Saturday, July 20, 2013

Knowing More About the Sea Monster

The best scene from "Downton Abbey" occurred around the dinner table, when Matthew, the lawyer (a decidedly not upper class occupation), in white tie, spars with the very upper class woman who meets her match in him:

MARY: I've been studying the story of Andromeda; do you know it?

MATTHEW: (suspiciously) Why?

MARY: Her father was King Cepheus, whose country was being ravaged by storms. And, in the end, he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her, naked, to a rock--

DOWAGER COUNTESS: (nervously laughs) Really! Mary! We'll all need our smelling salts in a minute!

MATTHEW: But the sea monster didn't get her, did he?

MARY: No. Just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father's problems, she was rescued.

MATTHEW: By Perseus.

MARY: That's right. Perseus. Son of a god. Rather more fitting, wouldn't you say?

MATTHEW: That depends. I'd have to know more about the princess and the sea monster in question.

Of course, this scene is the fantasy of any number of nerds who dream of winning the heart of a most attractive woman in the room by cleverness, but beyond that, there is an important point. Before rendering judgment, we need to know more.

There is, of course, always the question of whether or not we can ever know enough to render judgment on anyone.  In The Stranger, the protagonist finds himself a spectator at his own trial, fascinated by the portrait of this cold blooded killer, who has been motivated by racial animus in shooting dead an Arab youth on the beach. 

"It is always interesting, even in the prisoner's dock, to hear oneself being talked about. And certainly in the speeches of my lawyer and the prosecuting counsel a great deal was said about me; more, in fact about me personally than about my crime. I must admit that hearing oneself talked about loses its interest very soon. The Prosecutor's speech, especially, began to bore me...The only things that really caught my attention were occasional phrases...I noticed he laid stress on my 'intelligence.' It puzzled me rather why what would count as a good point in an ordinary person should be used against an accused man."

Mad Dog's father once commented, rather blandly, as if he was saying something obvious, "It is impossible to know another man's motivation." This was in the setting of a family court trial between Mad Dog and his brother in which Mad Dog described the actions of a third party, the circumstances surrounding it and the action, as if there were only one possible conclusion which could be drawn about this man's motivation.

Now we have the Tsarnaev Rolling Stone cover, which advertises an article putatively explaining or at least exploring, how a nice boy could help blow up innocent children. There is the Something About Kevin novel which explores the sense of detachment, the utter lack of sympathy for other people which allows a youth to shoot down defenseless classmates. 

This discussion--how human beings can be so remorseless as they slaughter others--comes up after every playground shooting, after random acts of terrorism.

But, this aspect of acting without pity, which seems to so confound the imagination strikes Mad Dog as something quite commonplace.  Look at the children at the Stratham fair who have raised their prize hogs and sheep, who they will hand over to be slaughtered soon enough.  Captain Spear tells Private Blythe, in "Band of Brothers," he has to learn to kill "without pity, without remorse. All war depends on it." The soldiers in "Full Metal Jacket" pose with the body of a Viet Cong soldier they have killed, grinning into the camera. They revel in describing themselves as a "lean, green, killing machine."  In war, this lack of sympathy, this joy in killing and in seeing yourself as an agent of death--I am become death--has obvious adaptive value. But in comfortable, peaceful American life, we think of people as "monsters" and "soul-less" for their absence of contrition.

George Zimmerman is either a racist thug or an innocent, if somewhat deficient police wannabe, depending on which fantasy you buy coming from the lawyers on the defense or the prosecution. Both lawyers are spinning a tale. Likely, neither lawyer's story has much to do with the much more complicated person who pulled the trigger killing young Mr. Martin.

We cannot know another man, so we spin simplified fairy tales about him--we depersonalized him as much as he depersonalized his victim, because we have to do that in order to act. 

There is a story in the photograph of the kids in a Detroit alley. We conjure one up, but we deceived ourselves if we think we have a real understanding of what that image means.  We conjure up a story which makes us feel better inside. That is what we do when we judge a defendant.

We want Tsarnaev to "show remorse." We want him to perform for us, like a trained seal, so we can feel better. 

Of course, our society is based on killing--we slaughter animals who have never harmed us every day and eat them at McDonald's.  We pay other people's sons and daughters to train to be killers--in the armed forces--and we shrug off the use of drones to kill people antiseptically and without trial. 

Some people believe we kill human beings when we scrape out an eight week bundle of cells from a uterus and they find that intolerable, but they have no problem voting to hang a man who has been voted guilty, correctly or not, by a jury.

At cancer hospitals, where patients die in substantial numbers every day, the nurses wrapping a body in a room will chat about what they want for order out lunch, where they are going for beer after work. The death of a human being is commonplace, part of the natural order of things. 

We always have to know more about the monster, but we are okay with acting in the absence of knowledge. 

The fact is, for an orderly society we dehumanize people and we opt to know less about them, all the time.  Why do we have SAT exams? Because we have large numbers of people to judge and we need an automated way to do that.  Even in the Bible, a king has to select a certain number of men to leave behind so he says he'll take the men who are kneeling by the river, bringing water to their mouths, but the others, who are lying prone, drinking directly from the water, are left behind.

We set up rules and systems to deal dispassionately with other people. 
The important thing is we not allow ourselves to judge ourselves better for it.


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