Sympathy and Justice

I went to my niece’s High School graduation a few weeks ago, watched as she and 715 of her closest friends sweated to Pomp and Circumstance, and listened to speeches about the future, and superheroes. Never having graduated from HS myself, it was an interesting spectacle, and also rather sad, everyone was trying so, so hard to make it an important and significant event, while also trying so, so hard to look they weren’t trying at all. Near the end, it started pouring, which was a nice reminder of our insignificance, so we huddled under a long bridge that led to the upper tier of seats. Several other groups of people huddled with us, albeit at an appropriate distance, following the tribes-should-not-mingle rule that comes clear during minor key huddling events. 8 or 9 meters down the slope, a buzz-cutted, workout-loving father and his 3 teenish children stood, watching people dash for cover. Up the slope came a woman with some sort of movement disorder who had decided, since she could not dash anywhere, she would just walk in the rain, along with her partner, a fairly overweight man with lots of hair. The whole family watched sideways as they passed. Once they had, the father tapped the tallest boy and aped the woman’s gait, laughed, and did it again, and the whole family joined in, making fun of the way she walked, laughing, laughing again, the tallest boy eventually offering some hilarious comment that added to their mirth. It was cruel, yes, but also a remarkable display of self-loathing. I found it hard to understand how inadequate one must feel to make fun of someone that way, and to pass on that inadequacy to one’s children the way we might pass on a recipe for pound cake.

Later, I wondered if my reactive summation was right. Maybe cruelty is something other than compensating for inadequacy, it did seem a pat explanation for a complex behavior. Seneca famously wrote that all cruelty springs from weakness, and “cruelty” here is also sometimes translated as “savagery,” because for him, weakness is a failure of the civilized part of a human being, a reversion to the animalistic in which a person takes pleasure in causing pain to others. I don’t believe animals take pleasure in being cruel, only that we judge their behavior cruel; a cat toying with a vole whose legs are broken seems cruel to us, but that’s just simple anthropomorphizing. A human being finding pleasure in another’s pain, that I can understand as cruelty.

Is such pleasure warranted, or at least excused, if it seems just? If the father in question, while making fun of the woman behind her back, fell into a pile of dog shit, would I be justified in taking pleasure in his suffering? Our culture is rife with these kinds of revenge fantasies, with joy taken at the pain of bad people who deserve what they get, and I think we see so much of this type of thing because so many people feel weak and ineffectual in the face of a world they do not recognize. I did not exaggerate when I said most of the speeches at my niece’s graduation made reference to superheroes (or their slightly upscale cousin, the Star Wars franchise)–one kid even played the “Spider Man” theme on his phone into the microphone. Superheroes offer easy answers, and a pre-chewed excuse for our delight in the pain of others: they are villains, after all, we are allowed to enjoy their suffering. And comic books are a fine diversion, but when the kind of narratives they offer dominate culture, can we really be surprised that Donald Trump got elected president? Other than the fact that he cheated, I mean. Trump is clearly a kind of comic book hero for a large segment of the population, and if he is cruel, it’s because he is being cruel to those who deserve it (liberal elites, sniveling minorities, the media), so it’s not cruelty. The contortions his supporters go through trying to fit actions like mocking reporter Serge Kovaleski into this narrative are pretty extraordinary, as in extraordinarily ridiculous. Then again, some of them are simply like the father making fun of the woman at graduation, they think it is their province to make fun of those they judge less fortunate, and if Trump does it, well, it validates what they have always known, that this is how the world works, might makes right, that making fun of those less fortunate is a sign of strength.

The fact that this move is a sign of weakness, and that the folks perpetrating it don’t grasp that point, leads me back to the idea that cruelty is delight in another’s pain, because I need to figure out how to stop being cruel. I want to be the best human being I can, and this is one of the most important ways do so, thus I must figure out how to find sympathy for, well, even for Donald Trump. Wanting justice is not the same as enjoying someone’s pain, however, so I can both sympathize for Trump and want him to go to jail, just like I can feel bad for any horrible person—it is never a joy to be evil, which is where the comic books fail us—and still want them to be broken, in the sense that they are broken from the cycle of terrible actions they are trapped in. Jail would, truly, be the best thing for Trump. Not that I think he would have some revelation and become a good person, I’m sure he would piss in the pruno and try to get the TV set permanently on “Fox and Friends,” but he would be reduced in terms of the pain he could cause, and that alone would break the escalation of cruelties that all persons trapped in this cycle of need and domination face, minimizing their effects, and lessening his suffering, and that of the rest of us. As Seneca said,

No prisoner at the bar is so full of agony and anxiety as a tyrant; for while he dreads both gods and men because they have witnessed, and will avenge his crimes, he has at the same time so far committed himself to this course of action that he is not able to alter it. This is perhaps the very worst quality of cruelty: a man must go on exercising it, and it is impossible for him to retrace his steps and start in a better path; for crimes must be safeguarded by fresh crimes. Yet who can be more unhappy than he who is actually compelled to be a villain? How greatly he ought to be pitied: I mean, by himself, for it would be impious for others to pity a man who has made use of his power to murder and ravage, who has rendered himself mistrusted by everyone at home and abroad, who fears the very soldiers to whom he flees for safety, who dare not rely upon the loyalty of his friends or the affection of his children: who, whenever he considers what he has done, and what he is about to do, and calls to mind all the crimes and torturings with which his conscience is burdened, must often fear death, and yet must often wish for it, for he must be even more hateful to himself than he is to his subjects.

I’m sure few people will agree with me that Trump, and any tyrant, in fact (though truth be told, he is a poor excuse for a tyrant at this point) deserves both sympathy and justice, that anyone doing cruelty must be recognized as someone who is also in pain. Part of the problem, maybe the whole problem, is that all of us have experienced some kind of cruelty at the hand of others, and the desire to see those people suffer is indeed strong. But that only perpetuates the cycle of cruelty, so that none of us can escape, and all must go on exercising it, unable to retrace our steps and find a better path. There are few things more difficult than seeing ourselves in the worst of us, but there we are, human, and nothing human is alien to us, if we allow ourselves to see it.