Tuesday, June 6, 2017

That old rugged individualism

 I've written before about my family's various run-ins with people just being aggressively nasty on the street and in other public places, often but not always on account of my family's being Latino.  On some of these occasions I would answer aggressively, yelling or swearing at the aggressors.  But after a while I tried to be more constructive.  A few times I struck what I thought was a conciliatory tone; when a resident in our friends' apartment complex was making nasty looks and comments at our bevy of excited young Latino kids coming back from an afternoon at the pool, I started following him and said, "You know these are your kids too," meaning that we're all responsible for each other and should treat one another as neighbors and family, as opposed to usurpers or vermin.  Another time when a couple inexplicably blew up at us after cutting us in line at the airport, I said, "Hey, we're all in this together," and we were indeed in the same line, waiting for the same flight to the same place.  On both occasions, instead of a lowering of the tension in the spirit of camaraderie and bonhomie, the response was a vehement refusal.  "NO THEY'RE NOT [my kids]," "SHUT THE FUCK UP, WE'RE NOT IN THIS TOGETHER," both followed by more abuse, and eventually an implication that I was somehow being the aggressor for speaking back to them.

I've thought long and hard about these two occasions, and what they might say about the larger society.  I was really shocked at the palpable disgust, the total out-of-hand rejection of the very notion that I and mine might be in the same group as the other people.  I don't know if their tone was more strident because my family is Latino, or perhaps the people involved simply chafed at being considered part of any collective.  Maybe it offended their sense of specialness, of individuality or something like that.  I don't know if this is indicative of a larger sentiment; my fear is that it is, and that right now many people in the US have a sharp definition of who is or is not a part of their group, the group they consider worthy of respect and decency.

At any rate, encounters like these have actually helped me to reach greater clarity and simplicity in some of my own values.  I've written in a past post on our quickness to blame a victim, to "excuse nothing", to use the idea of meritocracy to disqualify vast swaths of people from even the most basic of human consideration.  I feel that many discussions, great and small, in the US boil down to people trying to determine whether or not a given person or a group of people is deserving of humane treatment or sympathy.  It's easy to get caught up in these arguments, which usually climax in a caricature whereby one or both interlocutors are arguing for heartlessly "just" punishment even for the slightest of infractions, while the other side (often engaged as an in absentia straw man) makes a politically correct plea for special consideration of an unreasonable cause.  Once you've sunk into that rut, there's no way the discussion can be productive.  But hereby is my epiphany, which serves to keep me from even getting to that point in the first place:

If we are debating whether certain people are more deserving than others of a dignified life, or that some are more deserving of suffering, then that is a premise I'm not willing to entertain.  There's no point even discussing it in that case.  I don't feel that this is a closing-off of myself, but rather a reasonable refusal to consider an argument that is patently untenable.  There exists no rational argument for cordoning off humanity into different segments, deserving of different rights and treatments.  I'm on pretty solid ground here.  And in fact, reframing many arguments in these terms can I think help all sides to consider more honestly and fairly the merits of each case.  That is, if they're willing to admit their membership in the human family.

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