This was first printed in the Globe & Mail, May 2008. Reproduced with kind permission. Incidentally, the title was their choice!
Edmond Burke said, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Sometimes evil comes hand in hand with virtue, animated by good intent. It is most worrisome then because we focus on the intentions, the valid cause, and miss the danger. Happens all the time. I heard a story recently and followed it up. Here’s the essence.
Students in a high school history class. Two of them, friends, are vying to be selected by the teacher to go to the board and write answers to a section-opening assignment. Teacher picks one, turns to board. Selected kid, call him Jim, exults flamboyantly. Unselected kid, Alex, mimes indignation, levels index finger, shoots his friend by dropping his thumb on said index finger. Jim sprawls in his chair, shot and laughing.
Sally, behind Alex, calls out, ‘Teacher, Alex shot Jim!’
Teacher turns and says, ‘If I’d seen that I’d have to send you to the office for suspension.’
That’s the story. Now, I want to be fair. Teacher did not actually do anything. No punishment was imposed, I am told. There is no grim ending here. This is about friends joking, someone offended and informing, and a verbal response by a teacher in a history class.
Of course, it is about a lot more. It is about our culture as it evolves.
I tracked down an administrator at the school and wrote him. He was good enough (and generous enough with his time) to reply, and then engage in a back and forth. I want to make clear this is a thoughtful and intelligent man – and I am told the teacher is, as well.
That’s actually the heart of the problem, seems to me.
The administrator wrote, ‘I find it all ridiculous and silly,’ but added, ‘All it takes is one person without a sense of humour, or a grievance, and students and schools can be in immediate trouble. Students need to remember to be very careful of joking, ever, anywhere … on topics of sex or violence.’
A clarification followed as to the possible trouble. ‘Folks in our position are justifiably nervous since a failure to quash such behaviour can be found to be criminal culpability if anything later should come of it.’
This can paralyze a school. An office. A government. He wrote, compellingly, “The cyclone of fallout is all too real.”
All it takes is one person. Hence, zero allowance for common sense, complexities of interaction, human give and take. I was informed, ‘Teens need to learn that some topics are best not treated as a joke, since those without humour have the power to make one’s life miserable.’
I thought about it. I’m still thinking about it. Can even see the point. But surely what we really need to say, and teach, is something different: teens need to learn that this is the world they are at risk of growing up in, if we don’t resist it.
If we construct a school, workplace, any public environment where the single offended person, whether lacking in common sense, fierce with an agenda, or just wide-eyed with awareness of their power to cause things to happen to others, is given so much license to control us, we are more than merely impoverished, we are held hostage.
If decent and well-meaning teachers and school administrators are forced to say that yes, this is a fight that should be fought but they cannot fight it, it is too time-consuming, too fraught with risk and complexity, who will do the fighting for those growing up? Who will teach teenagers that they are wrong to feel they have a right or even a duty to act like Stasi informers?
Are most of us content merely to shake our heads (off camera, out of sight) with rue at these stories?
Violence in some schools is a brutal reality of today. It chokes off lives, makes learning precarious, introduces terror where it should never be. We want to – have to – address it. That is the ‘good intent’ I cited at the outset. But when our pursuit of a virtuous cause leaves common sense gasping for oxygen and schools petrified by the idea of lawsuits for ‘condoning’ humour, a different evil has entered the scene.
William Butler Yeats was not, as it happens, the shrewdest or most well-balanced thinker – poetic genius and logical thought don’t have to go together. But Yeats did nail an aspect of his world and ours (and echoed Burke) with brilliance when he wrote:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Lacking all conviction, we all run the risk, sooner or later, of being convicted.
© Guy Gavriel Kay