Saturday, July 4, 2020

An Eye for an Eye in Cancel Culture

Some finish that with "... leaves the whole world blind," but that somewhat belies the meaning of the phrase. The idea is that we should never take a drop more than equitable retribution.

It's was written in the Code of Hammurabi almost 4,000 years ago: "If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out" (196), and popularized in Exodus and Leviticus, about a thousands years later: In one part, after explaining how to act on the Sabbath, there's a little story where God tells Moses about a mixed race guy (half Egyptian and half Israelite) who, while arguing with a pure Israelite, cursed God in the middle of a heated argument. They asked God what to do about it, and He told them, "Any Israelite or any foreigner living in Israel who curses the Lord shall be stoned to death by the whole community" (24:16). Yikes! Elsewhere, God admits that he's jealous and vengeful, and he clearly doesn't deal with insults well. Then he goes on to announce this famous bit:
“If any of you injure another person, whatever you have done shall be done to you. If you break a bone, one of your bones shall be broken; if you put out an eye, one of your eyes shall be put out; if you knock out a tooth, one of your teeth shall be knocked out. Whatever injury you cause another person shall be done to you in return. Whoever kills an animal shall replace it, but whoever kills a human being shall be put to death (24:19-21)
So, after clarifying that you should definitely call out harm against you, and only do to others what they do to you in kind, but no more than what they do to you, the crowd takes the guy outside, who had just said some swears, and stone him to death. Now, at the time, "cursing" isn't just saying "F.U." It was seen as actually putting a curse on someone, as if our words are the precursor of an action to follow. So if you say "F.U." to someone, then they will end up F'd, and it will be because of the harm your words provoked.


It speaks to the power of words. "I hope you die," can leave a person shaken. We like to say "sticks and stones" to insults, but we know the pain of being hated by others, even by total strangers, and we can never be sure whether a threat is empty or about to be delivered. When people describe how they want to rape or kill us, as some online celebs endure regularly, it's on a whole other level. Or when people completely negate the value of an entire group of people it can sometimes have the power to perpetuate exponentially and cause serious physical harm to millions.

But, back to that "eye for an eye" bit. It's a means to stop brutality by limiting punishments that can be inflicted on one another. "The law was to prevent arbitrary vigilante justice that could quickly escalate into a never-ending cycle of retaliation." The accused should make amends in kind, but, if he doesn't, then the injured party can take precisely what was taken from him, but no more than that. There's no damages for pain and suffering here.

BUT THEN, as the story goes, another 700 years later or so, God had a son and got soft and compassionate, telling everyone to turn the other cheek instead of poking out an eye. So stop worrying about all those really specific rules around what to wear or eat or when you can fix your fence, and retaliating over everything little thing and just love your neighbour:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." (Matthew 5:38-42)
Can you even imagine!?? What would the world be like if we actually lived like this? When I discuss this passage in class as part of our Virtuous Life unit, students are very concerned that, if we go the distance, we'll be chumps or cucks! We'll get taken advantage of horribly by people who don't care about being good people. So nobody wants to be the one to start.

So, maybe let's not get carried away with goodness. It might be too much to ask for most people. What if we just did that take-no-more-than-an-eye thing?

That entails reading people charitably - in print and in person - imagining that people have the best intentions and are trying their best with what they've got, and cut them some slack. That doesn't mean accept bigoted comments, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater either. Explain the problem with their views over and over, absolutely, but we don't have to leave their lives or livelihood destroyed just for saying or doing something stupid.

I'm thinking of J.K. Rowling and Shane Dawson, but also the Picasso tattoo I sport despite his misogynistic life, and the Plato and Aristotle I teach despite their affirmations around slavery, not to mention many many other philosophers and social scientist who have done and said horrible things over the centuries! Last year in class, a student got wind of de Beauvoir and Sartre's support for lowering the age of consent, and completely wrote off the rest of their ideas because of it. I responded, what 'til you hear about Heidegger! And, really, who will be left if we cast out every offensive person from history, instead of just obliterating the offensive ideas? Many philosophers supported slavery or thought women were barely human.

And it's often all so reductive, slotting people into good guys and bad guys instead of taking the time to have a nuanced look at their lives.

It's interesting to me that we will always accept scientific discoveries or mathematical theorems despite the shit show that was the theorist's life (satirized here).  Similarly, we can look at the quality of a specific philosopher's arguments and novelist's stories and YouTuber's schtick separate from their most recent tweet.

We can acknowledge the problem and engage with it, a point for a point, instead of destroying people outright. Sure, knock down statues and shred flags and change names of teams and buildings (although for city names, like Brantford which was named after a Mohawk Chief who owned slaves, a plaque acknowledging the complexity of their life might be more honest than erasing the name). But maybe let's stop actively harming living people. And if you're the person that started something, provoked harm with your words, then you have give back, to make it all as it was previous, to atone.

For the 4th of July today, New Yorker Dov Nelkin quotes the Talmud to describe the founding fathers of the U.S. writing doctrines about equality while actually owning human beings as "being promiscuous under their wedding canopy." The whole nation is marred by its dishonest beginning, which, one might think, will surely lead to its ruin. But Nelkin explains, "A flaw, even at the foundation, does not undo all of a project or a people's potential good; it points to a task that remains."

We have our work cut out for us. What do we do, however, when someone shows you themselves over and over and seems unable to learn from arguments, and their views are having a significant affect on a significant number of people? If they can't be convinced, and they refuse to atone, and they have nothing positive to offer the world, and we're in danger of them continuing to provoke horrific views? Then what?

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