Wednesday, June 15, 2005

"Nothing Human Is Alien To Me" -- Terrence

According to the Associated Press,

"People don’t know who Michael Jackson is,” said defense attorney Susan Yu. “I spent a lot of time with him. I’ve never seen anybody so vulnerable. This person is totally incapable of doing any of the things they said he did.”

Let's get this straight right now. There is no human being who is "totally incapable" of any heinous crime that might be beyond the pale of your personal imagination, Susan Yu or any of you other Up With People types out there.

The sooner we all embrace the philosopher's dictum that "Nothing human is alien to me," the better.

Therefore, a Jeffrey Dahmer's human snacking will no longer truly shock us. Our jaws will not drop when we finally learn what happened to that Alabama high school senior in Aruba. It will not cause us to shut down in denial to learn that our government has tortured thousands of completely innocent men at Guantanamo, detaining and tormenting them long after they knew they were totally unconnected to any terrorists. A bug-eyed Georgia bride's "lies and mendacity" will not inspire us to buy the newspaper and "read all about it!", and Tom Cruise's bizarre, simian shenanigans will not make the front page of any so-called "news" publication.

When we get over, give up and move on from our eternal willingness to be shocked! appalled! ohmahgodded! and made incredulous that anyone could do such a thing, we'll move that much closer to maturity as a species, and can stop rubbernecking the multiple horrors of the world and actually do something about them.

Repeat after me: "Nobody is totally incapable of doing anything. Nobody is totally incapable of doing anything."

You may want to acquaint yourselves with the works of the Marquis de Sade, who so well understood human depravity and sadism and who remains for me the unparalleled Dark Angel of Western philosophy.

I recommend the definitive Grove Weidenfeld edition of Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings, compiled and translated by Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse.


Blogger Chalicechick said...

Looks like Terri Schiavo was totally incapable of doing anything of the sort.

Are we saying she's not human?

I sound like I'm being flip here, and I guess I am, but I don't think it is as simple as that.

I have his permission to talk about autism, so I think I'm safe in saying that there are some things the CSO is incapable of doing. The CSO can't drive a car, for example. He couldn't watch "Super Size Me" or even be in the room when it is discussed. (That one I don't think even he can explain. It just freaks him out.)

Now, the CSO is capable of WANTING to run somebody over with a car. But I don't think he could actually do it and "he's too vulnerable" is not an unreasonable approximation of why.

Do I think that Micheal Jackson is incapable of this crime in the sense that the CSO is incapable of running someone over?

Not necessarily.

Is it impossible?



Anonymous alto2 said...

I think PB is talking about the potential for human behavior, not the physical ability to commit it. Obviously, some folks are less physically able than others, but that doesn't mean that the psychology isn't there.

I'm so glad to see someone making this point. I get so tired of people taking someone like Hitler, for example, and dehumanizing him (ironic, that) so that they can continue to deny that any of us have the potential to commit Hitler-esque behavior. He was just as human as the rest of us, and any one of us could end up there. Fortunately, most of us don't, whether through upbringing or temperament or lack of access to power, or whatever, but that doesn't change the fact that any of us, given the right circumstances, could. And until we all recognize that potential, I think we'll keep seeing folks like Mugabe, Saddam, etc.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

I think it is more complicated than that.

I don't think that there's anything in Hitler's background that would lead me to killing millions.

Plenty of white people have been intimidated by young African-Americans on the subway. We know Bernie Goetz's name because the same intimidation that thousands dealt with and got over had him shooting people.

I'm sorry, I grew up with a kid who lied and cheated and stole and beat people up with no conscience about it whatsoever. Still does. He simply doesn't get that other people feel.

Can you construct a theoretical situation where I would steal? Sure. To feed a hungry kid, to bring medicine to a sick poor person. Wouldn't make a habit of it, but I can concede that it's possible that I could steal in extraordinary circumstances.

But I'm sorry, you're not going to convince me that there's a way I would steal the change out of someone's car, knowing that I'm going to use it on beer and knowing that they are going to get a ticket when they take the toll road the next day. That's the sort of crap my brother pulls.

Do I know what to do about people who are, as far as I know, born ruthless?


But I'm not going to pretend that we are all among their number.


Anonymous alto2 said...

I don't think we're quite talking about the same thing. I'm saying we all have the potential. Not that we are all criminals, etc.

Yes, there are folks who are sociopathic, who have no concept of how their actions affect others. Are they sociopathic as the result of nature, or nurture?

I had a decent childhood. You probably did, too. But if you were placed, as a child, in identical circumstances as someone who did not, who later went on to become a monster, can you guarantee that you would not take a similar path? I know I can't, much as I would like to think that I would from my perspective as an adult. Kids who are born as normal as any other child can end up becoming monsters. And since children in the same family are not necessarily treated the same way, you can't necessarily say that two kids from the same family will or won't end up that way.

My point, essentially, is that environmental factors can push any of us to do horrible things, which I think is also the point PB was making. Think of women in abusive marriages who kill their husbands. Yes, it's self-defense, but it's also still a horrible thing to do. And they wouldn't if they weren't in a situation that made them feel that they absolutely had to. But that doesn't change the fact that an otherwise ordinary, good, kind person has the capacity to kill.

We're all capable of horrific things, if pushed far enough. To deny it is to deny the full aspect of our humanity.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chalice chick, as far as your big opening shot about Terri Schiavo, PB didn't say that the definition of human is to act in a crimnal way (or to act at all). You just don't listen. No one is talking about autism or your brother. The point of the post was obviously something like, don't be surprised if people turn out to be a lot more capable of evil or cruelty or destruction than you could personally imagine. It had nothing to do wtih YOU and your capability to steal, or whatever.

It's one thing to contribute to a thoughtful discusson and another to think that everything a blogger says needs to fit your life experiences, or it's your job to comment negatively on it.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

My brother's childhood was far from perfect. I know all about it because I was there. But he's sitting in jail waiting for a statutory rape trial while I'm sitting here gainfully employed having nothing on my record worse than speeding tickets.

My point is that not all people who grow up to do awful things have yucky childhoods. And not all people with yucky childhoods grow up to do anything worse than having a self-indulgent blog.

How is it that siblings grow up to be so different?

Because they are different people. And people are born differently and turn out differently.

Not everyone has the potential to be a vicious criminal.

Not everyone has the potential to be Einstein.

Not everyone has the potential to be a air traffic controller, or at least a successful one. (To take a profession where one must presumably be stable, well-organized and not easily distracted.)

Ps. Exception: I will admit that it has been pretty decently proven that children who kill their parents have a reason for doing so, usually sexual abuse. (E.g. there was all sorts of sexual abuse evidence in the Menendez case, but the judge wouldn't allow it.)

Children who are just naturally violent I suspect simply kill other people

Blogger Chalicechick said...


The opening shot against Terry Schiavo was tacky, I'll admit. I was feeling smug because someone in my life had made a great fuss about her surety that Terry was abused and would recover and had given me much hell for disagreeing.

It has taken awhile to formulate what I'm getting at, but I think my central point, that people are born differently from each other and that we aren't all capable of growing up to be evil any more than we are all capable of growing up to be rocket scientists.

My second response was more directed at Alto than at PB as Alto was the one who directly said that we all had potential to be Hitler (though that may well have been what PB meant by "There is no human being who is "totally incapable" of any heinous crime that might be beyond the pale of your personal imagination, Susan Yu or any of you other Up With People types out there." You'll have to ask her.), but to readdress Michael Jackson, I am sure that Jackson's lawyer is aware that SOME PEOPLE are capable of child sexual abuse. Her point was that the person she knows is not capable of child sexual abuse.

I don't know Micheal Jackson. The defense attorney does. But then, she's paid to argue his innocence.

And I think that if I'm going have a defense attorney for a heinous crime, I want an "Up with People" type.

who takes her own experience and refines it through reason as best she can as a way to find truth, and yes, sometimes takes a bit of writing to figure out what even she thinks on a topic.

If your standards for the way people present opinions are so much higher, perhaps reading blogs is not the hobby for you?

Blogger chutney said...

I am shocked...SHOCKED!...that you would insinuate that I am wrong to romanticize and sentimentalize cute little dearies and demonize and scapegoat reprehensible subhuman monsters! How am I supposed to make moral sense of the world now??

Back to reality, I'd argue with CC that being evil and being good require a certain amount of talent and practice. Perhaps some are born with the knack and other are not. But I think the human condition enables us to be either, regardless of innate talent, with enough practice, conditioning, etc. Even the most morally untalented among us (exclusing conditions like sociopathy) has enough talent to be either good or evil.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

I do think some people do have a talent for it and others get there through practice.

But I think it is largely a bell curve rather than a true case of equal opportunity. Most people aren't hitting either extreme.

Maybe one has to be a little bit mentally ill by our definition to really do either.

While we can debate whether Hitler was a monster, I don't think anybody's going to argue that he wasn't mentally ill, and probably the same would be said about a person who kept, say, giving away everything they had and quitting their job every time their boss took a company pen home or something. (Define your own extreme good, you know what I'm getting at.)


Blogger PeaceBang said...

Oh my heavens! What have you children been up to while I was at work!?
Okay. Lots of questions put to me here. Well. Alto, I'm don't agree with the "nurture" argument, as in "anyone who suffers the right amount of abuse can become a vile criminal," and ChaliceChick, I have to admit I rather lost you at Terri Schiavo and other things i thought were digressive, but Anonymous, you're pretty close with your sense that the essence of the post was, "Don't be surprised."

That's what I meant. Not that we're ALL capable of heinous sadism (or born that way or will become that way if treated badly enough) but that none of us really knows what anyone else is capable of, so don't let it crush you when the next door neighbor ("such a nice guy!") turns out to have body parts stashed in his tree house.

When I wanted us to chant "Anybody is capable of ANYTHING," I meant it not to say that EVERYBODY is capable of ANYTHING, but truly, that ANYONE -- including people we think we "know" -- have secret capacities for cruelty or harm that will never be evident even to the most intimate observer.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Ah, there's the rub. I see that I wrote, "Nobody is incapable of ANYTHING." See how much spleen I could have saved some of you if I had been precise in my language in the first place? I should have said ANYBODY is capable of ANYTHING.

Well. That'll larn me, alright.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

Ah. I kinda thought that was what you meant, but when Alto kept playing the "any one of us could be Hitler" note, I went with it.

I have already apologized for a comment I even labeled as flip at the time, but fine, I'm sorry I was snide about Terri Schiavo. As it was the first counterexample that sprang to mind for "Everyone" is capable of everything, I just put it down.

That most people are as emotionally incapable of child sexual abuse as the CSO is of driving a car, and that if you're emotionally incapable of doing something you're no more likely to do it than Terri Schiavo was intended to be the upshot of the first post, but it never really got there.



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