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.

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