Wednesday, March 30, 2005

An Eye for an Eye....

Speaking of the Schindlers, James Wolcott has a post up that truly disturbs me. The more I think about it, the more it sounds like the rationale of extremism.

Wolcott's point is to critique the handling of this matter by the pundits, which criticism is fair enough. Pundits tend to be pack animals, and it is easier to sympathize with the patient and the parents fighting to keep her alive, than with the husband fighting to remove life support. Pundits, especially on television, simply don't handle nuance very well. But when Wolcott supports his argument by quoting Steve Gilliard's comments on the Schindlers, it moves into treacherous territory.

Not because the Schindlers are above reproach, but for a more fundamental reason, one connected to the very foundation of ethics: do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. A good idea when it is applied to you; not a good idea, when you turn it into a club with which to beat others.

Because the essence of what Gilliard says, is that the Schindlers don't deserve our sympathy, or our consideration, based on the way they have acted. They have, in other words, put themselves beyond the limited reach of our consideration, a consideration wholly bounded by: "What have you done for me, lately?" Or, more accurately: "What have you done to earn my respect lately?" To quote Wolcott quoting Gilliard: "Sayeth Steve Gilliard: 'You know I want to sympathize with them, but at every turn, they do something even sleazier and more revolting. They should have stopped the children from being arrested. That hurt them. Badly. Then Mary Schindler's creepy appeal tonight to "have her daughter". She was a married woman. Not her property. Now, the sale of the [online donor] list and the allegations of abuse...'"

These are not unfair criticisms. What is unfair, however, is using them as a basis for deciding who is, and who is not, deserving of ethical treatment, of consideration as human beings. It's a meme that gets repeated, around the internet if nowhere else, but it is one that has no place in ethical discourse, or an ethical society. The theme gets used a lot on "trolls," which usually comes to mean people who don't conform to the groupthink of the thread, as much as to people who simply want to disrupt a thread. But that's a small enough forum that its use can be excused, even if it can also be condmened. In the larger forum of the "blogosphere," different considerations should apply. Not just because it is an ethical question; but also because ignoring ethics cheapens the public discourse; and that discourse is already cheap enough, without further contributions.

The fundamental fairness of ethics is that all are treated equally, despite their individual behavior. If we replace that fundamental position with one of "And what have you done to earn my favor", well, it's not even a slippery slope any more: it's 90 degrees straight down to hell.

To be fair, of course, Steve Gilliard is free not to sympathize with the Schindlers if he chooses, and equally free to choose the basis for withdrawing his sympathy. Further, neither Mr. Gilliard nor Mr. Wolcott seems to be talking about ethics; they are concerned only with establishing the basis for their public sympathies, or lack thereof, in this case. But how we act, and why, are fundamentally ethical questions. And whenever we displace ethics with sympathy, morality with empathy, and begin to decide our actions and then justify them on the basis of what we simply feel, we start down the slippery slope toward a toothless and blind society.

It may be satisfying to take public potshots at such public (and publicly unpleasant) persons as the Schindlers. But it generates more heat than light, more sympathy for not thinking than for thinking clearly, and lowers the level of discourse all around. It may seem inconvenient to take ethics into account in such circumstances; but it is, at the very least, responsible.

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