Thursday, April 19, 2007


It's long been in fashion to believe that people are innately good, and that upbringing and environment are responsible for nasty personalities.

It has? Really?

That sentence jumped out at me from a New York Times op-ed about the Virginia Tech shootings by Barbara Oakley, a professor at Oakland University.

My response is: Maybe in the academy it's still in fashion to believe people are innately good, but I haven't heard that belief expressed seriously since I threw out my last pair of bell-bottoms.

Here's what people in the real world think: We think no one is 100% good. We think a lot of people are jerks, and some people are a lot worse than that -- they'll do real harm to others unless stopped. Many of us think environment played a big part in making the last group, or at least a large percentage of them, into the dangerous people they are. But we don't think of them as "innately good." Some of them could conceivably change, but some of them surely can't. And if they're doing harm to people and they can change, we think they damn well ought to.

Oakley says she had a student admirer who slept in a lab and sent her love notes festooned with cockroaches -- when he wasn't following her out to her car, or boasting about his large collection of weapons. When she went to the dean of students, she was told, she says, that nothing would be done because "students have rights, too."

Excuse me, but no -- Professor Oakley was being sexually harassed, by someone who had signs of possible mental illness (semi-homelessness, obsession with weapons), and anyone who thinks that kind of behavior ought to be tolerated is an idiot.

I live in a very liberal city and work in an industry that's culturally liberal -- yet I've seen two co-workers dismissed when their behavior started to seem threatening and psychotic. One began to utter and post anti-Semitic messages directed at colleagues; another concocted an impossible sexual-harassment fantasy that, she claimed, took place in her female septuagenarian boss's office during work hours, when, in fact, the (utterly innocent) goings-on were in full view of everyone who passed in the hallway. (This woman later wrote elaborate letters from the institution to which she'd been committed, some of which were first-person narratives of being beheaded at work. She was simply insane.)

Neither of these firings offended anyone's liberal sensibilities. No one argued that the essential goodness of humanity meant that the behavior of the two co-workers needed to be tolerated. We were just happy that the company got them the hell out. Yes, we hoped the truly crazy one was getting help and might improve someday. But nobody thought for a minute that it was our duty as loving, groovy people to put up with what they were doing.

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