Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dissatisfaction with Evil

I may have mentioned that I am taking a class called Evil. Certainly, over the summer I bragged about it frequently out of excitement. Consequently, I went into the class with expectations that were far too high, and it really isn't the professor's fault that I am dissatisfied with how things are going. All the same, the class is indeed suboptimal, and following the spirit of modernity, I am compelled to think of ways to change it, to improve it. How would I want to approach the topic of evil?

I am not so arrogant as to think that I have a better grasp of the literature on evil than the professor, so I probably wouldn't change the reading list significantly. The main changes would be structural; as any junior in AP English Language could tell you, juxtaposition matters. The flow of ideas would be different, and, I think, more relevant. (Which, to me, implies "more interesting.")

Certainly I would not choose a theological, theoretical point of view as my first line of approach (one of our first readings was Augustine). No, I am concerned with evil as a real phenomenon, as a practical consideration. In class, we've taken for granted that the two ur-examples of evil from history are slavery and genocide (if you're going to call anyone evil, Hitler is it). So I'd start there and ask: what makes these actions evil? Why do we think so? Was there ever a time in which these actions would not be considered evil--and at those times, were they still evil even if no one thought so?

That would lead into an archaeological approach to evil: where do we get these ideas of evil from? Then I'd bring in Nietzsche, as the professor did, but one cannot really take Nietzsche at face value, so I'd pair him with actual historical accounts.

My main problem with the class is that everything is too abstract; thus, in my revised version, I'd always keep an eye on the practical questions. We've only just gotten to the section on modern evil, which I find most interesting because it's most applicable. In what ways are we evil today? We stand complacent while horrors go on all around the world, because they don't affect us. (One of my favorite readings: the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin.) We are complicit.

Under what circumstances could ordinary people be evil? That's an important question, and different answers have different implications for social institutions and laws. I'd keep the readings on Zimbardo's and Milgram's experiments, along with the critical look at what they actually say. Is evil situational, institutional, or inherent? This is where Freud and his Eros v. Thanatos theories would come in.

I also would definitely spend more than one day taking apart the arguments in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she talks about the "banality of evil." As was explained to me in section, this doesn't mean that she says that evil is normal, but rather that evil doesn't have to be diabolical or grandiose. Someone can be evil without being a Satanic figure.

Where would I put the literature? Paradise Lost and "Genesis" and Augustine all have interesting ideas, and certainly our modern notions of evil draw heavily from Christian tradition. This should probably go with the archaeology of evil section.

What about Faust? I may mark myself as uncultured for saying this, but I didn't find Mephistopheles terribly compelling. Interesting, certainly, and his description of himself as a spirit of negation ties in nicely with a lot of other readings. I would not remove Faust from the reading. Nor would I give it fewer than two days of discussion. But I'd ask different questions, which I think would fold in more potential avenues of thought. Instead of "is Faust evil?" I'd ask "where is the evil here?"

Someone in my discussion section said that the townspeople, with their judgmental attitudes and restrictive laws, were the real evil in the story. I'm not ready to let Dr. Faust off the hook, but there's definitely merit to that idea. It would also pair well with Shirley Jackson's classic story "The Lottery."

The class also screens movies after-hours once a week. The ones I've seen, "Winter's Bone" and "Fargo," are in realistic settings and have a certain degree of verisimilitude. As it should be. I love my fantasy, but with something like evil it's probably more useful to stick closer to the facts. (And I get that the two movies I named are fictional, but they are closer to real than your typical slasher flick.)

Were I to add anything, I'd probably throw in mention of Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, and Lord of the Flies. All three are fairly standard high school required reading texts, which might make them valuable as jumping-off point for various discussions (on complicity/anonymity, on the difficulties of diabolical evil, on human nature).

To recap: if I was in charge of a class about evil, I'd keep a practical focus and ask what it is, where it exists or could exist today, how we deal with it, and where it comes from. I also think that it's always valuable to ask "is it useful?" I'm not sure where in the class such a question would come. At the end, we'd all be better informed and have a more nuanced idea of what evil is; on the other hand, maybe it's a question we should ask constantly.


Some meta thoughts:

Yes, I just wrote a sketch of a lesson plan. I get a sinking feeling sometimes that I'll be tempted to go into education--mostly because I got into the habit of criticizing the educational system during my twelve years of public school and I can't stop even now that I'm here. But I know that I would make a downright awful classroom teacher, so for my own and others' sakes, I will not become a teacher.

It's easy to sleepwalk through the weeks. I wrote a post about bringing it, but I've started to see signs of slacking off, of not giving it my all. It's easy to get complacent. That was more okay in high school that it is now--now, it's a sign of a personal weakness. And you know what must happen to personal weaknesses? I must do my level best to eliminate them.

A system I plan to implement: write down what you expect to get out of each class you take, and periodically check in to see if you're getting that. If you aren't, then what are you getting? And if expectations > reality, what can you do to shift that balance?

My IntroSem teacher took us to task today for not doing all the readings, and it was a bit of a wake-up slap. Don't feel like you have anything valuable to contribute? Fear speaking up because you don't want to look like an idiot? Get informed, damn it. This isn't high school. You can't assume that you're in the upper ranks of a class anymore. And you know how to fix this, don't you? You would not be at this university if you were afraid to work hard.

(All advice is autobiographical.)

What did I want out of Evil? I don't remember anymore what I expected. I think I wanted to change my worldview. I probably wanted a tool to optimize myself, since the message I get most consistently on campus is "you could do better." I want to understand evil more...but what aspect? The world said "never again" after the Holocaust, and then genocide after genocide occurred in other parts of the world and we did nothing. I think what I want to understand is how to eradicate such evils. Where does evil come from? Not in a theoretical "the Devil made me do it" way, but in a "we dehumanize others to improve group cohesion AND the international community has an awful track record on stopping mass murder AND political instability..." way.

This is a lot to ask of a class. No wonder I've been dissatisfied.

More meta: I am not sure how long I've had this "everything must be useful" sort of mindset. I wasn't born with it--I wanted to major in English when I was seven, for example--and I am not violently against doing something for its own sake, learning knowledge for the sake of knowing it instead of for applying it. But "useful" for me is correlated to "interesting," and if I'm going to read a philosophical text I want it to contain ideas I can test against my own experiences and use to change my behavior or thinking. What is the point, otherwise?

I'm not asking that rhetorically. But this post is getting rather long already, and I think I should take up this discussion at another time. On Friday, look for a Halloween-related (probably not -themed) game.

1 comment:

  1. Faust is one of my favorites, but I certainly haven't put myself to the task of analyzing at the level of a college, letter grade class.