‘The Hunt’: A Life All Too Easily Ruined

It might seem an odd thing to say about a movie that generates, very quickly, an atmosphere of claustrophobic tragedy, that it could have been darker, but I think that assessment is apt for Thomas Vinterberg‘s The Hunt (2012). This frightening tale of an otherwise sympathetic man whose life is almost destroyed by an untruthful accusation made by a deeply confused child takes us to the edge of the abyss. We stare into it; we retreat to safer ground. But as the movie draws to a close, it is not quite clear we are safe yet. We cannot yet breathe easy.

Pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children is serious business. Accusations of pedophilia have to be taken seriously; too many lives have been ruined by a failure to notice unspeakable abuse committed against the innocent by those considered deserving and worthy of trust. But there is a right way and wrong way to go about doing so. The Hunt could serve as a manual for how to get it catastrophically wrong. You do not feed children answers; you do not interrogate them without their parents present; you do not escalate matters without good reason; and so on. Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen in a stellar performance brimming with quiet pain), a kindergarten teacher who is lonely in his personal life, but warm and friendly to his wards at school, is devastated by this malignant incompetence. The little girl Klara–her imagination inflamed by pornographic images glimpsed in passing, and possessed by pique at having her childish quasi-romantic advances rebuffed by Lucas–who fingers him to the school authorities, is indeed abused, but not by Lucas. She is abused by the way her tale is handled and ‘processed.’ Once her fatal words have passed her lips, she too becomes a pawn, buffeted by forces beyond her control.

The central tragedies of The Hunt are that Lucas’ life, which is about to find a new, hopeful, and redemptive trajectory is knocked off-course; that Klara lashes out because she is a child perhaps lacking in adequate attention and care at home; and that an accusation like the one she makes, in this world, can never be fully retracted (as the ending of the movie makes painfully clear). Communities built on trust are underwritten by a fragility whose presence is only noted when these human groupings are torn asunder by seemingly minor irruptions of fear, suspicion, and paranoia.

The anguish of the falsely accused is among the most painful human experiences to witness. As Klara’s accusation acquires a life of its own, Lucas loses his life-long friends; he is ostracized by his community; his son is devastated. We might consider these justifiable penalties for the guilty; they are devastatingly inappropriate for the innocent. There is genuine horror here; for what we witness is not an assault by the lurking forces of a malignant supernatural but instead by goodness gone bad. We witness yet again, how easily one may be transformed into another. That might be The Hunt‘s most frightening lesson.

I’m Scared, Therefore I Work

A few weeks ago, I got into an argument–offline, not online–about those two horsemen of the apocalypse that are destroying the American nation, rendering it financially insolvent, and turning the American Dream into the American Nightmare. I’m referring, of course, to unions and teacher tenure.

At the heart of these fears is a very interesting generalization about the nature of human motivation in the domain of ‘work.’ To wit, humans only work productively and usefully in an environment of fear, with a Damoclean sword hanging over them: a worker only works and produces value if he or she is made aware, perhaps relentlessly, that immediate termination of his employment is possible at the whim of his employer. Otherwise, the worker will slump into his naturally indolent state, content to cut corners, all the while taking home the hard-earned money of his employers. The unionized worker is protected by the union and the provision of the contract it has signed with management, so he will not work; the tenured teacher knows he or she ‘cannot be fired,’ so naturally, having once obtained tenure, he will kick off his shoes and put them up, content with merely punching time-cards for the rest of his career. To permit the formation of unions, to grant tenure, is to open the gates to an army of sloths, come to nibble away slowly at your productivity schedules and financial bottom-lines.

It is unclear, of course, where those folks who are unionized or tenured, and are yet nevertheless productive and creative, fit into this picture. I presume there are some tenured teachers in this nation’s schools who continue to come to work, teach, assign homeworks and grade them, take their wards on field trips, write recommendation letters, meet parents, and so on. From personal experience I know that many tenured professors continue to teach, advise students, work on intellectually challenging projects and write in a variety of fora. I’m puzzled by what motivates them. Why do they continue to work, when they know they ‘cannot be fired’? (Come to think of it, why am I writing my next book, a business which is driving me a little batty at the moment, when I know won’t be fired if I don’t finish it?)

I wonder if this conception of human motivation is grounded in an archaic conception of ‘work’ itself: to wit, that work is that thing which is unpleasant, forced upon the worker against his will, which he accepts only because of external circumstance, and to bind him to which therefore needs some further form of compulsion. In this picture it seems unimaginable that anyone could ‘choose’ to work, to immerse themselves in a compensation-offering activity that they might find fulfilling. So the aspirant for tenure, one building credentials for that application, is merely shamming. His activities, his productivity, is merely a ruse to enter the building. Once inside, he will immediately disdain precisely that which occupied him so and secured him admission. All that interest in writing and teaching? Merely feigned. There is no need for that sham anymore. Tenure is here.

The panorama of human activity, the various engagements in projects of intellectual and moral worth, their grounding stands revealed: the folks engaged in them are scared of being fired.

Corporal Punishment and the Arrested Development of the ‘Adult’

In the past couple of weeks, I have quoted at length from Erik Erikson‘s Young Man Luther. First, to draw an analogy between the development stages of humans and nations via the notion of an identity crisis, and then, to point to perhaps a similarly analogical relationship between indoctrination and addiction recovery. Today, I want to point to a passage that is particularly insightful about corporal punishment:

It takes a particular view of man’s place on this earth, and of the place of childhood within man’s total scheme, to invent devices for terrifying children into submission, either by magic, or by mental and corporeal terror. When these terrors are associated with collective and ritual observances, they can be assumed to contain some inner corrective which keeps the individual child from facing life all by himself; they may even offer some compensation of belongingness and identification. Special concepts of property (including the idea that a man can ruin, his own property if he wishes) underlie the idea that it is entirely up to the discretion of an individual father when he should raise the morality of his children by beating their bodies. It is clear that the concept of children as property opens the door to those misalliances of impulsivity and compulsivity, of arbitrariness and moral logic, of brutality and haughtiness, which make men crueler and more licentious than creatures not fired with the divine spark. The device of beating children down by superior force, by contrived logic, or by vicious sweetness makes it unnecessary for the adult to become adult. He need not develop that true inner superiority which is naturally persuasive. Instead, he is authorized to remain significantly inconsistent and arbitrary, or in other words, childish, while beating into the child the desirability of growing up. The child, forced out of fear to pretend that he is better when seen than when unseen, is left to anticipate the day when he will have the brute power to make others more moral than he ever intends to be himself.

I was fortunate enough to never suffer the chastisements of an unhinged father (though he was, in his own way, a strict man with high standards) but I did see, in too many of my school years, teachers who thought little of vigorously handing out slaps and canings to their wards. In my fifth grade year in school, our teacher had such a reputation that she induced a severe panic into most of my classmates. The penalty for a missed homework was a public slapping, as was that for talking in class. Indeed, think of a possible offence, and you’d find the penalty was a ear-ringing slap across the face. We didn’t respect her; we just feared her. Without exaggeration, her replacement, a few weeks into the school year, by a young graduate of teaching college, who turned out to be a brilliant mentor to all of us, was one of the best pieces of news I have ever received in my life. The sense of relief I felt that day can scarcely be described. Then, she seemed grown-up and fearsome. In retrospect, I realize I had been confronted with someone who had never quite made the transition from child to adult.

Note: Excerpt from Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1962, pp. 69-70.