Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Of monsters and their morality

In reference to the previous post, I should mention that some people left behind a whole lot of online ugliness in similar cases:

""This is a case of pure evil negligence of the worse kind . . . He deserves the death sentence."

"I wonder if this was his way of telling his wife that he didn't really want a kid."

"He was too busy chasing after real estate commissions. This shows how morally corrupt people in real estate-related professions are."

These were readers' online comments to The Washington Post news article of July 10, 2008, reporting the circumstances of the death of Miles Harrison's son. These comments were typical of many others, and they are typical of what happens again and again, year after year in community after community, when these cases arise. A substantial proportion of the public reacts not merely with anger, but with frothing vitriol. (...)

After Lyn Balfour's acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:

"If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens."

As usual, Hilzoy nails it:

But I still ask myself: who are these people who, having read about a complete stranger whose character is unknown to them, feel compelled to write comments like these?

After all, it's not as though there was some reason why they had to pronounce on Mr. Harrison's character. No: they were just reading the paper, and for some reason they felt that they just had to write these things. And they didn't just stick to the facts; they leapt to conclusions about who he was and why he did what he did. If I felt like emulating them, I might think: these are the sorts of people who lie awake at night nursing grievances, running over and over various slights in their mind, thinking of all the things they could have said to really put X in his or her place.

... This is interesting to me as an ethicist, because almost all the comments reprinted here criticize people on moral grounds. But the person with whose moral character we should be most directly concerned is our own. On almost any account, if morality requires anything at all, it requires that we take other people seriously as people, with their own independent existence, rather than using them as screens onto which we project our own psychological needs at will. So I would think that anyone who was genuinely concerned to do the right thing would recognize this sort of freefloating hostility, and the lack of concern for others that lets it emerge, as vices dressing themselves up as virtues.

I see it over and over again, every hour, every day, on all sorts of Web sites and blogs and occasionally in my own e-mail account at work. I'm talking of people who will mock the death of another person, place blame before the facts can even be sorted out at the scene, cast aspersions on someone completely unknown to them if not for the headline. This sort of person can't stop spewing long enough to think or reason or feel.

Something about them makes them unable to employ empathy and imagination. Who are these people who find grotesque catharsis in articulating their condemnation?

This sort of person is bankrupt. Or not even a person, but a monster.


Jordan said...

It is quite astonishing how quickly someone can pass judgement. I wonder what 'doctor' Phil would have to say about this situation. People are so damn self-righteous it's scary.

blackink said...

Amen, Jordan. Amen.

I can't even take Dr. Phil seriously, btw. He's not much better than Steve Wilkos.

maria said...

nah, if you have kids, and someone else lets their kid die thru stupid neglect, an agonizing death, you can become enraged.

i mean, some of those commenters are spot on. look at how folks turned on octomom. are they wrong? no.

i don't see it as an indictment of the human race.

that said, as a mother of multiples who had no help from their father, i could see falling down on the job, due to stress, etc., but not that bad.

blackink said...

See, Maria, I guess where I would disagree with you is calling it "stupid neglect." But you at least allow for the possibility of "falling down on the job" and I can appreciate that.

In the most literal sense, I suppose you could call it neglect. But there's nothing stupid about it. And it happens to everyone, across racial and socioeconomic lines.

I just think those commenters are repulsive. That ain't the time or place or even the right way. I couldn't even fathom how someone could pass such harsh judgment on another grieving parent in that way, especially one who clearly made the worst mistake of his life.

And regarding the Octomom, I feel the same way. I think we'd all do better to on the decisions we make in our own lives - good or bad - rather than parse the ones others make. I might not agree with the woman's decision, but it's not really my place to say what she should or shouldn't do with her body. As a general rule, and as a man, that's my general policy when it comes to women and their bodies.