Archive for December, 2012

Justice, pity and dignity

December 31, 2012

Athens has been described as “a city of advocates” (i.e., lawyers to a man) in records from the time of Aristotle, and Greek thought on the moral sentiments was rather refined. Skeptical of high emotion, they often described pity as an untrustworthy, reactionary sentiment:

The most extraordinary thing of all is that while in private suits the wronged shed tears and are pitied, in public suits the wrongdoers are pitied and you, the wronged, pity them.

Pity and Power in Ancient Athens

Public discourse on justice was civil by way of being equivocal, with orators dancing easily around one another’s claims on righteousness by being ever conscious of the procedural nature of law-making and trials.

Moral sentiments themselves have always had a reactionary element to them. It makes sense in the emotional reasoning of a jury for the accused to suddenly appear to be the underdog, once the case is being brought at court. The plaintiff is the one complaining that there is something amiss, if sympathy simply switches to the party presently on the defensive.

Outside the officious ceremonies of a courtroom, the universal commitment to “common decency” is even more difficult to pin down.

“…he actually felt safer fighting than running.”

In the first season of The Legend of the Seeker Richard politely brushes off the idea that, from a child’s point of view (a child with the magical ability to see into the private thoughts of others), he and Kahlan are the only people resisting tyranny for unselfish reasons. He corrects the boy, “we’re just the first ones you’ve met so far.”

Like any Rahl, he is quick to see himself as a “prince with a thousand enemies,” but Richard rarely suspects flattery when dealing with the subtleties of others.

A suspicious goddess, more inclined to assume he has been coasting on the optimism of others about whether his good intentions will carry the day, catches him off-guard in Season 2 with her teenage enthusiasm for confrontational right-mindedness and infinite skepticism.

She is no doubt being unfair, if understandably flustered that all her creation is on the line, and he seems close to blowing the deadline for preventing doomsday.

After all, asking follow-up questions is not unwise, even if a recently deified teenager presses them childishly.

Think of Phaidra’s nurse. First it’s “Better to be sick than tend the sick. The one is simple, the other work, work, work, work and worry.” Then one mistake is never to be forgotten, a boy spits on your love and disclaims your confidence: “My tongue swore the oath. My mind is unsworn.”

Go ahead and blame my failures, lady,
for the sting is stronger than your judgment now.
But I have answers too, if you allow.
I reared you, I am on your side.
I sought a cure
for your disease and found one not so nice.
Yes if I had succeeded you’d call me smart.
Smartness is relative to winning, isn’t it.

Good intentions, we learn from care-givers, are not enough for testimony if work was expected of you and instead, some harm has brought down law.

This blogger’s account of mundane frustrations living in a homeless shelter evokes the shock of transition to a stigmatized population – the raggedy edge of life on the receiving end of pervasive, unthinking micro-aggressions. Where he comes across as brash for having brought higher expectations, his concrete observations of day to day conditions reveal how they drain the emotional resources of those already down on their luck.


“I come from good parents: my mother is Night ..” | “I go.”

When your unmet needs go unacknowledged by the prevailing group-think, you have to start accepting that some who profess not to understand your point of view are brushing you off for reasons as frivolous as:

(a) convenience,
(b) defensiveness of a shallow appearance of self-righteousness,
(c) difficulty maintaining composure, or
(d) habitual confrontation avoidance.

And yet, how much stress can anyone you inconvenience with your unmet needs be expected to cope with day to day?

And so it goes.

“Peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy” is how Christopher Nolan’s Batman would like to see the people of Gotham he would lay down his life to protect. The catch is that he must hide his face from them to avoid reprisal on the terms of procedural justice, and still fear for those he loves knowing they could be traced to him despite the mask.

Choosing ambivalence isn’t always about avoiding risk by refusing to take sides. It can also be a deferential gesture to something desirable, muting one’s personal wishes to share in it, out of respect for the truth that not everyone can enjoy the best of everything. Bruce Wayne’s hope of laying down the mask fades fast in the Nolan trilogy.

Just as when one admires two lovers kissing in public without denying that their moment belongs to the two of them.

Sometimes, the key to preferring a fight over bidding for pity is to remember that all of us are vulnerable, and to move beyond fear for yourself, realizing that it’s possible to drag down those who would show you love, if you take someone’s hand and then allow yourself to lose your footing.

One of the lines in the song used for this fan video made me realize something interesting about the dystopia of Equilibrium:

“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” – W.B. Yeats

The contraband information that the book burners in this movie set out to destroy is the literature of freedom and dignity feared by behavioral scientists like Skinner for its celebration of willful individualism and disobedience.

Rather than expunging records of unflattering facts about the regime, these thought police are bent on destroying the flattering lies of art, the seductive illusions of idealization that inspire emotional life.

The ego is a rudder in a sea of moral sentiments. There must be a hand on it, willing to defy seemingly overwhelming currents.

Respect for others begins as a multiplication of the ego’s capacities for self-regard, just as the Golden Rule is referential, dictated by analogy to the felt experience of self-respect. We see ourselves in the other, and expand our understanding incrementally as we unlearn attachment to trivial distinctions that set us apart from some. We gradually gain a more universal respect for others, together with greater humility about our own place in the world.

More reluctantly, we gain perspective on the sense in which our lives and actions mirror those of others so greatly that our position is one of redundancy, not as selfless as a member of the Borg, but far from the vanities of one who would fight for heightened self-regard at the expense of others. This is where healing begins, the unburdening of the psychological aversion to pain. This is how the apparent privacy of suffering can be shattered, and the fear of carrying unshareable feelings and lacking help with “unconfirmed” hardships can be diminished.

Bystander lives and Swimming Upstream

December 31, 2012

“Though are all destined from birth to endure violence, the realm of circumstances closes their minds to this truth. The strong is never perfectly strong nor the weak perfectly weak, but neither knows this. They believe they are different species; the weak man does not consider himself like the strong, nor is he regarded as such.” – Simone Weil on the Iliad

“Who is the lamb and who is the knife?”

In her essay The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, Simone Weil says of Homer’s epic, “the abasement of the soul under [the coercion of force] is neither disguised, nor mitigated by facile pity, nor held up to scorn.” For her it is a prefiguring of the Greek gospels, in that the unredeemed tragic heroes of Greece share with the great redemption story the idea of an essential relationship between human misery, justice and love.

“Whoever fails to grasp that every human soul is subject to changing fortune and necessity can neither regard as peers nor love as himself those separated from him by the chasm of chance. The diverse restrictions that weigh on men give birth to the illusion of discrete species incapable of communicating. It is impossible to love and to be just unless one understands the realm of force and knows enough not to respect it.”

Yet Baudelaire observes that when admonished “that one must love, without grimacing, the poor, the wretched, the misshapen, the idiot, so that with your charity you may roll out a triumphal carpet for Jesus, when he passes,” the damned always reply, “I do not want to!”

Baudelaire’s poem “The Rebel” proceeds with an allegory, in which a poet feels so profoundly threatened by the moral condemnation of his own stinginess which he perceives in the fierce gaze of an old beggar who approaches him for money, that he assaults the beggar and brutalizes him mercilessly.

At last the badly injured old man retaliates with similar violence, to which the self-satisfied instigator responds, “Sir, you are my equal!

The dramatization sounds extreme, but the sentiment is not unconventional. If you tell someone you’re being victimized, they ask why you haven’t tried hard enough to defend yourself. If you tell someone you have been victimized and will never put up with it again, they ask why you don’t try harder to show the other person understanding.

This double-bind enforced by bystanders to safeguard their own right to a sense of complacency about the problems of others isn’t even considered an instance of victim-blaming. I think of it as an indignity ultimatum. That to fall to begging, you must abandon the dignities of personhood that entail living up to the expectation that each individual pull his or her own weight. I think it is this indignity ultimatum that the poet assaults as an affront to the human spirit, particularly acute at the dawn of an era that takes the conceits of the ego to preposterous extremes, “industrial-scale” vanities of human freedom to defy the whims of fate.

Perhaps, to be accepted as you are, you must accept love without conditioning it on a proof like instrumental assistance or rescue from your present circumstances.

“Could I have saved you? Would that’ve betrayed you?”

When you recoil from help offered with pity, you are not forgetting your sense of self-preservation. When they relate to your needs as pitiful, those who show you kindness today may just shrug you off as a casualty of the world’s pervasive cruelties tomorrow.

Their efforts to help will often be self-serving token gestures, too quick and indifferently prepared to do you good, in a hurry to get you off their conscience and out of mind – as when in 3:10 to Yuma, Dan Evans says of the veterans’ disability pension he received for his leg, “they paid me to walk away.”

Family violence victims are often accused of trying too hard to please, because nothing was ever good enough for their abuser. That’s nonsense. They have to try harder to be liked outside the home because it’s no use trying to impress their tormentors, and that leaves a void only others can fill. Including a vulnerability to unmet basic needs in the area of instrumental support, considering one of the most common (and least-acknowledged) reasons for not leaving an abuser is acute economic dependency.

In other words, the alternative is often homelessness.

(Somehow commentators have gotten it into their heads that there is a “domestic violence cycle” in which the sticking point for “why doesn’t she leave him?” is “the awesome make-up sex” instead.)

All this leads me, in a round about way, to what I took away from Craig Horner’s inconspicuous performance in the Australian feature film Swimming Upstream, starring Jesse Spencer, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. The film is about an Olympic athlete’s experience growing up in the family of a blue-collar resumed alcoholic with a violent temper. You can find the Seeker in this movie if you look closely, but he plays a young man usually glimpsed only in the background.

Micro-aggressions are usually singled out as specific avoidable behaviors that broadcast discriminatory attitudes in what people can now agree are socially inappropriate ways. Swimming Upstream is a remarkable film for the dramatization of everyday hostilities in domestic life that are more sustainable than we want them to be, largely because of the way they blend into other imperfections of the banal, instead of announcing themselves in stronger language.

Catharsis for an audience of drama doesn’t have to be mediated by a highly theatrical ritual of purification.

“See you had a lot of moments that didn’t last forever
Now you in this corner tryna put it together”

Pulling back your more extreme emotions, the wreckage of your most personal and tightly-held hopes and dreams, dragging the mundane details of your deepest thwarted desires into the harsh light of day, and so returning them to the realm of the banal, suddenly makes it easier to move past what you thought you could never forgive or forget.

Full refunds for the presumption of decency

December 31, 2012

Love is not mistrusted lightly, perhaps because its status as a virtue rather than a human weakness is on thin ice. Love may not be disruptive, ostentatious or preferential. But it is, and we make-believe in a social glue called colorless love of all mankind that acts as the alibi of the trouble-making passions.

.. duty is a form of love … Duty is not always a denial of things, but an expansion of them to others. Duty is not always a chore, but is best carried out with love.

Temple of the Winds

Not always? That love may be omnipresent, but it is not visible. More like a nebulous world of the soul into which we send forth ghosts on whom we wish the best of peace. Cordelia’s unswerving sense of duty, the loyalty of Lear’s Fool, Gloucester’s prodigal son – these icons of good faith diminish and go into the dark ahead of us all.

And among the living?

There is a dangerous undercurrent to idealism about duty and charity in the helping professions. If any self-assessed virtue is in play, even competitive pride in hero-standing sometimes blurs into defensive levels of self-righteousness, and one may habitually go into denial about ever falling short of the mark.


A Knight’s Tale (2001)

It’s as if the rule “defend the helpless” can be confused with the rule “prove yourself against great challenges” when we root for underdogs and white knights.

The unlucky could very well be damned, and still to pity and comfort them would bring a blessing on the saint who does not care.  What, then, do the lepers deserve (from those who will not seek sainthood in their name), but our contempt?

I took the phrase “presumption of decency” from a context in which it refers to the goodness we unthinkingly ascribe to ourselves. But the strangest thing to notice here is that we also have an ulterior motive when we ascribe good intentions uncritically to others.

We do this the most by allowing too much credit to be uncritically assigned to care-giving roles. As care-givers we may tell ourselves this is fairness, whenever we need others to give us the benefit of the doubt, but it is also a cop-out on their part.

Traditional gender roles are often cited as a convenient excuse to pass the buck for diaper changing and dish washing. But they also normalize unrealistically high expectations of the generosity and selflessness gender-nominees acting as care-givers can be counted on to show.

We assume they will not disappoint, when the cost if they do is not ours to bear. But who really believes that, given all the power and responsibility, women would actually want to preoccupy themselves with righting wrongs and saving the world?

Ask yourself, “What would Cara do?”

Those of us enjoying freedom from those role expectations can indulge in self-loathing about it and call it even, knowing it is something we want to take for granted in others when we shirk such duties ourselves.

All the while, the presumption of decency has a corollary protecting those on whom it imposes responsibility. To them it is a projection and in some sense an unsolicited burden on those whose willingness to honor duties toward others goes unquestioned.

Those responsibilities are not legally enforceable, in the sense that their legality is both minimalist and lightly policed.

And when one of the suffering refuses to participate in this charade, victim-blaming is the usual recourse of political correctness. The sick role breeds resentment in caregivers faster than you can say “are you feeling better yet?”

The idea that the chronically ill are lounging around in a sick role because they enjoy the way they are treated is ludicrous, but that is the style of micro-aggression used to stigmatize this group. Such prejudices can become pervasive and oppressive merely by way of being unthinking and reflexive ways of rationalizing away the apparent dissatisfactions of others when their complaints are brought to you.

Any part of the “periphery” to civilized life, where equality before the law is much valued and somewhat taken for granted, is alive with micro-aggressions testing these sorts of informal frontiers of justice.


The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)

Political correctness in the helping professions is deferential to the status quo, even when that means respecting the boundaries of political fairness that philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes as inherent to neoliberal governance – rather than fulfilling their promise of help to the disadvantaged. Cruelly, this tendency deepens those vulnerabilities by pretending to have provided all the assistance they could possibly need.

And when grandiosity and refusal to admit to one’s performance errors or the obscene limits of one’s purview infect the helping professions, the ministering of peanuts to the poor becomes just one more degradation in their lives. For the self-importance and self-respect of the helping professionals must be flattered for their services to be delivered without a side order of open hostility.

To honor a code of conduct more in the breach than in the observance is to retain it only for use in moralizing one’s personal prerogatives – a Machiavellian kind of piety.

Once society normalizes such indiscriminate use of self-serving hypocrisy, oddly enough, liars get sloppy and truth-seeking gets easier. But it is frowned upon.