Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Moral Boundaries

Everybody has that one story: about September, and the planes, and where you were, and how scared you felt, and how you kept calling people to see who was and was not okay. My story is, like most of those, pretty standard. I remember being on the phone with an out-of-town friend and saying, "I'm so scared we're going to go to war. I'm so scared that we're going to retaliate, and that people will just keep dying."

"Obviously, we're going to go to war," he said, because in a crisis what you really want to do is prove once and for all that you are smarter than the person you are talking to, "and I can't say I disagree with that. We have to defend ourselves. When I look at the footage... anyone who could do this just isn't human."

If I had been smarter, or better educated, or calmer, or possessed of the ability to see into the future (and create comic books based on my visions, is I guess how that works?) I would have had about a thousand well-reasoned critiques of that statement.

"Everybody's human," was the only thing I could say at the time.

Which, honestly, is the entire problem facing us as a generation, and as a species. It's the issue that will define us as moral beings, based on how well we understand and act on it in our own lives. It keeps cropping up, on a variety of scales, even after you've finally protested the war or read up on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or watched The Wire and had your big moment around it all, and even when you think you're talking about something else - is it OK to dismiss people based on their clothes and music, when you know for a fact they would dismiss you and yours based on the same? The people who complain about "liberal elitism" are striving to maintain the security and dominance of an elite, but does that really take away from the fact that they are sometimes right, that fear of the right's policies really is often supported or supplanted by fear of people who "look" right-wing (read: uneducated, rural or suburban, poor, "mainstream," or - for some reason - overweight) regardless of their actual politics? Can you say these things, even to friends, without coming across as hopelessly touchy-feely, can you talk about how people use hatred as a way to feel in control without seeming to condone hatred, can you dismiss the idea of "moral equivalency" and decry the politics of retaliation while also saying that no act, no matter how evil, occurs in a vacuum? - what you are really talking about is the fact that everybody's human, and everybody has reasons, and how those reasons are often wrong and the actions they inspire are often atrocities, and how tempting it is to classify the people who hurt you as "less than," and how classifying groups of people as "less than" is the first step towards hurting them, and how impossible it is to negotiate that truth every day.

Here is Sara Roy:
Why have we been unable to accept the fundamental humanity of Palestinians and include them within our moral boundaries? Rather, we reject any human connection with the people we are oppressing. Ultimately, our goal is to tribalize pain, narrowing the scope of human suffering to ourselves alone.

Our rejection of "the other" will undo us... As Jews in a post-Holocaust world empowered by a Jewish state, how do we as a people emerge from atrocity and abjection, empowered and also humane?

How does anyone? In a world that is so persistently, terrifyingly evil, how does anyone, ever?

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