And Another Thing …

One other thing bothered me about the story I wrote about in my last post, about parents who forget their kids in the car. It opens with a description of a courtroom scene:

“The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn’t want any sedation, that he didn’t deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die. (…)

At one point, during a recess, Harrison rose unsteadily to his feet, turned to leave the courtroom and saw, as if for the first time, that there were people witnessing his disgrace. The big man’s eyes lowered. He swayed a little until someone steadied him, and then he gasped out in a keening falsetto: “My poor baby!””

With that description in mind, consider this:

“”This is a case of pure evil negligence of the worse kind . . . He deserves the death sentence.”

“I wonder if this was his way of telling his wife that he didn’t really want a kid.”

“He was too busy chasing after real estate commissions. This shows how morally corrupt people in real estate-related professions are.”

These were readers’ online comments to The Washington Post news article of July 10, 2008, reporting the circumstances of the death of Miles Harrison’s son. These comments were typical of many others, and they are typical of what happens again and again, year after year in community after community, when these cases arise. A substantial proportion of the public reacts not merely with anger, but with frothing vitriol. (…)

After Lyn Balfour’s acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:

“If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens.””

The article goes on to quote a psychologist who says, basically, that these people are defending themselves against the thought that they might be similarly vulnerable, which sounds right. But I still ask myself: who are these people who, having read about a complete stranger whose character is unknown to them, feel compelled to write comments like these?

After all, it’s not as though there was some reason why they had to pronounce on Mr. Harrison’s character. No: they were just reading the paper, and for some reason they felt that they just had to write these things. And they didn’t just stick to the facts; they leapt to conclusions about who he was and why he did what he did. If I felt like emulating them, I might think: these are the sorts of people who lie awake at night nursing grievances, running over and over various slights in their mind, thinking of all the things they could have said to really put X in his or her place.

They clearly seem to have various narratives in their mind concerning husbands, or people who work in real estate, or whatever, which needed only some trigger to come flying out onto the page. And they clearly did not stop to think: I wonder whether this could have happened in some way other than the one I’m imagining? It’s as though they did not consider the possibility that Mr. Harrison might be an actual person, with feelings and a life of his own, as opposed to a character in their internal drama whom they might use or abuse as they saw fit.

This is interesting to me as an ethicist, because almost all the comments reprinted here criticize people on moral grounds. But the person with whose moral character we should be most directly concerned is our own. On almost any account, if morality requires anything at all, it requires that we take other people seriously as people, with their own independent existence, rather than using them as screens onto which we project our own psychological needs at will. So I would think that anyone who was genuinely concerned to do the right thing would recognize this sort of freefloating hostility, and the lack of concern for others that lets it emerge, as vices dressing themselves up as virtues.

(And yes, this does have some relevance to blog comments, though luckily the blogs I’ve written for have been pretty good in this regard, for which I thank you.)

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