An Unexpected Lesson On The Emotional Complexity Of Children

On Sunday, while watching David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon, my daughter turned to me during one of its late tear-jerking moments–as the titular dragon, apparently named Elliott, faces grave danger from the usual motley crew of busybodies, law enforcement types, and crass exploiters who would imprison him for all sorts of nefarious purposes–and said that ‘sometimes sad movies make you sad, they make you cry.’ (For ‘Elliott,’ substitute ‘ET‘ and you will get some idea of what was afoot in the movie.) As she said this, her lips quivered, she swallowed rapidly, and her voice quavered and broke. She might even have dropped an actual tear. A short while later, as poor Elliott was further mistreated, she burst into tears and burrowed face down into the couch, snuggling up against her mother.

I watched this behavior with some astonishment–before I ran to offer her some consolation to the effect that this being a Hollywood movie, I could predict with some confidence that Elliott was going to be just fine. Indeed he was.

But my surprise and astonishment remained. For some reason, even though tears and crying are an all too frequent occurrence in my four-year old’s life–as they are in those of most others like her–I had not considered that she could be moved to tears by a melodramatic or melancholy movie. Tears on being denied sundry goodies, yes; tears in response to physical injury, perceived or imaginary, yes; but tears in response to the misfortunes of others, tears that originated in sympathy or empathy, no. Perhaps I was learning yet another lesson about the emotional complexity of children; perhaps I had not been paying sufficient attention to my child’s responses on previous, similar, occasions (she has often, of course, been frightened or awed by the images she has seen during her ‘weekly movie treat’); in either case, I had been educated. And impressed.

It is not entirely clear to me why I did not think children as young as my daughter could have had the reaction she did to cinematic and cultural offerings. After all, as I noted above, they are extraordinarily sensitive; and lacking a full arsenal of linguistic and emotional resources for coping with injury, crying makes all too-frequent an appearance in their responses to external stimuli. In the case of my daughter, I was also taken aback by her announcement that she was feeling ‘sad,’ that she was going to cry. The reaction that followed this announcement, one that was also, I think, infected with a kind of sympathetic fear for Elliott’s fate, would have been far more comprehensible to me; it would have followed a pattern of spontaneous, highly emotional reactions visible elsewhere. But her–dare I say, articulate–preamble threw me off. It was evidence of a verbal and emotional maturity that I had not previously reckoned with.

This will not be the last time, obviously, that my daughter will say or do something that will surprise me. Some of these surprises will be more pleasant than others. May the tribe of those pleasures of parenting increase.

Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

‘Westworld’ And Our Constitutive Loneliness

The title sequence to HBO’s Westworld is visually and aurally beautiful, melancholic, and ultimately haunting: artifacts–whose artifice is clearly visible–take shape in front of us, manufactured and brought into being by sophisticated devices, presumably robotic ones just like them; their anatomies and shapes and forms and talents are human-like; and that is all we need to begin to empathize with them. Empathize with what? The emotions of these entities is ersatz; there is nothing and no one there. Or so we are told. But we don’t need those emotions and feelings to be ‘real’–whatever that means. We merely need a reminder–in any way, from any quarter–about the essential features of our existence, and we are off and running, sent off into that endless mope and funk that is our characteristic state of being.

The robot and the android–the ‘host’ in Westworld–is there to provide bodies to be raped, killed, and tortured by the park’s guests;  we, the spectators, are supposed to be ashamed of our species, at our endless capacity for entertainment at the expense of the easily exploited, a capacity which finds its summum malum with a demographic that is controlled by us in the most profound way possible–for we control their minds and bodies. 1984‘s schemers had nothing on this. And the right set-up, the right priming for this kind of reaction is provided by the title track–even more than the many scenes which show hosts crying, moaning with pleasure, flying into a rage–for it places squarely in front of us, our loneliness, our sense of being puppets at the beck and call of forces beyond our control. (The loneliness of the hosts being manufactured in the title sequence is enhanced by their placement in a black background; all around them, the darkness laps at the edges, held back only by the light emergent from the hosts’ bodies; we sense that their existence is fragile and provisional.)

We have known for long that humans need only the tiniest suggestion of similarity and analogy to switch on their full repertoire of empathetic reactions; we smile at faces drawn on footballs; we invent personal monikers for natural landmarks that resemble anatomic features; we deploy a language rich with psychological predicates for such interactions as soon as we possibly can, and only abandon it with reluctance when we notice that more efficient languages are available. We are desperate to make contact with anyone or anything, desperate to extend our community, to find reassurance that this terrible isolation we feel–even in, or perhaps especially in, the company of the ones we love, for they remind us, with their own unique and peculiar challenges, just how alone we actually are. We would not wish this situation on anyone else; not even on creatures whose ‘insides’ do not look like ours. The melancholia we feel when we listen to, and see, Westworld‘s title sequence tells us our silent warnings have gone unheeded; another being is among us, inaccessible to us, and to itself. And we have made it so; our greatest revenge was to visit the horrors of existence on another being.

Grieving For Others When ‘There Is Sobbing At Home’

In Koba The Dread (Vintage International, New York, 2003, pp. 258) Martin Amis includes in a footnote, a quote from Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn citing an alleged Russian proverb as follows:

Why grieve for others when there is sobbing at home?

The sentiment at the heart of this query about apparently misdirected grief may be summed up, roughly, as follows: we should reserve our expressions of sorrow for where they are most appropriately directed, at matters closer to heart and home. Our sympathy is scarce; there is much need for it here, close by; it is inappropriate and wasteful to direct it elsewhere. It might even be an expression of insincerity, of a certain kind of bad faith, evidence of a flaw in our affective responses to others: you do not have grief for those closest to you, but plenty for others? (This is certainly how the quote is deployed in Amis’ referring to a story told by Kingsley Amis in his Memoirs about how reports in Pravda about Joseph Stalin‘s complaints, “in person,” to the United Nations about the treatment of Greek communist prisoners at the end of the civil war evoked “hysterical laughter” among gulag prisoners; their state bore ample testimony to Stalin’s malignant hypocrisy.)

But we can offer a contestation of such a view of the act of grieving for others even as ‘there is sobbing at home.’ Perhaps we grieve for others precisely because we have born witness to such sobbing; perhaps we can direct our grief elsewhere because the grieving ‘at home’ has reminded us of the ubiquitousness of grief, that no one is immune to it, that sorrow comes to all, and leaves no one untouched. We might have once viewed the sorrow of others as a distant vision, a visitor unlikely to come knocking at our door; the ‘sobbing at home’ tells us that such smugness is unwarranted.

It might be too that we can grieve for others because we have participated in the sobbing at home and learned how to grieve. Perhaps our sobbing at home has made it possible for us to become more sympathetic and empathetic alike. Grieving might not be instinctive; we need to be inculcated in its ways and means, and what better venue for such education than our most intimate and personal of spaces?

I have made note here previously of the appropriateness of grieving over the passing of ‘perfect strangers,’ people–like celebrities and other public figures–with whom we did not enjoy a personal relationship; there our expressions of grief were evoked by the felt resonances of the occasion of someone’s passing with components of our own emotional make-up–“memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike.” I’d concluded then that “To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern.” That same conclusion holds true here too. We should, when we can, grieve for others even when there is sobbing at home.

A Sympathy Inducing Reminder Of Basic Human Wants

A few years ago, a young union organizer stopped by my office to talk with me about an upcoming campaign of activism directed at CUNY administration. As we spoke, I felt increasingly impatient. I didn’t need to be ‘organized’; my participation in the activities planned by the union was a foregone conclusion; this young man was preaching to the converted. I tried to indicate as much so that his energies could be more usefully utilized elsewhere, but he was undeterred; it was quite clear he–a novice activist–was working with a script, and was going to stick to it to no matter what. Finally, struggling to keep my irritable disposition under control, I brought the meeting to a close, and ushered him out. Later, still put off, I commented to a friend of mine on how the young organizer needed to ‘get his act together.’

A couple of weeks later, walking through campus, I saw the same young man sitting by himself, eating a sandwich for lunch. My initial reaction on seeing him had been to hope that he would not catch sight of me and launch into his organizing spiel. But as I looked at him, quietly working his way through his solitary meal, an entirely different emotion ran through me, one that replaced the irritation I had come to associate with him.

I felt, most of all, a curious emotion that I can only describe as a hybrid of sympathy, pity, and affection; it might be the feeling that courses through us when we see a small child playing by itself. Strangely enough, as I looked at that young man, I felt protective of him. I felt too, regret at yet another failure of kindness, even if not overtly expressed; I had not been accommodating and understanding enough of his enthusiasm for his work, of his naiveté and sincerity. I felt ashamed I had ever thought so harshly of him, spoken so unkindly about him. I had been impatient and dismissive; he had merely been doing his job even if one could quibble with his tactical allocation of effort.

This change in my perception of this young man had been brought on, I think, by witnessing him at a moment of acute vulnerability. He was all alone, engaging in an act that all humans engage in,  eating a meal. Somehow the simple business of quietly eating a sandwich in solitude had reminded me of his humanity. When I had encountered him in my office, he had been a pesky irritant, diverting me from my work, subjecting me to an argument the contours of which I knew too well. Here, all that was gone; now, there was only a young man nourishing himself. All alone. Somehow, at that moment, he became just another person trying–imperfectly, at the best of times–to find his way in this world, all the while not free of his most basic human wants. Here, by himself, he was taking care of them.

At that moment, that little glimpse of that young man was all that was needed for me to see him in an entirely new light. My old feelings could resurface were I to encounter him in a similar context, but perhaps then, hopefully, they would be tempered by the knowledge of the sensations that I had just experienced.