Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Wrongly Deluded

When I was in college, I was taking a sociology class - human relationships, I beleive it was, and one of the topics that came up was domestic abuse. There was an argument about culpability that basically broke down along gender lines - the men in the class tended to say that men learned to be abusive as they grew up, and the women tended towards an idea of simple moral failing. After about ten or fifteen minutes of hammering this out, the professor played a video for us that explained how men become abusers, and it generally backed the "learning" argument. At the end of the video the debate resumed, but with a slight difference - many of the women in class now conceded that men learned to be abusive, but said that they were to blame for having learned the behavior.

I was thinking about this after listening to an episode of Radio Atlantic, "John Wayne, Donald Trump, and the American Man." At one point (about 38 minutes in), Atlantic staff writer Megan Garber and editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, are discussing the phenomenon of older men who view themselves as sexually desirable, and Ms. Garber makes the point that "women are physically attractive, men become attractive, through..." she never finishes the thought, but based on what had come just before, it's not difficult to imagine that she was going to say that "men become attractive through possessing wealth and power." Despite this, Mr. Goldberg then proceeds to describe the idea that a fifty-plus year old man might be attractive to a woman half their age as "delusional." And Ms. Garber is quick to agree with him. But what made it stand out for me is that Ms. Garber notes that being delusional is not exculpatory, and Mr. Goldberg quickly jumps in with, "Well, you're responsible for your own delusions."

There's something uncharitable in that, if for no other reason than it smacks of the concept, put forward by Thomas Aquinas that to mistake evil for good is to be guilty of morally culpable negligence. This seems to be born of the idea that people who do bad things must be punished, but not simply because what they have done is bad, but because they themselves are bad. To me, it speaks of a need to see certain people as being perverse, and, as such, different from the rest of us, and thus deserving of their fates.

Sarah Silverman illustrated this starkly for me during an interview with the radio program 1A when she spoke of Christian Picciolini, and notes that he said "Find someone who doesn't deserve your compassion, and give it to them." But even though she says the worst people in the world act the way they do because they want to feel that they are being heard and that they matter, she specifically exempts the wealthy and powerful, "the man, the oligarchs, the wealth addicts" and "the people misinforming others." But if those aren't the people who are undeserving of her compassion enough that she should give it to them, who are?

The idea that error is born of perversity, either willful or negligent is a powerful one, perhaps because it justifies the urge to punish; to treat others in ways that people often understand themselves as above being treated. But in doing so, there is a push to expand culpability, to prevent running afoul of understandings of fairness. An acquaintance asked why we seek to punish - why people couldn't settle for incapacitation or rehabilitation, neither of which require people to see others as evil or perverse. It's a worthy question. But I don't think that many of us would like the answer.

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