Helping Your Child Deal With Ordinary Evil

Keynote address: American School for the Deaf, 3/24/01 


When I was a child, I thought that evil was anything but ordinary.  There were the good guys and the bad guys; the good guys were here; and the bad guys were way out there.  My parents and a stuffed bear made sure it stayed that way. 

I’m not sure exactly when this childhood delusion got dispelled.  It could have been when Johnny taped a stink bomb to my bicycle seat, or when kids made fun of me for having red hair or when my brand new hoolla hoop was stolen.  It was probably at that time that I got a bigger stuffed bear for protection against the bad guys.  (My parents would have to stay).   

My memory about evil is more clear when I think of my own kids.  I’ll never forget when my then six year old daughter, after watching the evening news, asked me what rape meant.  I was ready for discussions about the importance of turn-taking, peer conflict resolution, anger management, and even sexuality.  (I had already purchased appropriate reading material with age-appropriate illustrations and narrative).  But I wasn’t ready to be asked about rape.  I was tempted to use the standard “Ask your mother” line and never turn on the news again, but I did as most of you have probably done, or will do: I responded with a version of “It’s when a bad person hurts another person,” and I probably lectured her again about not talking to strangers.  At least we could feel comfort that those bad strangers were out there, on the other side of the tracks.  The goal would be to keep them away. 

But then came a bigger challenge.  I’ll also never forget when it became apparent to Allison that her Science teacher almost always called on the boys in her class, but not the girls.  Alli complained that “Mrs. Smith thinks girls are stupid and that boys are better!”  “Why does she think that, daddy?” she asked. 

Rape had never happened in our neighborhood; and, if it did, it would have definitely made the news.  Not so with Mrs. Smith’s brand of prejudice and discrimination.  Although it felt big-time evil to Alli and to me, it wasn’t newsworthy.  It happened all the time.  That kind of evil was ordinary.     

A sign language interpreter told me another story about ordinary evil:   

“For years, all the unfairness that I’ve seen happen to deaf people never really bothered me, I mean, I never really thought a lot about it.  My job was to interpret the best that I could and that was that!  But one day, I was interpreting an IEP meeting in which two hearing parents were being given the run around by a school administrator and being made to feel incompetent to parent their deaf hearing child.  I couldn’t take it anymore so I went into the bathroom and bawled my eyes out.  I don’t know why it hit me when it did.  Objectively it was no big deal; I’ve seen this happen a million times before.  But I couldn’t function for a while – several days maybe.  For whatever reason, I suddenly fell apart.  That meltdown happened almost two years ago, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday.” 

I have a similar story.  Probably the most traumatic moments of my 20+ year career were when I was being cross-examined at a hearing.  It was an obvious case: I had evaluated an 18 year old deaf boy, whose primary language was ASL.  However, he found himself in a mainstream, hearing school with an interpreter who had taken only 2 sign language classes.  He was depressed and suicidal.  He wished to transfer to a school for deaf students, much like ASD.  An easy call. 

But his town didn’t want to spend the money and hired a lawyer.  I was called to the stand.   

For over three hours, the town’s lawyer harassed me.  I gave her every reason I could why this boy should be in an accessible environment.  Most of the reasons were quite obvious.  But it didn’t matter.  Her job was to save the town money; the fact that it made this deaf student dangerously suicidal was incidental.  Many times during those few hours, I remember looking at her and thinking what an asshole she was.  (I’m sorry for the vulgarity but it’s the only adjective that fits.  I didn’t have politically correct thoughts; and my assumption is, in similar situations, neither will you and neither will your children).  For the life of me, I could not nor cannot fathom how she could ethically justify what she was doing.   

I tried to reason with that lawyer who, from now on, I’ll refer to as nefarious. (According to my thesaurus, nefarious means the same thing as “asshole,” but it’s more appropriate for a keynote address; so whenever I use “nefarious,” you’ll know what I really mean).   

Anyway, as I was saying, I tried to reason with that nefarious lawyer.  But her position wasn’t due to ignorance or naiveté.  It wasn’t a case of a “naïve but well-meaning hearing person.”  She knew too well what she was doing and the effects it would have.  She simply didn’t care.  She was nefarious.  That occurrence of ordinary evil happened well over 15 years ago.  But like the interpreter, I, too, remember it as if it happened yesterday.   

Deaf people are quite familiar with ordinary evil, despite good laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act; they experience it as a staple of their lives.  And, at least vicariously, so do you as parents of deaf children and so do people like me as professionals in the field.  We all routinely bear witness to ordinary evil, or will do so in the not-too-distant future – in fact, so often that we may hardly notice its presence.    

You cannot protect your children from exposure to evil.  If I had turned off the news, my daughter would have undoubtedly heard about the rape from another source.  And – in addition to death and taxes – you can be sure that there will always be various forms of oppression in our world.  I remember an old Dennis the Menace cartoon.  Dennis wanted to protect his father from bad news so he cut out all the depressing articles from his dad’s newspaper.  I think all that was left was the food and recipe section.  His father – his name was Henry Mitchell, if my memory is correct – wasn’t pleased. 

But more importantly, even if you could avoid exposure to ordinary evil, there are times that you may not want to.  The effects of bearing witness to ordinary evil are potentially beneficial for your deaf children and for you -- if, and only if, you understand how it works and manage it correctly.  This brings me to the thesis of my talk. 

So let’s understand more about how ordinary evil works; when and how it happens.  A year or so ago, I sent out an email to about 30 people between the ages of 14 and 70 with the following request:   

"List maybe five or so examples of what may be called >ordinary evil= that particularly affect you.  This is defined as something that happens to you or that you witness that seems >evil= but that is not evil enough to make CNN." 

You may want to think of your own experiences.  From this sample of people, I got many detailed responses almost immediately.  They could be classified under personal experiences of Disrespect, Abuse of Power, Deceit and Prejudice.  Let me read you a few examples. 

Under Disrespect: 

One response was, "I think of ordinary evil as the selfish lack of common courtesy, such as when people walk into you and don't even bother to say they're sorry.” 

Another person wrote, "it’s the deliberate nastiness of one employee to another, like not giving a civil answer to a question; or instead of handing a document to the person, throwing it on the other person's desk without saying anything."  

Abuse of Power: 

One woman noted her work environment:  

"Ordinary evil is when women with education, credibility and sometimes rank, subtlety get shunted aside - left out of high level meetings.  The men who participate in the exclusion are stated committed feminists/humanists. If you were to sit down with them, they would consciously spout all the >correct= lines that lie left of center, but when they are called on their actions, they meet the assertions with shrugs and apologies." 


Another woman recounted finding out about her husband's extra-marital affair: 


A father of a learning disabled child wrote, "Ordinary evil is seeing adults teaching their children that others with differences are "weird" or less than human - discrimination training in action."  

As I mentioned before, ordinary evil happens much more to oppressed minorities, including to deaf people.  A quotation from Gallaudet University Professor Allen Sussman, who is himself Deaf:  

"It is a rare deaf person who has not as a child been ostracized, ridiculed, and denigrated by non‑disabled children.  Such memories are painfully poignant." 

Ben Bahan is also a professor at Gallaudet University, as the director of their Deaf Studies Program.  I have the mixed honor of being on his Internet joke list.  Any of you who have email are probably barraged with jokes.  On-line humor is the high tech way we have of connecting with each other.  I delete most of them, but this one peaked my attention.  It was entitled, “Kid pretends to be deaf.”  The joke goes like this: 

“A young hearing boy goes into the kitchen where his mother is baking. He puts his hands in the flour, mixes it with water to make it become dough and fills his ear with it.  He looks at his mother and says, "Look momma"... I'm a deaf boy." His mama slaps him hard on the face and says, "Boy, go show your daddy."    

“The boy goes into the living room and says, "Look Daddy, I'm a deaf boy." His daddy also slaps him on the face and says, "Boy, go show your grandma."   

“So the boy goes to see his grandma and says, "Look Granny, I'm a deaf boy. She slaps him on the face and sends him back to his mother.    

“His mother says, "Well, did you learn something from all of this?" The boy shakes his head and says, "I sure nuff did.   I've only been a deaf boy for a five minutes and I already hate you hearing people." 

No one’s laughing.  It could have been my delivery or the early morning hour; or that wasn’t meant to create hysterical laughter.  The significance of this so-called “joke” lies in pondering why it merited being circulated on the Web in the first place.  It obviously strikes a familiar nerve for deaf people.  It’s a way of publicly acknowledging their pain and rage in the face of hearing people.   

This cyberspace joke also exemplifies one of the pivotal ways of managing ordinary evil: talk about it, share it, process it, even joke about it. 

I’ll share with you one of my favorite pieces of wisdom:  "Pain has a size and shape, a beginning and an end.  It takes over only when not allowed its voice."  The more words we have for a painful experience, the more shape it has, the more it has a beginning and end.  The less words, the less space; the more it takes over.   

So my first, and probably primary, recommendation for how to help your child deal with ordinary evil is deceptively simple: talk about it; give it its voice.  I say deceptively simple because it’s easier said than done.  There’s nothing worse than seeing our children in pain.  It’s a natural tendency to increase the helpings of ice cream, rather than talk about what hurts both of you.  Vicarious pain is a strange thing.  My daughter was once stung by a bee.  I swear it hurt me more than her.  I’ll never forget it; but she has no idea of what I’m talking about. 

What I now want to do is review some common occurrences and effects of ordinary evil; suggest ways for you to teach your deaf children how to manage it; and then how to gain benefits. 


[My website research]


What interpreters have reported to me in my capacity as a clinical psychologist and from pilot research.  From 15 structured interviews of sign language interpreters in the Boston area (Harvey & Gunther, 1994) and a website interpreter survey ( which, at this writing, has yielded over 50 responses.  That survey begins with the following request: 

“If you’d be willing, would you think back to some interpreting situation in which you felt that a hearing person somehow oppressed a deaf consumer?  It can be significant oppression or not significant oppression; anything that kind of got under your skin as you observed the event.  Please describe that interpreting situation and give as many details as possible.” 

A.  From a female interpreter, age 52, somewhere in Eastern US.  She writes,

”As you can see from my over 21 age, I have had time to have many experiences w/ oppression but none stand out or can bring tears to my eyes as quickly as the following situation. A deaf teenage boy, who I’ll call Stan, who had previously spent many years at a residential school, decided to come back to his home town.  I was asked to be his interpreter for all his practices and games.  The understanding was "HE WOULD NOT BE TREATED ANY DIFFERENTLY THAN ANY OF THE OTHER PLAYERS."  Accordingly, Stan and I worked very hard every day to keep up with the rest of the team.  From the get-go, however, the coach seemed to resent him and the extra accommodations that he required. 

“Throughout the 3 years on this team the coach made perfunctory efforts to improve his technique, but always in a half-assed way.  Many times, Stan wasn’t put in the game till the 2/nd half.  But he held on to his life-time goal: to play in the state championship playoffs.  And we finally made it to that big game!   

“The day arrived, and the coach decided to play everyone including the 3/rd string.  But he hadn’t yet asked Stan.  Stan kept asking me “When?  When?”  I was certain that the coach would put him in by the third quarter; and, as time went on, well maybe in the fourth.  NO, he wasn’t even put in at the end when it was a certainty that our team had NO CHANCE of winning.  It would have been no loss what-so-ever to the coach or to the team to let Stan fulfill his dream of playing in that game!   

“Stan wasn’t able to control his devastation and verbally confronted the coach, but the coach felt no need to explain his motives!  Then Stan became physical with him; and the coach responded with the look of murder in his eyes.  Then we were left alone, as Stan collapsed into a sobbing, destroyed now EX team player (he was kicked out - a moot point, as it was their last game).  The ride home was a painful one.   

“I had known that the coach harbored ill feelings, for he had the reputation of being unkind.  Everyone had been afraid to confront him.  But I was so outraged that I went to the superintendent to file a formal complaint. HA! I found out there really is something called the "good old buddy" system.  Again, no one wanted to ruffle his feathers. It was a lost cause.

”Long afterwards when both Stan and I were able to talk about this without crying, he wanted to understand so badly the WHY of it all. I tried to tell him that it’s not always possible to know why people do cruel things.”  

One question on the form asked how she had felt during the situation.  The interpreter replied,

”If I didn't have the control I had, I think I would have killed that coach.  Now for you to understand just how grave that statement is, you need to know that I sometimes get teased for seeing something good in every situation.  In high school, I was labeled as 'The peacemaker’.

”What bothers me most is that I still harbor such awful feelings for this man. I have met him since at various school functions, and I always maintain composure in these professional situations.  However, give me a dark ally some night and the story might end differently.”

My last question on the form has to do with recommendations on how interpreters should handle the experience of bearing witness to ordinary evil.  This recommendation has relevance to you and to your children: 

“Be prepared for the world not always being nice.  Know that you can't fix it all, perhaps just a small part. You must be psychologically and emotionally very strong. For that to happen, there must be a support system out there; there must be someone nearby who can listen to you, see both sides of the issue and then give advice. To this day I wish I had found that help.”

B.  Another story – one that should be quite familiar to many of you:  

A special education director who doesn’t care about the needs of your deaf child, only about saving money; a sped director who tries to dump your child in a mainstream program with an interpreter who has only taken a few signing courses, if that; a sped director who doesn’t care about funding other necessary services; a sped director who just doesn’t seem to care.  If I had a nickel for all the stories like this I hear, I would rent the Concorde and take all of you to lunch in Paris.   

Let me divert for a minute to make very clear, first what I am NOT saying.  I am certainly NOT stereotyping sped directors – there are many who are worth their weight in gold.  Also, I am NOT saying that anyone who denies your child necessary services is evil.  Most people are, in fact, not knowledgeable about the unique needs of deaf children and need to be educated.  If some guy is stepping on your foot, the first thing to do is inform him; perhaps with something like “Excuse me sir, but do you know that the weight of your body is causing me excruciating pain?”  Hopefully, his response is “Oh, I’m terribly sorry!” accompanied by rapid removal of his foot.  Sometimes information and reason yield success. 

So your first approach to what may seem like oppression should be to explain the needs of your deaf child.  Have your child evaluated and get well-informed recommendations.  Educate others about your child’s needs!  But what do you do if the sped director obviously understands the educational needs of your child but doesn’t care?  What do you do when that person acts nefarious by refusing to remove his foot?  What do you do in the face of ordinary evil? 


It’s a common delusion that you can reason with evil people.  W.E.B. DuBois was a Black activist in the early 1900’s.  He dedicated his life holding on to the belief that if he could only explain to white people that there is no reason to be discriminatory of prejudicial.  Rationality will prevail!  But he died as a broken man in a self-imposed exile, realizing his fallacious assumption much too late.  With ordinary evil, you do not reason.  You take a deep breath, take inventory of your feelings, control them with your head, and advocate!    

And this leads to my final comments: some benefits of properly managing ordinary evil.   

In reaction to ordinary evil, you and/or your deaf child will feel a host of feelings, particularly anger and rage.  The difference between anger and rage is like the difference between snow flurries and that storm we had a couple of weeks ago.  Learning how to manage this internal storm is an opportunity to practice an essential task of growing up, particularly if you’re part of any oppressed minority: namely, how to manage your feelings, including rage, in the face of ordinary evil.  How to advocate for what you deserve.  Anger management is something we can talk about, perhaps during our discussion, but it can come out of our exposure to ordinary evil.  It’s important stuff! 

Because if these feelings are not managed correctly, then aggression happens.  The headlines in Time magazine last week, in reference to the Santana High School shooting, was “Warning: Andy Williams Here.  Unhappy Kid.  Tired of Being Picked on.  Ready to blow.  Wants to kill some people.”  Apparently, a new phrase is to “pull a Columbine.” 

So again, we shouldn’t kid ourselves and think that ordinary evil won’t happen to our kids or, for that matter, to us.  We must talk about it.  Nietzsche was right when he said that “Silence is poison.”  To give a painful experience words is to de-toxify it; contain it; to give it a size and shape.   

Not only should we talk openly about ordinary evil when it happens, but also predict its occurrence.  [discuss premarital counseling].  Called “anticipatory coping.”     

There are other important advantages and benefits to coming to terms with ordinary evil.   

1.  It is vital to our self-esteem.  Let me explain. 

It is much easier to put all evil people “over there” and cast them as the Evil Others: those no-goodnicks who, unlike us, should be banished from this earth.  Even the bible is filled with such images: Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah’s Arc, etc.  It’s a tempting option and indeed works quite well for our self-esteem in the short-term.  I’m good; they’re bad.  I’m okay; you’re not okay.  

Problem is in the long-term.  For inasmuch as we righteously criticize others for their foibles, it’s only a matter of time before we commit the same or similar crimes.   

One interpreter wrote about her experiences working in an Equal Opportunity Office where, as irony would have it, the ethics officer discriminated against a deaf adult.  The interpreter wrote,  

“To this day, when I think about her, I realize that I haven’t forgiven her for her actions.  However, I know that I must forgive her if I want the Lord to forgive me for the wrongs I have done, knowingly and unknowingly.  I’m still working my way through that.  As I type this, I feel the old anger and frustration welling up inside of me.” 

We’re all works in progress, which is to say we all have some evil in us, admittedly some of us more than others.  So coming to terms with the ordinary evil in others is to accept the different parts of ourselves more; to always try to do better, and advocate for our rights, but hold on to our self-esteem in the process. 

2.  Bearing witness to ordinary evil also helps one’s moral development.  It increases empathy, tolerance and respect. 

One of my great idols is Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and author of well over 38 books.  At Auschwitz, he witnessed his father being murdered by the Nazis – an evil far from ordinary.  And since then, he has dedicated his life to making the world a better place; to performing what, in Hebrew, is written as Tikkun Olum, which means "to fix or repair the world."  There are numerous stories of persons who have used their experiences of witnessing evil in order to give their lives a sense of purpose or meaning, to perform Tikkun Olum. 

One interpreter had an experience with an insensitive doctor.  He was treating a deaf woman with a complicated pregnancy but refused to approve an interpreter for daily communication with her deaf fiancée and other attending physicians.  The interpreter reported feeling “surprised, distressed, aggravated and upset for the patient” and wrote about how that experience affected her career: 

“Situations such as this bring to rise in me a desire to understand more my reasons for accepting or ignoring the oppressive or negative attitudes of others.  I again realize that expressing my ethical and moral beliefs must always be my first “career”; it touches the very heart of individuals, and truly helps create serious change at the most basic level.”   

Even with the non-ordinary evil tragedy at Columbine HS and most recently, at Santana HS, there were some potential benefits.   

At a memorial service after the Columbine High School shooting, a boy named Joel reflected on what lead up to the killing.  As he mourned the loss of his friend, strangers put their arms around him and comforted him. It touched Joel, who says it helped him realize he shouldn’t judge people until he knows them.  He said,  

“Sometimes I would give them a nasty glance because they were dorky or listened to Marilyn Manson, but now I’m not going to do that any more.  Hopefully I can get to know people and give them a chance rather than just shove them aside because of the way they dress.”   

A Santana HS student reflected that  

“the incident and the aftermath have even changed the way I view complete strangers.  I look in people’s faces, and I realize how important they are, even if I don’t know them.  I realize they have a life. People that I don’t know, I feel love for. I feel for everyone.” 

To say the obvious: We shouldn’t rejoice because evil happens – “Congratulations, now you have an opportunity!”  But it’s going to happen anyway, like it or not; even more laws and the biggest stuffed bear cannot protect us.  Therefore, our task is to anticipate it and plan for it. 

3.  Another potential benefit of bearing witness to ordinary evil is that it can promote our self-confidence and autonomy.  It goes something like this. 

Maybe you can remember when you were a young child, saying to mommy, “Make it go away!  Make it all better!”  The “it” may have been a disgusting bug, a scary movie, a shadow in the bedroom, etc.  And it worked!  She did make it all go away!  It was like magic, because Mommy was so strong back then.  

What will your child think and feel when you cannot make “it” go away?  While he or she, on a rational level, knows that you’re not responsible for oppression and discrimination of deaf people, human beings are not always rational – certainly not adolescents (I know that well, believe me!).  I told you at the beginning of my talk that when my brand new hoolla hoop was stolen, I got a bigger stuffed bear for protection.  I was angry; I was grieving.  I didn’t say I got bigger or better parents.  I said I was stuck with them. 

There is a grieving process that all kids go through, once they realize that you cannot do magic; that you cannot make all pain go away, nor make all bad people go away.  As part of that grieving process, you may find that your deaf child has an “attitude” with you; that he or she acts like it’s your fault for the discrimination, oppression, ridicule, etc. in the hearing world.  Your child may feel betrayed by you.  And you, too, may find yourselves feeling responsible for such ordinary evil.  Don’t. 

This is the good and bad news.  The bad news I just described; it’s rough water.  The good news is that the process of you and your child figuring out what to do about ordinary evil – given that you cannot magically make it go away – sets the stage for your child to become an autonomous adult.    

By talking about ordinary evil with your child, in a sense, you’re helping your child get a better stuffed bear – not an external one that I’ve been describing, but an internal stuffed bear; one that your child will carry around inside him or her; one that no one else can see; one that has your voice; one that your child will use when he or she is faced with any adversity.   

I’m reminded of my daughter's once favorite television show, Pippi Longstocking.  It was about a young red-headed girl whose father had left many years ago to go off to sea.  In times of need, Pippi would stand by the ocean talking to "The Captain."  He would talk to Pippi through the waves; and no matter how badly she had been feeling, she would end up knowing that she was okay, that she was a good and lovable person.  The Captain was her internalized stuffed bear. 

I once saw a deaf man in therapy who was learning to use the memories of his high school teacher as a comforting, inner voice for when he was confronted by oppression.  I asked him to imagine Mrs. Thomas sitting across from him in my office and to thank her.  At first, he squirmed in his seat, obviously thinking this was either silly or perhaps deeply personal.  But after only a little encouragement, he began: 

"Mrs. Thomas, I know I have never told you this.  I guess as a kid, I was too shy and didn't know the right words.  Maybe I thought the other kids would overhear and laugh at me."  He paused, obviously struggling to find the right words.   

"The other kids aren't here; and I won't tell them," I said.  

Looking straight at the chair, he then said: 

"I want to thank you for believing in me, for noticing me, for showing me that I deserved your attention and that other kids saying I had broken ears didn't mean I was a broken person.  I never thanked you for how many times you sat with me after those hearing kids teased me so much.  You have no idea how important what you did was. I can still hear you saying to me, 'You can rise above it, you can rise above it.'  You would put your hand on my shoulder; and it made me feel that I was okay."  

Because of Mrs. Thomas’s support, he, like your children, could learn to feel fully human – non-broken – even when others tried to dehumanize him.  

I will close with a success story.  The so-called “Deaf President Now” Gallaudet Revolution is perhaps the most well-known example of successful advocacy of Deaf rights.  It was about 13 years ago when the University's Board of Trustees announced that a hearing person had been selected as Gallaudet's seventh president, despite all the evidence and support for a Deaf president.  The rights of deaf people received long overdue national attention.  As Jesse Jackson put it, "The problem is not that the students do not hear. The problem is that the hearing world has not listened."  

Many of you may remember the Nightline telecast where a Gallaudet student stated the case before millions of viewers.  In a subsequent interview, he admitted to feeling very nervous and anxious until the broadcast began.  “But once it did,” the student said, “I felt at ease and comfortable because I allowed the truth to take over the entire time. With the truth of our compassion, nothing comes easier than expressing it.”  A wonderful lesson!  

There is much opportunity, as well as danger, in the face of ordinary evil.  The positive ripple effects of the Gallaudet success continue to be felt throughout the world.  But the opportunity need not depend on short-term success.  While it’s certainly preferable to make the bully stop bullying, get better services, eliminate discrimination and oppression - that’s not the only goal.  Sometimes advocacy won’t yield change; but it’s a very valuable ritual to teach our children nonetheless.  Again I will quote Elie Wiesel: "In the beginning, I thought I could change man.  Today I know I cannot.  If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me." 

Thank you.