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by Barnabas
June 26, 2002

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Perversity_Barnabas- "She loved her job and she wouldn't do anything to threaten that job."
— The mother of the forestry worker accused of setting the blaze in Colorado. (AP, June 20)

We understand why the mother said what she did, and since we know nothing of the guilt of the accused, she may be right in this case. But if she is, she is right by accident; “she wouldn’t do that,” ignores what one philosopher called “the one irreducible surd of human existence.” I think he used the word “sin,” to name the irreducible surd, but I’ll forego the theological implications and call it “perversity.” The hard truth is that we don’t know what anybody would do. Our perception of any individual, even one dearly loved, doesn’t define the person. Most of us don’t leave the primary grades without an awareness of human perversity, including our own—perversity as “the disposition to oppose and contradict,” in the words of The American Heritage Dictionary.

Perversity may also be the act of the will, but we usually experience it as a disposition: not as what we have decided to do, but as what we are disposed to do. When we are perverse, we are disposed to work against our own best interests. Probably the most famous literary statement of it is Oscar Wilde’s conclusion of The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “Each man kills the thing he loves.”

Journalists, parents, and teachers hate the concept of perversity, because it robs them of their favorite question: “Why?” They may speculate forever as they invent answers for this question, in the precious conviction that human behavior is premeditated, thought through, and responsible. For them, “original sin” doesn’t cut it as an answer. It did for Sts. Augustine and Thomas, but not for Time Magazine, at the kitchen table, or in the seventh-grade classroom.

Furnish your own anecdote. I’m recalling an unruly seventh-grader taken to a side room and spanked, not quite hard enough to make him cry but hard enough to make him want to. Then the teacher asked the inevitable question of why the boy had behaved as he had. “I don’t know!” came the answer in an exasperated and frustrated whine that print cannot convey. Of course he didn’t know! He was thirteen and on a roll, getting a laugh out of his classmates. It wasn’t anything he could rationalize to a teacher or even to himself.

Between writing the first draft of the above paragraph and this final edit, I was reading Death is a Lonely Business, by Ray Bradbury, and came across this exchange between the narrator and the police detective.

“ ‘People don’t run around being sons-of-bitches for no reason.’

‘God,’ Crumley snorted gently, ‘You’re naïve. Half the cases we handle over at the station are guys gunning red lights to kill pedestrians, or beating up their wives, or shooting friends for reasons they can’t recall. The motives are there, sure, but buried so deep it would take nitro to blast them out.’”

Discipline, whether self-imposed (“I must stop acting this way”) or from outside (“Now you are going to get it”), may alter behavior and habits, but it doesn’t eradicate perversity from the human profile. That there are resources beyond behavior modification for personal change is not a debatable point for Barnabas, but it is a matter for faith to address, not for ethics as such.

To get back to the news: If the accused woman set the forest fire, contrary to her known character, it was even so an act that fit her human profile. And mine.

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