“… We are not exceptional, in the way we often perceive ourselves to be, in being somehow on the other side of humanity’s proclivity to dehumanize and destroy. We are as deep in the throes of it as they were in the beginning of the 18th century, the beginning of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century…
We see images of mental asylums in late 19th century England, with leather straps binding humans’ faces to paralyzing straightjackets, and we shame them. Those, the barbarians! Then we close our laptops and walk out of the coffee shop, step around the frightened schizophrenic who’s been spat on by her society as she questions whether Jesse is real or whether she herself is real or whether the pigeon next to her is real, and we walk on.
We have a remarkable resilience to locating ourselves in the stories of hatred, injustice, and depravity of yesteryear. Those photos are all in black and white; ours are in color. Those stories were written by the ignorant; we are the enlightened. They murdered the Jews, they shamed the gays, they raped the slaves, they buried the mentally ill. Thank God it’s over…
I see that I am the same. We are just a few steps further past our sickly forefathers, but we are fundamentally no better. I hear Qoheleth’s refrain: ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’
What then? What is our grave offense? What evil have we turned aside from? I know what to look for, but I can’t see into the darkness… Is it mass incarceration? Is it our treatment of the mentally ill? Is it that we go on with our days while people are exploded in Damascus? Is it that there are teens being kidnapped, trafficked, and then raped in Bangkok? Or is it something else?
There is darkness behind us, but there is darkness here now as well. We cannot continue to believe that the sun has come up and the last few shadows are being driven out; that we are approaching the end of the dark. No, to do so is only to delude ourselves. To do so is to disgrace those who’ve been caught by the evil. To do so is to all but assure that we will become the black and white photos that our children look back on with derision.”
One anxious boy, preoccupied with timing his clap correctly so as not to stand out, overthought his approach and came in with a few shrill claps a couple beats too soon. They bounced around the almost empty lecture hall, interrupting the word “derision” and causing the associate professor to look up, slightly startled, in the middle of his last word. The interruption affected his tone as he finished speaking, which made him sound as though he was planning to go on, though he had in fact finished. The dozen or so students in the audience, confused by the tone of the last few words, waited to hear if he would go on before they clapped. But the associate professor didn’t go on – he looked up with a pathetic kind of eagerness, passing very quickly from the triumphant pride he originally expected to the realization that he was on the verge of another cycle of sadness and self-hatred if these pitiful few truly decided not to clap. A few beats passed, and the students had waited too long: the small window in which it would have been natural to clap had closed (one girl’s hands reflexively moved in an almost-clapping spasm, but she stopped them before they hit). They stared at the sad associate professor, and he stared back.
Someone sneezed. The associate professor blinked a lot, and then looked down and started putting his papers back into his folder. The students’ chairs creaked loudly as they got up and walked out.