I am my best student. And, perhaps, my only one.
By forcing myself to micro-analyze what is going on, I teach myself new insights. For example, the series of posts that I am currently writing about how to make the most out of a shidduch resume has brought me to make quite a few touch-ups on the resumes that I have been using for my own eligible children. I hope to complete that series soon.
Of course, my goal is to pass these insights down to my readers (at no cost), but it is difficult to see if I am making any inroads. Still, if nobody else gains from it all, at least I do.
My recent series of posts about child molestation and mesira came about through a combination of life experience, Talmudic know-how, and honest research. Yet, all of these qualities, to be successful, rely on one other quality: independent thinking. This means the ability to abstain from taking a position just because somebody you like takes it, or even because everybody you like takes it.
Like many human traits this quality is partially due to (my) nature. But it is also enhanced by nurture.
When I was a kid in primary and high school, one of the standard time-wasting subjects that was always part of the school curriculum was English Lit. Invariably, it always involved taking a literary “classic” or Shakespearian work and reading it through in class or by oneself and making a “book report”. I don’t know (read: I am afraid to know) what they read today, but the classics in my day always had a theme and it was possible to even categorize the popular works by their theme.
One theme category may be young people coming of age and it would include books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn or A Separate Peace or Lord of the Flies.
Another theme was the horrors of war and conflict – Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front or A Tale of Two Cities or Lord of the Flies.
There was the theme of good versus evil within an individual – The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Macbeth or Lord of the Flies.
There was social politics – Animal Farm, 1984, The Jungle or Lord of the Flies.
But the theme that made the deepest impression on me was the theme of misguided justice, mass hysteria, and paranoia – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Ox Bow Incident or…Lord of the Flies.
Of course, some of the books could fit into several of these categories, though I can’t just now think of any off-hand.
Let’s do some quick book reports on the list in the last mentioned category: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Ox Bow Incident, and Lord of the Flies.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, a young woman was sexually assaulted. She teams up with her redneck father to accuse a disabled Negro homeboy, Tom Robinson. An objective lawyer volunteers to defend Tom and is able to handily demonstrate that it is next to impossible for him to have committed the crime due to his disability and intimated that the accuser – the father – is a much more likely culprit. The all-white jury goes along with the mindset of “the victim is always to be believed” and convicts Tom anyway. Justice must be served and the people must be protected! Shortly thereafter, it was reported that Tom was killed in an alleged escape attempt.
The Ox Bow Incident is a classic western tale of a group of cowboys from “the valley” who are fed up by the incessant cattle rustling that depletes their herds. An excited rider spreads a rumor that some rustlers raided some local’s herd and killed “Kincaid” the cowhand. The hotheads from the locals stir up enough men to form a posse who hunt for the unknown “killers”. Justice must be served and the people must be protected! They chance across a threesome of travelers - among them Donald Martin - who have some branded cattle, which they claim they bought but had no bill of sale. They explain that they bought the cattle straight at the range so there was no opportunity to write a bill of sale. The hotheads don’t want to buy this story, nor to check it out, and the threesome gets lynched. Predictably, after they return to town, Kincaid shows up alive and well and the sale is confirmed. בא הרוג ברגליו!
Finally, we have The Lord of the Flies which is about a group of unsupervised youngsters marooned on a deserted island. As the monotony of their situation gets to them, some boys conjure a rumor about a phantom “beastie” stalking the island. The rumor is intensified by the misinterpreted sighting of the “beastie” which was actually the body of a dead pilot who parachuted to the island and was lying alongside a constantly billowing parachute. As such, the “beastie” rumor became so real that the boys set out to hunt it down and destroy it. Justice must be served and the people must be protected. Having no concrete entity to take the role of the “beastie”, the boys projected its character onto Simon,one of their own and, in a mad frenzy, hacked him to death.
Now we analyze a bit.
The common denominator in all three stories is that an unproven villain is confirmed by consensus and unsubstantiated hearsay. In one case – To Kill a Mockingbird – it is through testimony that is dubious at best. The other two cases don’t even have that. The righteous ones pronounce the most extreme “sentence” against said villain and the villain is done in. In all cases, the righteous mob needs to justify the extreme measures. In To Kill a Mockingbird it is a demand for justice. In Lord of the Flies, it is to protect the masses from a common threat. In The Ox Bow Incident, it is a combination of both. In all of the cases there was one or a small handful of dissenters. In Lord of the Flies, the dissenter became the villain.
The obvious message is that justice is not always just and that protective measures do not always protect. But what is scarier are the lessons we learn about human nature and frailty:
· The human being abhors monotony and craves drama. As such, whenever possible, a monotonous event will be dramatized to the utmost.
· The human being firmly believes that good should be rewarded and evil should be punished and, as such, has a craving to administer justice and to exact revenge.
· The normal human being (not a psychopath) cannot conscience unjustified violence. As such he must have some battle-cry or pretense which he will swear by to justify his actions. (E.g., serving justice, protecting the [other] innocent, or “all Jews are vermin”, or “Allah akbar!”).
· The individual fears the mob and will compromise on his morals to identify with the mob for fear of being the next villain. Thus, all too often, the mob is comprised mainly of imposters who, by themselves, would not take the position of the mob. We call this a “herd mentality”.
We are meant to learn from these stories the evils of being taken in by rumors, quick-talkers, and spurious testimony because, all too often, innocent people get killed. Indeed, this is what makes all these stories so compelling; in each case some innocent people were killed. The books would not be half as interesting or half as popular if the villains who “got it” were actually guilty.
In other words, we are meant to learn not to act this way. Ever. This is not the right way to behave at all. Even though the villain is not always innocent, we still need to administer justice and protect the people properly. Even though a “proper” approach will enable numerous villains to get away scot-free, we cannot overstep the boundaries of sensibility and shoot from the hip (and ask questions later).
We can even learn this lesson from a fourth book report: Enter Shakespeare – stage right!
You see, Lord of the Flies could only be set within a group of young boys. In Lord of the Flies, not only was there no actual villain, there was no actual crime or threat. A threat had to be conjured out of thin air. Grown-ups don’t do this. They have at least that much sense. But young vulnerable boys can go to this extreme. The Ox Bow Incident is set within a group of grown men but those that do not have much respect for the vicissitudes of “law”. There was an actual threat but no actual crime and no actual villain. There, as well, they had to create a villain. To Kill a Mockingbird is set in a society that does respect the legal system. Moreover, there was an actual crime committed. Consequently, there was a real villain. They did not need to create a villain. They only needed to identify the villain. Their short-sightedness caused them to identify the wrong one.
Julius Caesar had a twist. The crime was committed and the villains – Brutus and Cassius - were properly identified. They were real. And they were guilty. So why should we be interested in a story where the ones who “get it” are guilty?
Julius Caesar was a tyrant. Unless you were one of his lackeys, you hated his guts. Brutus and Cassius thought they were doing the populace a big favor by dispatching this guy. Perhaps they were. But as soon as Marc Anthony got to the podium and was able to explain what a saint this fellow was, the villains are in the dog-house.
Now, I wasn’t crying for Brutus or Cassius. Let the Sicilians kill each other. Son Cosa Nostra. But the story leaves us with a very uneasy feeling at the end. We are never sure if the two villains were really good guys or bad guys. We only know that Marc Anthony told us, in his silvery tongue, that they are bad guys and that was all it took. Justice must be served and the people must be protected.
It is not a safe world if this is how we dispatch the villains even if we know that they did it.
Up until my late 20s, To Kill a Mockingbird was my sole exposure to the concept of accusing a false [sex crime] villain in order to protect the real one. Up to that point, as realistic as it was, it was only a work of fiction. Yeah, things like this could happen in 1936 in the Deep South where the story was set, but it’s still fiction and it certainly couldn’t happen in 1980s Brooklyn.
But it can and it has. It can happen anywhere, anytime because human nature is human nature and the causes of “herd mentality” – the quest for drama and “justice” and fear of “the mob” – are always finding new incarnations.
We Jews need to fight these urges of the need for drama and of bending the rules in the name of “justice” and we need to start doing some independent thinking.
When there is no real evidence or objective testimony to an event, Justice is truly blind. It cannot “see” what happened. It can only listen.
But Justice is also a bit hard of hearing. When so many are screaming, “Hang the rustlers!” or “Kill the pig. Slit its throat. Spill its blood!” It is very hard for Justice to hear the lone voice say, “I didn’t do it” above the din.
Justice didn’t hear Tom Robinson say that his left arm is useless. It didn’t hear Donald Martin say, “We bought and paid for the cattle”. And it didn’t hear young Simon say that he’s not “the beastie”. It could not hear anything above the din.
When it is “the mob” demanding Justice, it is too noisy for Justice to operate with Midas Harachamim. It can only operate with Midas HaDin!
To be continued...
May we be zocheh to be mekabel the Torah כאיש אחד בלב אחד!