Outrage Outrage

In a story that anyone who's reading this blog should've read, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," the title character goes on a walk in the woods with the Devil. Reluctant to leave his wife, Faith, home alone for the evening, Goodman Brown heads into the woods nevertheless: "My journey, as thou callest it, forth and back again, must needs be done 'twixt now and sunrise."

Like all of Hawthorne's fiction, this masterpiece seems simple the first ten times you read it. But there is truly great psychological insight waiting in the middle of the story, in the middle of the woods. As Brown approaches the hellish circle of fiends gathered in the middle of the woods, and after the Devil points out that those gathered around the fire have all already joined in communion with him -- and after he recognizes the people gathered there as "all [those] whom [he had] reverenced from youth" -- after all that, the Devil works his magic. Here's how Hawthorne tells it:
And there [Goodman Brown and Faith] stood, the only pair, as it seemed, who were yet hesitating on the verge of wickedness in this dark world. A basin was hollowed, naturally, in the rock. Did it contain water, reddened by the lurid light? or was it blood? or, perchance, a liquid flame? Herein did the shape of evil [i.e., the Devil] dip his hand and prepare to lay the mark of baptism upon their foreheads, that they might be partakers of the mystery of sin, more conscious of the secret guilt of others, both in deed and thought, than they could now be of their own. (italics added)
Lately, I've been observing a lot of moral outrage and very little admission of personal guilt. I see it in my sophomores, who write with unselfconscious ease about how "appalled" they are by the way the Puritans treated the Native Americans. Or about how "disgusted" they are by the way the slavemasters treated the slaves. Or about how the holocaust was "astonishingly evil."

Obviously, it is appalling & disgusting whenever injustice arises -- but there is a very real danger, I think, in looking-without-involvement, in confidently wagging your finger at others where inward reflection ought to be evident. When a person looks, at history and the world, "more conscious of the secret guilt of others... than they [are] of their own," I believe they begin to pave a new way for evil. I've written (complained) about this problem before (Monica, you promised a follow-up in the comments there; I'll accept it here!) as it relates to academia.

Back to the much anticipated Parmenides sequence tomorrow.


Monica said...

Well, I've just re-read the post of yours that you link back to from 2007. I don't know what I meant to say back then, but reading it again now seems to produce a similar response in me: where the hell do I begin? I feel as if I have a lot to say (since I agree with you), but feel inadequate when it comes to expressing them because I, too, am guilty of this. I spend my days studying the Holocaust and constantly reaffirming my feelings of hatred toward Nazis and others who contributed to the atrocity.

But what do I really do to stop atrocities that are going on in the world today? I'll tell you what I do: nothing. I suppose I could argue that by teaching people about the Holocaust and helping them think through the ethics of various situations connected to it that I am educating them and encouraging them to not let it happen again.

But I also wonder if is too tempting, when sitting in a classroom and learning to be outraged by the perpetrators of the Holocaust, to feel even better about oneself--to be deceived about one's own actions or inactions when compared to the horror of someone else's. Are we encouraged to become more responsible? Or are we made more comfortable with ourselves since, of course, we've never been capable of anything as atrocious as the acts done during the Holocaust?

Anyway, I've been thinking about this lately, and I've been trying to spin my class discussions about ethics a bit to talk about personal responibility and all that.

Casey said...

Monica, what a great comment... I especially appreciate your first and third paragraphs. In that second one, I thought you were going to lose me... because I think at some level what I'm aiming for is not trying to stop atrocities that are going on in the world today. What I'm suggesting we need more of is what you suggest in that third paragraph: making ourselves less comfortable.

It is rather easy to admit, for example, that racism is unjust. It is somewhat more difficult to march in a civil rights protest. It is by far most difficult to admit (even to myself) that I have participated in racism, been racist, or felt racist.

Same goes for anti-semitism, of course, which may or may not be adequately lumped in with "racism."

But I think that the fundamental reason I'm digging this well is to discover that there are injustices that do not fit our pre-established ethical categories: while I am on the lookout against being racially unjust or insensitive, am I blind to my unjust behavior to those who are not of a different cultural background?

If I am less than loving to my wife? To the waiter or waitress at dinner? To the driver in front of me on my morning commute? I think that at some level, this needs to be part of the ethical discourse.

Question: is it possible that some ethical gain might be made in discovering some aspect of ourselves in the wrongdoers? If I see Hitler as entirely other, I feel no need to "repent." Can we extent sympathy (with strict self-consciousness?) to the doers of injustice as well as the victims?

Monica said...

Hmph, see Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil. For the past two days I've been at a conference on the filming of the Eichmann trial, and this issue (of how we see the Nazi perpetrator: as isolated evil monster, or as an average man of middling intelligence--which is how Arendt saw Eichmann?).

So, I guess the answer to your question is yes, there probably is some ethical gain to be made by seeing in the perpetrator aspects of oneself. But that said, I think there's a line...somewhere. I tend to think that forced to its logical conclusion, the banality of evil argument has the potential to reduce the extent to which the perpetrator must be (and is) responsible for his/her actions. For, if anyone could've/would've acted similarly if put in the same circumstances, how can we hold the perpetrator responsible? And yet, he/she MUST be held responsible. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that the perpetrator must BE responsible--now that is something else altogether.

Casey said...

"if anyone could've/would've acted similarly if put in the same circumstances, how can we hold the perpetrator responsible?"

Hmm... that's a good question. My answer is that the same circumstances will never arise again: it will never be 1933 in Germany again; and when Hitler comes again, he won't be freshly rejected from art school and wearing a tight little mustache. Ethics must be "living ethics," and although holding the dead accountable probably serves some purpose, it cannot be as important as holding the living accountable.

The same goes for "good," by the way: I sometimes like to ask my students (a question I can get away with at a Baptist college), "How will you recognize Jesus when he returns?"

It seems to be a question they've never considered -- as if they thought he'd be floating two inches above the ground and glowing and looking just like he does in the old pictures.

In an esoteric way, I believe Jesus will return (believe, indeed, that he may already be with us) -- but I'm pretty confident that he won't be named Jesus, won't be from Nazareth, and won't have such pretty blonde hair.

If I oppose the banality of evil argument with the banality of goodness argument, does that help?

Good questions!!! I'm envious of you for being at that conference...

Monica said...

Two things.

First: The messiah will come when he is no longer necessary.

Second: I agree re: a living ethics. I do not think that someone (aka a Nazi) should not be held responsible because we may have acted the same way if put in their shoes. Because...the fact is, we weren't, and we didn't. They did, and so they must be responsible. I just think that's the danger of the banality of evil argument---we lessen the extent to which the perpetrator is responsible if we see their evil as "banal."