01 September 2016

Compassion in the Face of Humiliation, or How I Saw an Uglier Side of Myself

I like the programme The West Wing. I like Aaron Sorkin's writing and his ideas, and the ridiculous (amazing) platonic ideal of dialogue presented. People don't talk like that, not really, but it's always fun to watch and hear. Like Shakespeare, only with more obvious snark and a highly liberal agenda.

Last night I was watching the episode, The Midterms (S.2, e.3), and there is a scene in it I have loved since the first time I saw it on YouTube. At a function for talk radio hosts, President Bartlett goes off script and disassembles a Dr Laura analogue down to the ground. It is a rapid-fire smackdown using chapter and verse of the Bible to counter her smug and superior justification for calling homosexuality an abomination ('I don't say so... The Bible says so.'); the President asks if he can sell his daughter into slavery, asks how his Chief of Staff, his brother, and his mother ought to be executed for working on the Sabbath, planting two different crops side by side, and wearing garments made of two different threads. He asks if football players can continue to play if they wear gloves (because they can't touch the skin of a dead pig lest they become unclean). Throughout this entire exchange, the part of me that loathes indoctrination, the part of me that rebels against the asinine justification for people to hate entire groups of people, while blithely ignoring anything they don't actually want to deal with, is always full of glee. However, this time, watching this scene, I felt different. I didn't feel joyful, or gleeful, or even my favourite glowing schadenfreude. Instead, what I felt was compassion. For the Dr Laura character.

The character herself is merely a vehicle -- a simple analogue for the writer to make a point. It is absolutely a rant against the religious right and their arbitrary adherence to a set of ancient rules based on preconceived and ignorant prejudices, and that is something I can appreciate both philosophically and intellectually. However, watching the look on the actress' face (and she was spot-on for having only a few lines) made me feel deep empathy for her. The President is not debating a topic here -- he is not trying to engage in a meeting of minds to win someone over to the side of (what he believes to be) righteousness. Instead, it is entirely an exercise in humiliation -- her humiliation. And on a human level, I empathised with her and wanted more than anything for the rant to stop, for her humiliation to be cut short. In the face of such an attack, I would not have been able to sit still and take it the way she does; I would have burst into tears and fled. Just the idea of such a public humiliation among an audience of strangers and colleagues, by a person of such immense power and influence, is unfathomable. The thought makes me sick.

This was not at all a comfortable experience for me. I like to think (mostly) well of myself. I like to think I have intelligent opinions based on facts in evidence and a morality that is inclusive rather than exclusive. I realised I had (until this point) always considered this scene as a one-sided affair to be lauded, and that the side I took was that of a person (a man) of power and influence using them like a club, as a bully, not to humble someone, not to engage as a human being, but simply to humiliate that person to make a point, was incredibly uncomfortable. Yes, the character and her real-world analogue are hatemongers and bullies themselves, but that doesn't make them inhuman -- it just makes them bad humans. But I'm the last person who should be making value judgements about humans -- I'm barely human myself these days. It also made me realise that while I like to think well of myself, I tend to isolate myself amongst like-minded individuals (a very human trait). I make judgements about the worth of a human rather than simply disagreeing with a point or an opinion or a stance on any particular topic. I stop seeing people and I only see politics -- and it allows me to make of them an Other. And once someone (or a group) is made the Other, they lose something, a part of their humanity, the right to basic dignity and respect simply for being another living, breathing creature, entitled to the same freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of choice that I expect as my rights, not just my civil rights, but my human rights. For being part of a larger community.

The other realisation I had is that this is why I feel social media can be so toxic -- why I think our 24/7 linked in hooked up wired global platform isn't necessarily a good thing. Or at least, a thing that isn't inherently good or bad, but is more often used for the latter than the former. We have 'unfollow,' 'unfriend,' 'block,' options for anyone whose opinion we don't want to hear. It is a feature I availed myself of greatly when I still engaged on Facebook. The sort of rants the president gives are equal in their tactical offensive as many of the political pages that are only ever used to make mischief and start arguments. Minds are not changed, dialogue doesn't exist, there is no coming together. There is no community. There are just vast echo chambers where we can surround ourselves with the yes-men of our choosing, constantly finding validation amongst a homogeneous group (homogeneous based on whatever common thread created the group in the first place), and not ever actually challenging ourselves as humans to the betterment of our kind, locally OR globally.

This isn't to say that every single interaction on social media is essentially philosophical masturbation; just that the majority is and it's difficult to discern the valuable from the worthless. I have seen civil conversations (rarely, but it has happened) and perhaps minds have changed. But the minds that are changed are the ones who are open to hearing other ideas. And that usually is because they're already connected to Others in some way (even if it's once- or twice-removed). Human connexion is what we are missing. Looking someone in the eye, sharing physical space with them, acknowledging the commonality, the shared fragility, the need to come together rather than to be right about everything all the time.

Screaming at the top of my lungs, insisting that I am always in the right, tearing someone down to make a point... none of these are effective tactics to change minds or hearts. An offensive is met with a defensive response. Even if a person can see the logic behind the attack, the emotional element is very much a part of the equation, and emotions override reason more often than the other way around. Humiliating someone is not the way to change a mind. If anything it will only serve to galvanise the Other in opposition, and that way lies violence, the most irrational, emotional reaction of all.