A few years ago, a man wanted by the police in Houston ran from his house, holding his toddler as shield. As I remember, in the end he was captured; but, sure enough, no one shot at him for fear of hitting the child. He seemed at once unnatural and uncivilized. Naturally, we think, we protect our own. And civilization teaches us to protect the weak. Of course, it is also a natural desire to get out of bad situations unscathed. But he counted on others valuing the life of his child more than he did himself – that seems incredible opportunism; it relies on others’ civilized behavior leveraged by his own barbarism, others’ automatic protection of the weak while he is absorbed in the great I. Fortunately, we can count on civilization. Others would hold fire, want to rescue the child—indeed, “do the right thing.” And, I suspect, if they didn’t, they would be scorned by society. As well they should be.
That man understood sympathy—not from but to his great I. This sense that others should value what we ourselves so clearly do not permeates some disturbing but effective public relations strategies. We expect others to respect our dignity, our spirit. But degradation has its own rewards; we hug it to us as proof – not of our own failing but of the immensity and callousness (the barbarism) of power arrayed against us. Ah, you don’t respect us. So, see how we’ve fallen. You must show us you respect us. Attention, sympathy, help – these are owed us by our very degradation. We are voracious. There is never enough attention. See, you are responsible, you don’t respect us enough: barbarism suicide, murder – that is your fault.
Of course, this seemed a fairly common leverage in Palestine, one the UN refugee association encouraged. (It is Israel’s fault there are no businesses or farms; left with a greenhouse, it offends us, we must destroy it. Arafat, of course, made this more effective by siphoning off money that could have built clinics & schools.) It has long been part of the bitter heritage of the American underclass in Appalachia and the ghetto. It is also the cry of the wounded divorcee, the abusive & disgusting husband, the rebellious child: See, they say, look at how terrible I am – you have made me this way. A certain sad satisfaction comes from the revenge of degrading oneself, becoming barbaric. It is not my fault, we say, it is yours. You made me this way.
This is what Chillingworth says to Hester – see, your adultery has made me the lost soul I am. And she—who feels little guilt for her passion–is touched with pity, feel pangs of guilt, knowing her actions had tempted him to become the monster before her. But, that sympathy should be tempered by the knowledge it was not Hester’s choice but Chillingworth’s to become the black man of the forest. It was not she but he who betrayed his dignity, his value, his soul.
Randall Robinson’s claims the suffering in New Orleans was so great that within short days people resorted to cannibalism brings some of this to mind. Strangely, Robinson did not see his charges an indictment of those who might be lunching on others but rather of those in power. The “man” had reduced victims in a matter of days to violate one of the few still firmly held taboos. He was counting on a civilized guilt, he was counting on shame. But he seems unaware such leveraging insults the pawns he infantilizes. Certainly it reduces our ability to respect them – and, I suspect, their ability to respect themselves. They are encouraged to enter that self-destructive little world of degradation.
He seems to see them a short step from barbarism. Nor does he seem to understand how much that would make others draw back. As a woman, I have long felt the most dissed by the people who think of themselves as my advocates. I suspect others, in similar circumstances, have had similar angers.
Time has passed and it turns out, unsurprisingly, Robinson was wrong – people (those we see in the tirade that remains that he thinks of as “his”) were not so barbaric. We might ask what motivates someone to advocate for people of whom he thinks so little? A sense of superiority, an aloofness, or an obsessive bitterness?
But the dilemma is larger. Should our society lose pity, lose its sense of justice for the poor & oppressed; should we lose sympathy? Losing that we lose ourselves. But we must balance that important need with another – we should be wary of rewarding degradation. Those solicited are degraded – caught between guilt and anger, used.
The msm coverage of the Iraq war is often criticized: rather than honoring heroes, victims move front and center. We miss narratives of integrity as well as heroism, of self-respect as well as self-sacrifice. When the heroic does not receive the admiration it deserves, it also can not serve as model for us nor help shape our vision of the world. These narratives of victims and fatalism may well betray the real trajectory of the war as the military blogs contend, but they also betray human nature. Pathos and bitterness replace models of pride & heroism. We watching & reading are the less because of it.