I guess there’s nothing surprising about the fact that the situations in France and Nigeria made me cry. Everyone was upset – the world over. The situations have been horrifying and while now, the horror is settling to a dull, resigned ache, it is still there. It will always be there. I will never pick up a bag of milk again without wondering if some insane obsessed person will decide that I need to be killed because of the kind of milk I drink. I won’t go into a school without marvelling at how lucky I am to do so. All mundane actions, no matter how small have been thrown into ghastly relief by the knowledge that these are all times and places where people have been killed for no good reason. Truly, there are very few good reasons for killing someone, and a preference for a certain type of food, a need to send a parcel, a dinner out with a friend – those are not good ones. Those were all things worthy of crying over.
Still, that wasn’t the only reason for my tears. In part, I cried about the perpetrators. It hurts me to think that there are people out there who have so surrendered their humanity, who are so confused about what right and wrong means, who are so lost as to be able to engage in such actions. These are monsters, I think to myself. Truly, these people have no heart left, no spark of goodness. These are people who have surrendered to evil and are so messed up in the head that they can’t even tell they’ve done so.
Then, I read some of the articles, comments, Facebook posts, letters, tweets and so on about this situation, and once again, I could not stop crying. These were statements by good people – people who are kind, intelligent, friendly and caring. Some of them I know well. And yet…when something like this happens, I read posts, some from my friends, about ‘the violent Muslims’ or ‘the ruthless republicans’ or ‘the ignorant liberals’ or the Zionists, or the Christians, or the Jews, or the people with curly hair, or the ones with freckles.
I saw articles that discussed in great deal which overall group one can blame for this situation, and how one can vilify them. The solutions offered were all along the lines of, ‘they have to show us they can do better’ or ‘they need to police their people better’ or ‘they should just do this or that’. I heard intelligent people using words like ‘all’, ‘every’, ‘it’s inherent in their nature’, and ‘it’s prescribed by their faith’. This always puts me in mind of that horrid joke in which a Jew is accused of sinking the Titanic. When there is protest that the Jew had nothing to do with it and an iceberg was at fault, the accuser says ‘Feinberg, Goldberg, Iceberg… it’s pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?’ It also puts me in mind of a kid who is accused of being in a fight. When asked what she should have done differently, the kid replies, “well, he started it – he should…”
Really? Are we still there? Is knee-jerk prejudice and blame still our only go-to approach? Do we need to align ourselves with a group and distance ourselves from another, blaming everyone in the world who shares a characteristic or two with the group we don’t approve of? Have we nothing more useful to say? I have had conversations with multiple people which went along the following lines:
Other Person: ‘why, those no-good people with freckles (or whatever group is being accused) ! the situation in the world is all their fault!’
Me: ‘really? interesting. what do you think we should do about those people…’
Other Person: ‘force! force is the only solution. we will make them do it our way – a better way. and if they don’t change, if they don’t get rid of those darned freckles, they should all be killed!’
Me: ‘huh. and you think this will help stop the problems?’
Other Person: ‘oh’
Maybe there is no solution. I know I don’t have one to the situations that make me cry. I do know that there are ways to make the problem worse, however. Accusing an entire group of people because they share some character traits or others with the attackers is a great start. Condemning everyone in a group, planning to retaliate against ‘them’, overgeneralizing, name calling – it can turn perfectly reasonable, good, kind people into ones that sound scary. That – the ugly evil hatred pouring out of the mouths of nice people – that makes me cry.
Maybe that’s how monsters are made. When we tell a child that ‘they’ are all evil, that ‘they’ must be stopped, with force if needed, that ‘they’ are the cause of all problems – what will that child think when he encounters ‘them’? What will that child do? Oh, it’s unlikely that any of the intelligent, kind people who write articles and comments on Facebook would turn around and go insane with a gun – but what of the people who listen to them? It’s as if evil is contagious, and spreads through revenge and name calling.
So, this is all obvious, you say – but we all do it. I caught myself doing so. I was asked by a student about my kippa and why I wore it. I was asked why it was different than an Orthodox group acted. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘the Orthodox don’t…’ I was going to say ‘give women the same rights and respect.’ I was going to accuse all Orthodox Jews of lacking respect for women. I knew better. I totally knew better. I totally and entirely knew better. Really. I was not that kind of person. I have a thing about name calling. I don’t call names. I don’t even believe that about the Orthodox. So what was I doing? ‘the Orthodox don’t do things in the same way that I do. I wear my kippa for such&such reasons. You could ask an Orthodox person why it’s different in their communities’ is what I finally answered. That was close, though. I wonder how many times a day I don’t catch myself? I wonder how much name calling I do?
So, this is my solution. God, it says in the Yotzer Or, recreates the world anew – including the people in it – each day. We are all created in the image of God – betzelem Elohim. It behooves us, then, when tragedy happens, to protect ourselves, of course, and to put up sensible boundaries, and to provide aid to those hurt. But not – not ever – to engage in name calling and vilification as a solution. We need to go beyond positive and fair. We need to be fight the monsters in the only way we can – by seeing humans, by being radically positive and fair, by creating a world in which name calling and mindless grouping of people into huge random categories is no longer a common, OK thing to do. We need to watch each word coming out of our mouths, because as the Chofetz Chaim says, they are extremely dangerous if we talk about people at all.
We need to do this even when they are being unfair and awful – we bless our boys to be like Ephraim and Menasse, because unlike every set of brothers before them, these two did not fight, even when the younger was given unfair preference over the older. Now, we have to remember those blessings and act on them.
Will this fix anything – in any part of our grief-struck, horrified world? I doubt it. I will still cry when I read about the monstrous acts of some deranged people. Maybe it’ll stop the contagion of the evil, though and help prevent its spread at least a little. That will be something – and something better than attacking everyone with freckles to see if that will fix things. May we all be like Ephraim and Menasse and may God grant all of us peace.