children to be self-reflective, but also to love themselves first.
We must teach all of our children.