James C Kaufman Ph.D.

And All That Jazz

Constance McMillen vs. Itawamba Agricultural High School: Evil Creativity vs. Good Morality

Creativity is not always reserved for the good, nice, and just

Posted Apr 06, 2010

I've already discussed the dark side of creativity in a previous blog. To recap and expand, the concept of malevolent creativity (developed by David Cropley and Arthur Cropley and me) argues that the traditional view of creativity it is generally good or benevolent. However, those who wish to do deliberate harm to others can also display creativity, in this case malevolent creativity. Malevolent creativity is similar to benevolent creativity, differing only in its intended purpose.

As we discuss in our paper in Creativity Research Journal:

"We are concerned with... creativity that is deliberately planned to damage others. Such creativity is deemed necessary by some society, group, or individual to fulfill goals they regard as desirable, but has serious negative consequences for some other group, these negative consequences being fully intended by the first group. We call this malevolent creativity."

I have been following the news story about Constance McMillen, the Mississippi high school girl who wanted to wear a tuxedo and escort her girlfriend to the prom. To wildly condense the story, the school district said no. Constance got the ACLU involved, and the school responded maturely by canceling the prom. The ACLU sued, and although the judge ruled that Constance's civil rights were violated, he did not order the school to reinstate the prom. At this point, Superintendent Teresa McNeece and Itawamba County school board attorney Michele Floyd invited Constance to attend an alternate prom.

I don't want to go into the political or religious ramifications of any of this stuff. People feel differently, fine. These types of fights happen a lot. What I want to discuss is what happened at the alternate prom. Constance and her girlfriend were there. So were five other students, two of them who had learning disabilities. Was the prom boycotted by the other teens? Not quite. Amid rumors of a parent-sponsored second alternate prom, Facebook pictures surfaced of these kids partying at some type of Heterosexuals Only shindig the same night.

I want to emphasize that my outrage is reserved for treating anyone this way. This story, to me, is not longer about gay rights and anyone's feelings toward it. This story is about human beings. That said: the duplicity is quite creative. It's evil, but it's malevolent creativity. Creativity is not always reserved for the good, nice, and just. As we discuss in our paper, the terrorists of 9/11 were technically creative. Using planes as bombs hadn't been done before. And as the newness wore off (i.e., three planes had already been used), the heroes in the fourth plane were able to learn about them and thereby work to prevent further destruction. Terrorists who would now use planes as bombs are not creative - and, I believe, would be less likely to "succeed" than if they used something completely different. Similarly, imagine if next year the good folks of the Itawamba County School Board like Teresa McNeece and Michele Floyd are faced with new horrors. Perhaps an interracial couple wants to attend prom, or someone in a wheelchair wants new ramps built in the gym so he or she can attend as well. If the parents decide to host two alternate proms again, one for the different people and one for the All Americans, they will be less likely to succeed. The novelty will have worn off.

I'd like to go more into detail about my feelings about Teresa McNeece, Michele Floyd, or, really, anyone at Itawamba Agricultural High who isn't protesting and speaking out. But that's the kind of stuff that gets you kicked off the Psychology Today website (and, perhaps, gets your tenure revoked).

I'll instead discuss Kohlberg's stages of moral development. The highest peak of this hierarchical model is Universal Ethical Principles. At this advanced stage, someone's moral reasoning is grounded in justice; you do something because it is right. This stage is considered to be more advanced than the stage below, which is the basis of the social contract, according to which you pursue the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Constance understands these principles:

"I just want other kids to know that it's not right for schools to do that," she told news reports. "I want them to be able to know that they can get a hold of the ACLU ... and they help people through stuff like this. Because schools, they shouldn't be able to do that."

When recently interviewed about the sham prom, she reflected on the less popular students who joined her:

"They had the time of their lives. That's the one good thing that come out of this, [these kids] didn't have to worry about people making fun of them [at their prom]."

The parents, teachers, administrators, and students of Itawamba Agricultural High couldn't see Constance's moral reasoning with a telescope.

If anyone knows Constance, or a student like Constance, who is interested in doing psychological research - particularly on creativity in my case - I'm sure I'm not the only professor who is happy to mentor long distance.

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