Monday, July 28, 2008


In Bernard Pomerance's play, "The Elephant Man," Merrick complains that Romeo did not love Juliet because he didn't call a doctor and try to save her; he declares, "If I had been Romeo, we would have got away."

"But then there would be no play, Mr. Merrick," responds the actress, Mrs. Kendall.

"If he did not love her," asks Merrick, "why should there be a play?"

Joseph Merrick, AKA "The Elephant Man"

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Jack1956 (public domain)

One could ask as well, "If you don't know who your partner is, why should there be a marriage?" This brings us to another question, of course: "If you didn't know who your partner was, who did you think s/he was?" The "what" is not impertinent. Almost no one in modern Western culture consciously thinks of another person as a nonsentient being, or object, or thing, but the idea is not unprecedented. We cannot, for example, believe that half of what is now know as the United States is descended from purely evil persons. Yet that half, once known as the Confederate States of America, once kept slaves and maintained a slavery-based economy (as the Sudan and Mauritania do even now). It would be impossible for an entire nation (as it considered itself) of people to keep human beings as slaves unless it were a nation of evil persons, or unless they did not view the other persons as human.

Illustration from 1907 edition of "Review of Reviews for Australiasia": The human being as object is not a new concept.

copyright Wikimedia Commons/public domain

It is easy to justify almost any treatment of nonsentient objects. Why not? They can't feel anything, after all! There are precious objects in the world, many of them classified as "art"; someone who took a chainsaw to a Stradivarius would be considered insane, and the defilement of a Modigliani or a Van Gogh would evoke more horror and disgust than mere property loss would warrant. Perhaps the pain we experience when a book is burned comes less from the destruction of the physical book (apart from our consideration of how many like it might remain in the universe) than from the unshakable feeling that the author exists somehow inside the pages of the book, just as we feel the painter's presence in the painting. Still, things are, after all, only things, and we give lip service, at least, to the concept of valuing human life over lifeless objects. We recoil in horror when we read in the newspaper of the man who got killed for the dollar and change in his pocket. It puzzles me somewhat that we recoil less and less as the dollar amount increases, but no matter. The point is that we purport to know the difference between a person and a thing, and we purport to care.

Where it all gets murky is when lines get drawn. Is a tree a lifeless object? We all know it is not, and we also have heard in recent years that plants scream, that they feel -- but let's face it: those who become vegetarians in order to avoid hurting animals (there are others who have other reasons) do not anguish over the emotional condition of their broccoli. Some who would not poison a rat still might swat a fly. Some who would go out of their way to avoid kicking a dog might shoot a rattlesnake in the head, not only in self-defense but perhaps in simple fear. Is it beyond our capacity to imagine a man who would not raise his voice to a white child who'd been naughty but would have no compunctions against hanging a black man who had wandered into the wrong part of town, or a woman who would volunteer to bring food to needy but would scream at some homeless guy who was raiding her trash can for scraps.

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Shayan Sanyal

This is only possible if we accept that we are exempt from considering the individuality of some living creatures. All of us accept this to some extent. I personally rejoice at the death of a cockroach, and if that cockroach loved its family, too damned bad. If I truly believed that cockroach had a family, that it knew it had a family, that is, and loved it, I would not rejoice at its death. How could I? The plain truth is, I don't believe it. I don't recognize a cockroach as an individual (oh look, there goes WIlbur! Get him!) because it doesn't fit any of the usual human criteria for individuality (cats do; dogs do; rats do; cockroaches don't; I've drawn a line; I'm a species bigot) and I don't value its life. Sue me.


copyright Wikimedia Commons/Wm Jas

(Where do you draw your line? Would you step in front of a speeding car to avoid squooshing an ant? Would you run in front of that same car to save a child's life? What if it was your child?)

Violence is something most of us abhor but objectification, or the act of viewing someone as an object, is not usually about violence; it just makes violence easier. It's easy to squoosh a bug. It's easy to deprive a group of people of basic human dignity, to say nothing of what is needed for subsistence, if you believe that the group is lower than you on the food chain. The operative word here, though, is not, as you might think, "lower"; it's "group." The problem lies not in someone's feeling superior. All humans are not equal. Some are smarter, kinder, nimbler, more talented in various skills, more physically attractive to a larger number of admirers, more generous, more sensitive and/or more industrious than others.

The problem lies in viewing a group of people only as that group, and not as a collection of individuals -- individuals who have something important in common, but individuals nonetheless.

I personally belong to a number of groups and am seen at different times predominantly as a member of one or another of those groups. How I see myself depends largely on context. Here are some of the things I am, off the top of my head and in no particular order: Jew, woman, middle-aged person, baby boomer, redhead, fat person, bespectacled person, leaper, Whovian, writer, "lupique" (pardon my French), singer (hey, I didn't say I was any good!), retired teacher, fianceƩ, daughter, sister, aunt, orphan, herring-eater, genius (I don't put much stock in those numbers but it would be dishonest of me to leave that off this list, as I have been and am judged by it), nullifidean, ailurophile, tenant, former ex-patriot (that sounds like a double negative but it's not), former homeless person.... there is, of course, more. Some of the items on the list were not always true (I was born a blonde girl, not a red-headed woman; I was a skinny child; there was a time when I had not yet ever lived outside of the United States; I believed in a personal god when I was 15 years old) and there are some that may not be true in the future (I hope to reside in my own home one day and not be a tenant; I may -- but probably won't -- lose my taste for herring; with luck I will outgrow being middle-aged and advance to "elderly"; a time will come when "engaged" gives way to "married").

Now, if I were to be identified by one, or perhaps two, of the above labels, all of which are true but none of which is the complete picture, most people would be able to come up with an image of me based on some stereotype which might or might not apply. The more labels I gather and present, though, the clearer the picture that emerges of me as an individual, and their ability to stereotype me most likely would be impaired; they would not be able to help viewing me as an individual. However, anyone who had a strong prejudice for or against one of those labels, or even a strange association that could not be called "for" or "against," might have a hard time viewing me as an individual even in the face of the most overwhelming evidence. Depending on which labels were involved, we would consider that person stubborn, or bigoted, or perhaps wise! In fact s/he probably has been brainwashed.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Holy Grail; this lovely redhead is not me, and shares few, if any, of my other labels (if she is holding what she or the artist believe to be the Holy Grail, for example, she certainly isn't Jewish; if she is a damsel she is single although she might be engaged; she isn't American; neither "Quantum Leap" nor "Doctor Who" existed during her lifetime.)

copyright Wikimedia Commons/public domain

There are people who believe that Jews run the world while gladly accepting me and my poverty as a notable exception; they cannot be shaken in that belief. There are people who believe that geniuses are egotistical, devious or prone to be lazy (things must be so "easy" for us -- ha!); one of my high school teachers gave me back a paper with a "B" on it, saying, "This is the best paper in the class but I know you can do better." As it happens I had done my best. There are those who believe that fat people have no self-control, or that we are jolly, or that we prefer to be called "persons of size." (Some of us are! Some of us do! It's an individual matter. I prefer to be called "Gail.") Some believe that women belong in the kitchen. (Some women do. Need I mention that some don't?)

a woman's place?

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Joel Dorman Steel and Esther Baker Steele, A Brief History of the United States, 1885 (public domain)


Anonymous said...

Your thoughts about 'fans' and 'fandom' are thought-provoking and largely true. So many 'fans' forget that 'fan' stands for fanatic.
Elsewhere ( where you discuss your story "Smiles") I read your comments about Jews, specifically, not being homophobic. I feel that Jews AND Catholics, while not being homophobic are however anti homosexuality. Anti-homisexuality in sofar as homosexuals do not produce offspring = they do not beget... One of a Jewsih man's (and no doubt woman's) duties in life is to have children.

Your story "Smiles" is superb.
I much like "Doctor Who" but I am not a "Doctor Who" fanatic.

Sulamite Tepfers

genessa said...

you make a good point, distinguishing whether individual jews and catholics, or even jews and catholics as groups, are homophobic, from whether the respective religions, at least followed strictly/literally. approve of homosexuality from the standpoint of believing it is a human being's "duty" to have children. (barrenness was a major biblical punishment -- implying, interestingly enough, if one follows your line of thought, that the deprivation was not of having the joys of a family with children, but of being able to do one's duty.

however, not all jews or catholics, or even jewish or catholic congregations, DO hold to the strictness that would make it undutiful to refrain from having children. in addition, even those who do hold to that strictness may well still believe in complete human equality even for people who are not doing their duty!

i know more, for obvious reaons, about judaism than i do about catholicism, and so i will point out that jews believe that nonjews are held, by god, to a certain number of rules, but not by any means as many as the ones to which jews are held. jews do not believe that nonjews are inferior, or going to hell, or obligated to obey the extra rules to which jews are subject. (this is one reasons jews don't proselytize and in fact actually discourage conversion.) therefore, if a jew believed it was a JEW's duty to procreate, s/he might still not hold it to be a nonjew's duty (or s/he might! i honestly don't know into which category this would fall, or if it is even one of the rules or whether it's just kind of understood). i myself have never borne or raised human children, and do not consider myself sinful for this; in fact, with my family background, i have probably done the world a service. but then, i am not religious.

i appreciate your thoughtfulness; we certainly don't need to agree on everything to respect one another! and i appreciate, too, your kind comment about "smiles." thank you so much for posting, and feel free to continue this (or any other) dialogue!