Friday, March 12, 2010

The psychology of singling out

Daniel's comments about Rudy Giuliani as post-9/11 patriot/statesmen/uniter are well-taken; the advertising of his personality is as unsurprising as it is disappointing.  My sense is that most folks recognize what is going on, however, and that his performance in the Republican presidential primaries is a good indicator of the fact that we need not fret too much about how he's posturing himself.  If he had some of the "real America" credentials of Palin, the story might be different... but as it is I think everyone understands his lack of credibility and there is probably little in the way of sectarian following except for some serious security hawks that appreciate the hard line he takes on police enforcement, etc.  That is, Rudy has advertised himself well enough, but he lacks the sort of branding that would really endear him to the post-9/11 Tea Party sorts, and so I think he doesn't have much hope of really gaining much political traction with the identity that Daniel points out (unless one is counting continued interviews and media attention).

The psychology behind the tendency to elect heroes is still worth considering, however.  Even for those who do not think well of Giuliani, his face and his personality are pretty indelibly tied to the national response after 9/11.  Daniel felt the need to post about him for a reason, after all, and although he could find no justification for the honors Rudy has granted himself, there's certainly no question about the honor itself.  Giuliani has made a name for himself on this basis, and even those of us who dismiss the warrant of his claim to this name don't question the fact that, on a cultural level, he enjoys it.

Why do we do this?  What is the source of the tendency to single out a figurehead, a celebrity representation of much wider events?  Daniel addresses that a bit here:
The other problem with lifting up Giuliani for something like this is that it minimizes the far more substantial efforts of ordinary citizens. Giuliani has been criticized by rescue workers for saying that he had been at ground zero "as often, if not more, than most workers" (a claim that was easily demonstrated to be ridiculously inaccurate). The average soldier in Afghanistan did more to make sure such an attack never happened again than Giuliani did, and the average citizen riding on a plane could do more to stop a future attack than Giuliani ever could. Obviously we can't highlight every single one of these people (that's sort of the point)
 he goes on...
but why do we feel the need to highlight anyone? Who was the "hero of Pearl Harbor"? Nobody. We just remember it as a day of infamy.

In the days and weeks following 9/11, one thing that really distressed me was the extent to which the news programs showed footage... repeatedly... of men and women jumping out of windows in the Towers.  This, I think, is a rather more sinister correlate to the Rudy example.  It was as if we couldn't cope with reflection upon violence against thousands of people, but we needed to reflect upon the violence of that day in some way.  As a proxy, we fixated upon a few graphic details- a handful of people that were caught in the final moments of their lives, now a moment of voyeurism.  Americans will do this with film as well.  Why do we view such horrific plays upon the tragedies of real life, and do so as a source of entertainment?  What do we gain from replaying a manufactured focus upon the intricacies of discrete occurrence, as if they mean more than the numberless, numbing reality of the souls of the victims?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the reality is indeed numberless, and is numbing.  We cannot take that in. We don't talk all that much about the mass of people who died in Haiti because we're not very good at doing it.  What we can talk about is a picture of a child or an anecdote about a tent hospital.  This isn't bad, necessarily.  I think this is just the scope of our ability to grasp the life into which we're thrown.  It makes sense that we do this and sometimes it can be edifying, even if at other times it can simply become escapist.

In theology, there is often reference to a "scandal of particularity" regarding the incarnation of God in Christ, and this has been helpful to me in working through the psychology of our tendency to single out victims, or villains, or heroes.  The idea is that it is scandalous to think that the God of the universe would become present in a single human being and act towards redemptive purposes in this rather lowly state.  Further, one might say that the image of Christ's crucifixion is scandalizing in its particularity... it is awkward to think that all of the sin and evil in the world met in this short event with an atoning work of judgment and victory over death and Satan.  Surely such particularity doesn't do justice to the extent of the evil of life? 

From another perspective, though, this scandal is perfectly fitting.  We can at times simply remember an event like Pearl Harbor in itself and without reference to some stand-in for a wider violence or a broader heroic effort.  But how do we cope with one day of infamy after another, especially as they grow larger and compound upon one another?  How do we take the Holocaust as a whole, without resorting to certain representations of it?  Particularity... particular instances of human attachment... can perhaps (when embraced in an appropriate manner) be just the thing that allows us to encounter ourselves and our neighbor in a real way.  This is the logic under which I operate as I reflect theologically upon the event of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, which I take to be the ultimate instance at which particularity becomes a redemptive point for the world as a whole.  We cannot think the utter depth and breadth of the evil of life, but we can view it in the space of one man's death.  Nor can we think the extent of the work of redemption upon the tragedy of life without that focal point from which all goodness comes... the resurrection of one man for many. 

In the case of Rudy Giuliani or certain victims of the 9/11 tragedy, then, I think it is worth understanding why we single out, and that this singling out isn't necessarily without reason.  Nothing that Giuliani or the unfortunate victims have done warrants the attention, perhaps, but from the side of the viewer, there is indeed reason (even necessity!) to focus our attention in this way.  The danger comes when statesmen become saviors, or when victims become unwilling actors in a sort of pornographic tragedy play.  This danger is what Daniel was trying to address, as I read him.  But I think that the myopic vision of actual events is only natural to us and not bad in itself.

It is therefore, perhaps, something that we would be unwise to disenchant entirely unless we are confident in our ability to really face life in its fullness.  I'm simply not convinced that we have the coping mechanisms for such a venture. 

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