Three Republican debates have produced three occasions of extraordinary moral callousness. We are witnessing a kind of theatre of cruelty, where policies that kill and/or demean certain people are celebrated in a widely-televised national forum. Cruelty is celebrated, and thus learned. And our nation becomes ever more coarse and harsh as a result.
In the GOP tea party debate, the audience cheered when a question was asked whether society should just let an uninsured man in a coma die. “Yeah!” several members of the crowd yelled out. In another GOP debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about having authorized 234 executions, more than any other governor in modern U.S. history. The crowd cheered this accomplishment of death and Perry said, “I’ve never struggled with that at all,” referring to execution as “the ultimate justice.”
And in the most recent GOP debate, one question, posted to YouTube, came from a U.S. Army soldier serving in Iraq. Stephen Hill, donning a gray tee- shirt emblazoned with the word “ARMY” on the front, asked Rick Santorum if he would try to “circumvent the progress” that has been made in allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, effectively reinstating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The audience booed him.
So, shocking to many, but why am I calling it cruel? What’s cruel about that? No blood was shed and no one was actually tortured during these debates.
Cruelty can certainly mean inflicting physical pain, shedding blood, and committing torture, but one thing that defines cruelty best is what is called “substantial cruelty.” “Substantial cruelty” is the “the maiming of a person’s dignity, the crushing of a person’s self-respect.” At least that is the view of Phillip Hallie, a philosopher who studied both goodness and cruelty all his life, as he reflects on both in his essay “From Cruelty to Goodness.”
In each of the three GOP outbursts of the crowd, “substantial cruelty” is exhibited because the infinite dignity and worth of a human being is denied, and specifically in the most recent instance, the respect owed to a serving member of our nation’s military was denied.
When you cheer an uninsured death, you are cheering for the death of human dignity. A moral nation does not celebrate death from neglect; a moral nation takes care of people precisely because they are people and thus worthy of respect.
A moral nation does not cheer execution; and a moral individual will always have qualms about whether innocent persons are being executed under our imperfect “justice” system that has been shown, time and again, through advances in DNA testing, to have put innocent people on death row. This is not even to challenge, as I would, the morality of the state becoming the executioner.
And finally, it is incredibly cruel to jeer a serving member of the U.S. military who is simply asking about whether a new law giving him the right to serve openly as a gay man will be administered fairly. This is exactly what Hallie means by “the crushing of a person’s self-respect.”
And all of this cruelty is performed in front of the nation first as televised, and then in videos, blogs, tweets and so on. This is the churning of the media, replicating the cruelty over and over again so it can be learned.
Or it can be rejected.
We need to know that goodness is learned too. That’s what the majority of Phillip Hallie’s work shows, especially in his most famous work , Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.
I have tried for a long time to understand goodness and how it happens. In this interview I gave on what I have learned from Phillip Hallie and the people of LeChambon, I suggest a number of things that people can learn about goodness from their example. I also think we can learn things that we need right now to model in our public, political life.
I’ve learned, for example, that goodness needs to be practiced. Instead of modeling cruelty in presidential debates, model (though example) compassion and an intent to have political leadership be of service to people.
I’ve learned that goodness doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People with diverse convictions have to cooperate to achieve a greater level of decency. Everyone doesn’t have to be a person of faith, or of the same faith, for the work of shared goodness to go on. Christians, Jews, different sects of Christianity, atheists, and communists all cooperated in Le Chambon to bring about the work of goodness. Instead of rejecting gay men and women serving in the military, honor their service and recognize its contribution to our country, even if, perhaps, you disagree with them on issues of private morality.
In this country, we are very diverse, and yet I believe we can cooperate to achieve a higher level of goodness than we have now.
Modeling cruelty, as I believe these GOP debates are now doing, is the opposite of who we are as a nation and I call on these candidates to make that clear to their audiences throughout the whole election season.
Stop this. Stop it now.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite | Sep 26, 2011 8:45 PM