This past week, as I’ve been processing the relentless news cycle, I’ve been thinking about two things: Toni Morrison’s disinterest in evil and the “ideological banality” of the commentary surrounding the debate performance of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. In just the last few weeks, we’ve learned that our “billionaire” president paid $750 in income taxes in 2017 (and none in many of the preceding years), hosted a superspreader event at the White House and is in flagrant violation of the Hatch Act. Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s ultra-conservative nominee to the Supreme Court one week after the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has begun hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee complete with COVID-19 exposed senators refusing to wear masks. COVID-19 cases are hitting new highs around the country and at this University. The West Coast is on fire, the governor of Texas is successfully suppressing voting and 13 domestic terrorists were plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
2020 has been one big, bad year: How are we coping? Some cope by creating distractions. Scrolling through Twitter after the vice presidential debate, I was struck by just how predictably sexist and racist some of the commentary was. Megyn Kelly tweeted that Harris shouldn’t “make faces.” MSNBC writer Sam Stein tweeted, uncritically, that one should be careful about the “lens” they watch the debate through, because his male friends thought Pence did a better job. The accusation that Harris “slept her way to the top” (she dated the former mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown) has resurfaced. Brown admitted to helping her career, as well as that of Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom and Dianne Feinstein.
In other words, standard nepotism. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of valid critiques that can be made about Harris — there are. So, in 2020, any well-known journalist or pundit tweeting at a woman on a vice presidential debate stage that she needs to fix her face or that, actually, his male friends like the man better, has no interest in valid critique. It is lazy, boring discourse that is at once transparent and harmful. There are lives at stake in this election, directing attention to Harris’ (perfectly appropriate) facial expressions or tone is to distract from the gravity of the election.
“Evil is constant” Morrison said, when explaining why she finds goodness more interesting. And many cope with the constant evil by finding extra-realistic explanations. Certainly, Trump’s supporters seem to look away from reality. How else can we explain Trump’s approval rating of more than 40% despite paying less in federal income taxes than a household with $25,000 in annual income? His base consistently cites his skill as a businessman as one of their main reasons for supporting him, and yet it is due to his lack of skill as a businessman and his consistent hemorrhaging of money that he is able to form any claim for paying as little income tax as he does.
The banality of evil (unrelated to Hannah Arendt’s controversial theory in the 60’s) may be one reason why “conspiracy thinking” is so common. Roughly three-quarters of the English population, for example, don’t fully buy into official explanations of the pandemic. “Fringe” beliefs, whether about the pandemic, QAnon, 5G or Pizzagate, are widespread. Researchers who study people who believe in conspiracy theories classify people as either “rationalists” or “intuitionists.”
“Intuitionists” are more likely to practice types of magical thinking and to reject observable explanations for phenomena. Real world explanations for the worst happenings of the world right now are simply banal. We’re on month eight of the pandemic, watching cases spike around the country due to terrible, unresponsive leadership. But isn’t it more interesting to think it’s because the elites of the world are plotting against us?
Still, others cope with evil by reframing it as something good. Is it “inspiring” that voters around the country are waiting in line for hours to vote, or is it voter suppression? Is it “impressive” that a woman finished the bar exam after giving birth (yes, she gave birth midway through) or heinous that the examiners were so inflexible? Is it heartwarming to crowdfund health care or ridiculous that a diagnosis can sink one in debt?
For all of the tools we now have to look evil in the eye, the instinct is still to look away, to create distractions, to invent supernatural origins or to spin those who overcome it as “inspiring” or “resilient.” These coping mechanisms are understandable, but they serve the media consumer, not the victims. We need to embrace the banality of it all and accept that sometimes evil is long lines to vote and antiquated misogynoir and tax returns. The boring stuff is worth fighting.
Jessie Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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