Hate 2000 Newsletter September 14, 2006
September comes, and with it the beginning of school in large parts of the world. A member of our group has been a little preoccupied with the duties which go with the beginnings of a new school year, so, like last month's letter, this is something of a "guest column".
We're going to deal with three items, one of which is going to be very long. You're warned! We'll try to deal with the smaller stuff first.
Mel Gibson, the noted movie star, managed to get himself into a lot of trouble. All things considered, the worst crime he committed was drinking and driving, and then considering that the local police had no right arresting him at all. However, great interest rises from Mr. Gibson's looking for the worst names he could call the arresting officers. He didn't seem to like Jews or working women, and said so in memorably colorful ways.
It would be easy to take an unkindly view of Mr. Gibson's claims to repentance: many have. Not knowing Mr. Gibson personally, we couldn't speak to his sincerity, or lack of it. However, we might ask whether Mr. Gibson isn't facing an issue which most of us, if we're honest with ourselves, also have to face.
Mr. Gibson clearly grew up in a household in which some very strongly-held prejudices were the daily fare. His father doesn't make any bones about them. This isn't all that unusual. One of our members having one side of his family who took a poor view of the Irish, and who loved the British Empire. the other branch took a poor view of the British Empire; the English particularly, and were raving Irish radicals. It sometimes made for lively discussions in the household where one member of one clan married the other.
We grow up, and we often conclude that the prejudices we grew up with were wrong. But, however much we dislike and wish to disown them, there's a problem: we still have them. Our sense that they're wrong keeps us working at managing them, or trying to counter them. But they remain, and it's easier to handle them if you know they haven't gone away. Mind you, if you do something where you're not in the best control of yourself, they can reappear. Having a drink or two too many can do that to you. The old prejudices come back because they never left. The best you can do is recognize them for the wrongs they are, and try to fight them. And if you have children, you can hope you'll succeed in not passing them along to a new generation.
Mr. Gibson's motives, we must repeat, are unknown to us. But this sort of thing is such a universal part of being human, and the way that we treat each other, that we might properly ask whether we might behave in a similar situation. And acknowledging a possibility is often the best way to keep it from happening.
* * *
September 11 was a difficult day, rather more so than usual, it being the fifth anniversary of the horrible attacks with hijacked airplanes. We think the newsletter which was drafted even as the day 's events were still occurring likely is the best comment we could make.
Certainly, there were many lessons to be learned, and many have drawn ones they think good. They are often quite contradictory, and which might prove to be good and useful are matters of lively debate.
For now, let's just recall the day, and all who were victims that day, and the great examples of both moral courage and moral cowardice shown on that day.
* * *
Well, those were rather long for "short items", but short they are compared to what will follow. It may seem that the following item may be somewhat off-topic, there being no victims of hate or violence involved in the news item. But it raises more questions about how we react to the ills of others, and what moves us, or fails to move us to do something about it.
The city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is centered on the North Saskatchewan River, one of the world's genuinely great rivers, and one with a very scenic valley. As mentioned, it is lordly and scenic. It is also very dangerous. Two sad tragedies reminded the people of that place of the fact.
The summer had been very pleasant, but rather hotter than the city is used to having. One day in July, a young married couple and the husband's brother settled in beside the river to drink a few beers, and enjoy the view. The young lady was a few months' pregnant. She wanted to cool he feet off by sitting on the bank, and putting her feet in the river. She made the mistake of standing up in the river, and was promptly swept away. Her husband and brother-in-law put their own lives at risk in trying to save her, and so did several passers-by. It was clear within minutes that they were not going to be successful.
A month later, a young University student disappeared while biking along the river's pathway. There was a massive search for him, and it engrossed the attention of the entire city. This also did not end well. His body was found eight days later. The exact circumstances aren't known; they probably could be known only to the young man himself. Our best understanding is that it was a very unfortunate accident. Reactions to the two tragedies were quite different.
The first tragedy played itself out in minutes, not days, and anybody who could do anything made the attempt. The second played out over several days, and the mystery began to engross the entire city. In the first case, however, there were the inevitable lectures about the evils of drinking amid the expressions of regret and sympathy. In the second case, the expressions of sympathy were unqualified.
Eventually, it was going to occur to somebody that the tendency to moralize about the one victim, but not even think of doing it with the other might have something to do with the perceptions of the two victims.
The lady was an aboriginal woman, whose family was rather poor, and who some people in society might have felt showed no real promise except to be somebody's good wife and mother. The student was from a (white) academic family, quite handsome, and very, very brilliant, with a very, very promising future. We might expect that somebody might ask whether this affected the somewhat different reactions.
In this particular instance, there likely wasn't such a factor. Some of the people most interested in the student's death were also the people one would least expect to take an interest in it. Still, there is a reflection arising from that question.
There is no doubt that we can more easily react to the fortunes or misfortunes of somebody else if we feel something in common with that other. That ability to identify with others is what moves us to our best and better efforts. It sometimes takes one particular death which, for whatever reason, catches a society's imagination to get it to move on a problem which has been around for a long time.
One is entitled to ask whether all the others who suffered similar ills are less important. The thought will be that we pick and choose our favorite victims on the basis of favoring one group of people over another. Is that not the embodiment of prejudice?
We see some force in that argument, and with some qualification, we reject it. The qualification is to be aware that we will always have instinctive reactions which vary from one person to another, and that is necessarily the way it is when we think of others as individuals. All lives are, of course important. They all matter. Why some move us and some less so likely says something about us as individuals as well.
But it is that sense of personal connection which is the stuff of humanity. The people who tried to save the young woman weren't asking questions about her class, race or status. Somebody was in trouble, and it was devastating a young husband. Most of those searching for the missing student, and more who were watching in hope or fear were reacting to the way any parent will feel about a child in danger. That the individual happened to be one of the best mathematical minds in the world was not considered or even known until after the fact. That simple instinct is what ensures our survival as a species. It's what, in the end, defeats hate and violence.
The opposite way, to react the same way to all such tragedies is usually to react with indifference to them all. One pitches one's sights so high that one never is called upon to act: action would somehow betray a higher cause, or somehow show a prejudice. Indeed, one should never meet people: it usually prejudices you in their favor.
This is one of many which began in the wake of one tragedy which caught the world's attention in a peculiar and unexpected way. That was, of course, the murder of Matthew Shepard. Why Matthew caught the imagination of the world, and continues to hold it where so many others have not, is an interesting mystery. We don't pretend to know. Many such murders, both before and after, were even worse. There is certainly no thought that any were less worthy of living. Perhaps this is a dilemma without an answer; another of those mysteries of that somewhat strange being, the human animal. As one faith tradition has it, however, "May their souls and souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen."
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