On Evil, Or Bullies Do Not Know What They Are.

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.

Lost in the Amazon(.com), or Amazon Puts a Scarlet "A" (for "Adults Only") on some GLBT’s writers’ books

Currently going around:

Yes, it is true. Amazon admits they are indeed stripping the sales ranking indicators for what they deem to be “adult” material. Of course they are being hypocritical because there is a multitude of “adult” literature out there that is still being ranked – Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, come on! They are using categories THEY set up (gay and lesbian) to now target these books as somehow offensive.

Now in fairness I should point out that Amazon has also stopped ranking many books in the “erotica” categories as well which includes straight erotica. But that’s a whole other battle that I’ll leave to the erotica writers to take on.

Now I could probably convince the automatons at Amazon that The Filly is YA and therefore not “adult” in the least, and I could probably even convince them to reinstate my ranking. But if they are excluding books just on the basis of being “gay” then by all means exclude mine too because I don’t want them just to reinstate just the “nice” gay books, they need to reinstate all the gay books and if they are really going to try and exclude so-called “adult” material, then how come this has an Amazon ranking?

This morning, the official response:

“There was a glitch in our systems and it’s being fixed,” Amazon’s director of corporate communications, Patty Smith, said in an e-mail Sunday.

As of Sunday night, books without rankings included Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” and Jeanette Winterson’s “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” The removals prompted furious remarks on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere online.

America and the Culture of Surveillance

After writing my post yesterday, I got to thinking about how unremarkable the idea at the heart of Gossip Girl really is these days. Why we aren’t shocked or surprised by the concept, why we say it couldn’t happen (or even why it shouldn’t happen), or more importantly, why we don’t look away.

We live in a world where we are routinely privy to the private and intimate conversations of those around us, particularly the cyborgs roaming the grocery stores and airports with their unnerving Bluetooth earpieces. We are encouraged to join social networking websites and share detailed and organized information about ourselves, our relationships, our friends, our jobs. We build websites that promote our writing, as we must, but they reveal who we are in ways that are accessible by everyone with an internet connection 24 hours a day.

We are a paparazzi culture where knowing a celebrity’s underwear size and preference seems like data we can justify pursuing. We know the sex lives of our presidents now. We can’t always prove it, but we’re pretty sure who’s gay, who’s stealing scarves from Sak’s and exactly how Angelina wrestled Brad away from Jen. More than that, we know what Angelina was thinking and feeling when she did it.

Although I engage and participate in the boundaryless culture, I don’t necessarily support it. I am a private person at heart–although you read this blog, consider how much you know of my aspirations, my dreams, my fears–even my boyfriend–as opposed to what TV shows I watch and which political movements I support. Because I know you’re watching me. And listening. And don’t ever think for a moment that you’re surveilling my thoughts. I’m handing them to you, carefully selected, pre-approved.

Great Moments in the Traditional American Family.

Between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Wednesday, three fathers walked into two hospitals in Omaha and abandoned their children. One left nine siblings, ages 1 to 17.

The men, unless proven to have abused the kids, won’t face prosecution under a new Nebraska law that is unique in the nation. The law allows parents to leave a child at a licensed hospital without explaining why.

Other parents have also used the law to leave their children. Last week, a 13-year-old girl was left. The week before that, two boys ages 11 and 15. In all, fathers, mothers and caregivers in six families — some single parents — have bailed on 14 kids, including seven teens, since the law took effect in July.

“They were tired of their parenting role,” says Todd Landry of Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services. He says child behavioral problems, not family financial woes, were a factor in the earlier cases. He says little is known about the three new cases, which are under investigation.

None of the kids was in immediate danger, Landry says. He says the four oldest of the nine siblings were placed together in an emergency shelter and the others in a foster home. “They’re struggling to varying degrees with what’s happened to them.”

Landry says the courts will decide whether to require the parents to pay child support or to try to reunite them with their children.

“This was never the intent of the bill,” says Republican state Sen. Arnie Stuthman. He says he co-wrote it to protect newborns from abandonment, but to get enough support for passage, it was changed to cover all children.

“We really opened a can of worms,” he says. “We have a mess.” He says the law needs to be fixed.

All 50 states have “safe haven” laws, but the others apply only to infants less than 1 year old.

The Nebraska law is the “worst-case scenario of unintended consequences,” says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research group. He says it allows parents to walk out on troublesome teens.

“We don’t endorse the way it was done,” says Tracey Johnson of the National Safe Haven Alliance.

Gays Propose 3-Strike Marriage Amendment

LOS ANGELES—The passage of Prop 8 in California has given rise to an anti-marriage backlash among gays and lesbians in the state and across the country. On Saturday, prominent gay activist group ACTOUT! held a press conference outside that city’s courthouse to declare war on the institution of “traditional” marriage.

“If tradition is what they want,” spokesperson Marla Thomas said to the crowd of about 1500 protesters, “than tradition is what they’ll get.” Thomas said ACTOUT! had just filed a petition with the state to push a new constitutional amendment for California’s constitution in partnership with the recently passed Prop 8. “It’s time for us to stop letting heterosexuals besmirch the instituion of marriage,” Thomas explained. “It’s time we took decisive action to preserve the institution before it devolves to the point that heterosexuals will marry their sheep, underage children—wait, haven’t they been doing that in Utah and Arizona?—inanimate objects, and jewelry.”

ACTOUT!’s amendment uses Prop 8’s own source of justification as support. Thomas cited several Biblical passages that instruct heterosexuals in the ways of traditional Judeo-Christian marriage:

Matthew 5:31, “You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a letter of divorce.’ 32 But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:4 No human being must separate, then, what God has joined together.

“These are just a few of God’s perspectives on traditional marriage,” Thomas told the reporters. In fact, the Old Testament clearly states God’s position on divorce:

Malachi 2:16 “I hate divorce!” says the LORD, the God of Israel. “It is as cruel as putting on a victim’s bloodstained coat,” says the LORD Almighty. “So guard yourself; always remain loyal to your wife.”

It’s for that reason we’ve proposed limiting the amount of anger heterosexuals can impose on God by imposing a 3-strike rule on marriage. We’ll allow that 50% of marriages end in divorce and that nearly 70% percent of second marriages end in divorce too. This proposes the most immediate threat to the American family. If a heterosexual engages in divorce a third time, their special rights to marriage will be eliminated by the state and, by extension, God.

Additionally, Thomas says her amendment includes compulsory marriages for all able-bodied, healthy, adult heterosexuals per this Biblical edict:

1 Corinthians 7:2 But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.

Thomas says the state will have to create a special agency that will assign each heterosexual man and woman an opposite sex parter upon their 18th birthday. And, per the earlier statement, each marriage really should last–or they’ve burned through their first of three marriages.

Thomas also pointed to a curious passage that might imply the importance of gay marriage in 1 Corinthians:

7:8 Now I say to those who aren’t married and to widows – it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am.
7:9 But if they can’t control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It’s better to marry than to burn with lust.

Thomas plans to file a second amendment proposition based on this teaching from 1 Corinthians in support of gay marriage after she can ensure passage of the first proposition.

“It’s important that we, as a culture and community, act now to preserve traditional marriage. Heterosexuals have made a mockery of God’s teachings, have demonstrated again and again they are unable to commit to each other under God’s law, and frequently put America in danger of incurring God’s wrath. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure our national security from God’s wrath, since we probably can’t fire missiles at him. At least, not yet.”

War: What is it good for?

I always enjoy comparative arguments, so here’s a good one about what we could have done with all the money spent on the Iraq war.

You’ll notice “liberate foreign countries” is not included on the list. Must have been on oversight.

“He calculates $1 trillion could pave the entire U.S. interstate highway system with gold — 23.5-karat gold leaf. It could buy every person on the planet an iPod. It could give every high school student in the United States a free college education. It could pay off every American’s credit card. It could buy a Buick for every senior citizen still driving in the United States.”

Dear Starbucks, We Need to Talk

I think I might have to break up with you, Starbucks.

It’s been a difficult decision, but we’ve been having problems for a while. I know you’ve noticed. My coffees are made incorrectly, and your staff are indifferent and stressed out. Nobody’s happy the way they used to be. And it seems like there are fewer baristas behind the counter than when we first got together. Starbucks, are you downsizing? Are you turning out good workers and replacing them with ineffectual lame-os who don’t care if my coffee’s right?

Starbucks, your coffee is delicious—I grant you that. Your drip coffee’s quality is unparalleled, and you give me so many options to personalize my drink that no matter my mood, you promise to give me something I want. Lately, I’ve wanted a grande seven-pump sugar free vanilla soy iced coffee, and you give that to me—or at least, you try. But I’m tired of going home unsatisfied, Starbucks. I have my youth. I can’t waste my best days waiting for you to wake up and—it hurts me to even say it—smell yourself.

My last five visits—FIVE—have been substandard. I thought at first it was just a bad day, a busy morning, someone called in sick. At first, you fixed my coffee before I even knew it was wrong, and I only had to wait a minute more. I’m a patient person. I can do that. But then, when I was back East for a few days, your staff messed up my coffee twice in a row. The second time, I had to shout at someone to get him to do it right, and even then he argued that it already had soy in it when it was clearly still black!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a right-coast issue. I’m afraid it’s national. When I got back home, I kept having problems with you, Starbucks. It seemed like you weren’t listening anymore. Yesterday, I asked for sugar-free vanilla and you wrote classic—and then didn’t put either in the drink. Your barista was sullen, depressed. And today, my barista tried to swap out my order for a “iced latte nonfat soy,” which, dear Starbucks, does not exist! Of everyone I know, I thought you would understand.

I know you’re going through a difficult time, experiencing a rebranding and a global repositioning of your corporate strategy. But I’m here now, Starbucks, and I have needs. I need you to hear me. I need things to be the way they used to be, before, when we were happy, when my coffee was always made right and was delicious.

I’m sorry, Starbucks. I think we both knew this was coming.