On the Importance of Crushing Deviancy:
Humanity's War Against the Frootbats and Their Defenders

Back in hippie days, I went to a school that would seem incredibly wild and wooly by today's standards -- heck, students and teachers used to go skinny-dipping together at a local quarry, an act that would probably have everyone up on felony charges in our enlightened 21st century.

Now and then, it being a free and easy place, we'd have folks stop by who were a Real Drag -- they stole, or they talked crazy stuff, or they just generally creeped everyone out with weird and annoying behavior. It being 1970, we were not yet infected with the spirit of perverse tolerance that somehow pervaded the Left in later years. We discouraged such folks from hanging around, and in one case (involving theft), we threatened to beat the pee-waddly shit out of a guy if he ever showed up again. Which he never did.

As a result of our "intolerance," our school was a wonderful place to hang out, enjoy each other's company and learn.

The lesson I took away from this experience was that if you want to run a nice bar, you have to be willing to occasionally throw rowdy drunks out on to the sidewalk.

Like most evil trends in modern thought, the spirit of perverse tolerance can probably be traced to French intellectuals. The cult of the anti-hero oozed out of the writings of Camus and others after the Second World War and took root in the Beat culture of the 50s. The Beats, to their eternal credit, did not take it too far. Influenced by Whitman more than the existentialists, they advocated eccentricity, anti-materialism and a refusal to conform to oppressive social norms. In the best of their work, they celebrate (to quote Jerry Lee Lewis quoting the Bible) the place where the soul of man never dies.

But when the cult of the anti-hero entered hard left culture of the late 60s, things went sour. Suddenly we weren't celebrating eccentrics, but criminals and dangerous psychopaths. This philosophy, mercilessly portrayed in Tom Wolfe's 1970 essay "Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers," held that deviants were true cultural saints -- the more deviant the better, especially if they could be said to belong to some underprivileged or oppressed group. Rapists like Eldridge Cleaver and street thugs like Huey Newton became talk-show celebrities.

The trend reached its zenith (and in some ways flamed out) in Norman Mailer's advocacy of prison writer Jack Henry Abbott. Mailer, whom I greatly admire and also regard as a hopeless crank, was one of the first American thinkers to take the cult of the anti-hero to its logical (or illogical) extreme in such 1950s writings as the essay "The White Negro."

What got lost in the shuffle somewhere between the Beats and Mailer was the distinction between passionate eccentrics and people who oppress others with their craziness and violence. Mailer and others arranged for Abbott's release from prison in 1981. His book, "In the Belly of the Beast" was published to great acclaim. Only a few weeks after his release, Abbott stabbed a waiter to death in a Manhattan restaurant.

That was pretty much the death of the cult of the deviant in high culture circles. It was clear to anyone who was paying attention, that sometimes a nut is just a nut.

Ah, but all was not done for the cult of the deviant, for while it died out in high culture, it found a new life in middlebrow culture, especially in the field of education. When I attended ed school in the early 1990s, a succession of professors who had been teaching nice Harvard kids their whole lives tried to convince us that "no student should be left behind," and that the greatest and holiest challenge of educators was to reach the crazy, the tuned out, and the terminally disaffected.

Fortunately, I was old enough at this point to recognize a crock when I heard it. I was one of relatively few people from my class at ed school who actually *did* end up teaching the poor and disaffected, and discovered (not to my surprise) that the key to success with the many was ruthlessly crushing the few. In the population I taught, roughly 20% of the kids were going to be ok no matter what you did. Another 60% were perfectly capable of learning if you were a competent teacher. About 15% were probably not going to learn anything no matter what you did but weren't going to bother anyone -- they had given up, were working full time selling drugs, had serious psychiatric illnesses or were otherwise engaged. About 4% were hostile and disruptive, but could be brought into line -- you couldn't make them learn anything if they didn't want to, but you could deal with them to the point where their behavior would not be a problem.

This left 1% who were just batshit crazy or evil, depending on your attitude about life. You couldn't negotiate with them, you couldn't intimidate them, you couldn't do anything. They were nuts and were going to stay nuts, and they were going to be a constant annoyance — and maybe even a physical danger — to everyone else around them.

According to what I learned in ed school, the bottom 20% of my students -- the do-nothings, the semi-crazy, and the crazy, were my most important students. And I saw many young teachers make the mistake of pouring the majority of their finite energy into this population.

To me, it was obvious that this was a perverse waste of time. Four students out of five were in some sense educable, and you were supposed to ignore their needs to strike up a sob-sister crusade to salvage the hopeless and the hostile? Not in Mr. McDonough's classroom.

My solution, based on the idea that life is triage was as follows:

  1. Give what extra help I could to the undamaged 20% at the top end.
  2. Devote the lion's share of my energy to the 60% who would only succeed if exposed to effective teaching.
  3. Let the 15% who were tuned out but not disruptive know that if they ever chose to learn, I would be happy to teach them, but the choice was theirs.
  4. Work to control the controllable 4% of hostile but not thoroughly insane students.
  5. Work to get rid of the 1% who were completely nuts.

This worked out very well. To deal with the  one percenters,  I struck up an arrangement with our tough Italian Vice Principal Mr. Carnabucci -- completely irregular, but he died a few years ago, so I guess it can be told. The deal was this -- I would take any student Mr. Carnabucci gave me, no questions asked and in return, he would get rid of any student I wanted to get rid of. No questions asked, no paperwork filled out, no due process, no nothing. I would just tell them to go to Mr. Carnabucci's office and they would never be seen in my classroom again. For all I know, he shot them and buried them under the parking lot.

Mr. Carnabucci gave me his most difficult students because I was willing to take anybody -- kids just out of jail, kids who had been expelled from numerous schools, etc. Over the years, about half of these students worked out in my classroom and about half wandered off, failed or flunked out. Not a bad deal for them. And in return, the 99% of kids in my class who were either willing to learn or willing to sit down and shut up got to have a decent classroom environment. And Mr. McDonough got not to lose his mind dealing with the 1%. And a lot of kids learned a lot of stuff, which after all was the entire purpose of the enterprise.

None of which would have happened without my deal with Mr. Carnabucci.

Just as in ed school, there were plenty of folks in my high school who were firm believers in perverse tolerance -- I was just fortunate enough not to work for them.

I've done a lot of thinking and observation over the years re: the cult of perverse tolerance and its practitioners.

The first thing I've noticed is that they are more likely to be female than male. Women, God bless 'em, are more likely to believe that there's some good in everyone and that "there's no such thing as a bad boy." Most men know better.

The second thing I noticed is that they tended to be a fairly privileged lot without a great deal of real life experience. I came from a comfortable middle-class home, but figuratively speaking ran away to join the circus halfway through college. For an introverted guy, I've met a reasonably wide range of people including -- now and then -- some who were not very nice. I guess you could say I know a dangerous loonie when I see one, because I've seen a fair number of 'em before.

My peers in education who were steeped in perverse tolerance mostly had not seen a lot of dangerous loonies -- and it's my firm convinction that the folks who taught me in ed school, including the nationally-recognized head of our program, would not have lasted a week in my classroom.

The final thing I've noticed is that believers in perverse tolerance are usually very well insulated from the consequences of deviance -- *they* aren't putting up with it personally, they're just asking other people to put up with it. And if, perchance, some whiff of the pain invades their lives, they respond with utter outrage and shock.

Because what it's really all about is:   "I want you to suffer pain so that I can feel like a better person."

It is this hypocrisy and self-centeredness that causes me to hate (and yes, I know hate is a strong word), the champions of perverse tolerance.

I don't hate the deviant and crazy 1% -- I think they should be ruthlessly crushed, but they can't help it. They should be ruthlessly crushed so the other 99% can get on with life. But those who bloat their own sense of self-importance and self-regard by feeding on this unfortunate circumstance should have their heads put on spikes on the city walls and their bodies should be devoured by hogs.

Maybe not in that order.

Last Updated July 11, 2007