My good friend Dana Yost recently made an excellent comment on a previous post dealing with Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose. While I noted that the narrator admired his grandmother’s Victorian stoicism in dealing with a self-involved husband, Dana pointed out the fact that his grandmother, like so many of the women in her era, was worthy of our sympathy. She had, after all, lived with a man who loved her but, as Dana notes “always on his terms.” She was indeed powerless in an age in which women were generally powerless. Dana fell short of calling the grandmother a “victim,” but what he was saying put me in mind of a book by our mutual friend Joe Amato, titled Victims and Values, on the nature of victimhood in which he says, speaking of American history after the debacle of the Viet Nam War:

“The language of victims, spoken by blacks, Native Americans, women, Latinos, the unemployed, the disadvantaged, animal rights advocates, representatives of wildlife, and others, became a part of standard public discourse, as did the poor, hungry, and the oppressed of the third world. This language escalated and it becomes a means for seeking moral dominance and contending for power. . .

“. . . heightened sensitivity was proclaimed to be a precious good; caring became an obligation; and compassion, ever more conspicuously flaunted, was assumed to be readily available in the human heart. At the extremes even those who committed crimes against property and persons were welcomed into the fold of victims. In fact, their crimes became proof that they themselves, not the victims of those crimes, were the true victims of the system. . . .

“The word ‘victim,’ once a religious term and until very recently used primarily to describe individuals or groups abused by nature or government, has come to form in our world the standard language of hyper-complaint. The dialect of victimology is increasingly utilized not only to express real and significant injustices but to level charges for unachieved expectations and unrealized imagined potentials.”

In a word, the term is being used so widely — and for various reasons, some of which are bogus — that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Amato’s notion that it being used to seek “moral dominance” and “contending for power” by certain groups of people is especially interesting and echoes the point I made in an earlier post about the “will to power.” Assuredly, many of those who claim to be victims do so to draw attention to themselves and to demand recompense. Their suffering may be real or imagined. In any event, we tend to use a word like “victim” for so many referents that is eventually loses all meaning whatever. For the most part it still refers to those who suffer in one way or another.

But I am going to suggest something outrageous, something that very few people will allow as even a remote possibility. I am going to suggest, following Fyodor Dostoevsky, that we have lost sight of the notion that suffering may be a good thing. We simply assume, without any questioning whatever, that it is necessary to eradicate all suffering wherever possible. This has made it popular for all and sundry to claim that they are suffering and require our sympathy — whether they suffer in fact or not.

Recall that the Victorian women, like so many of the disadvantaged at that time, would have simply accepted the hand they were dealt and tried gamely to make the best of it. One doubts if they thought of themselves as victims. We might even admire their courage to endure the treatment they received at the hand not only of their husbands but of society generally, though we have also lost sight of what courage truly is. In any event, I quote Dostoevsky, in his notes to Crime and Punishment to make the point:

“Man is not born to happiness. Man earns his happiness and always by suffering. There is no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness (that is, that which is felt immediately with your body and spirit, that is, through the whole vital process of life) is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self. . . . “

And, in Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky suggests that it is through suffering that we achieve true freedom, which is central to our very humanity.

It is certainly the case that most Americans in the twenty-first century suffer very little. This may go a long way toward explaining our self-absorption. We do whatever is necessary to eliminate pain and suffering: complain, take pills, seek medical assistance, find an understanding and sympathetic partner. It seldom occurs to us that it may be a way to increase  our appreciation for what we have in hand, that it makes us deeper and more interesting human beings. I do not want to suggest that we should not do whatever we can to prevent suffering or that suffering in an inherently good thing. As Amato notes, “There is an elemental moral requirement to respond to innocent suffering.” But we do need to consider that, whether or not we agree with Dostoevsky (and what he says about suffering does sound like heresy these days, despite the fact that it is a notion fundamental to Christianity) we would do well to watch the way we bandy about terms like “victim,” because if everyone is a victim then no one is.

Too Many Victims

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was making a connecting flight back from Denver to Sioux Falls, South Dakota after reading a paper in Montana to an enthralled crowd of at least a half-dozen people. I was sitting midway in the plane with an empty seat next to mine. I realized to my dismay that it was the only empty seat left on the plane when I spotted a very large man ambling toward me from the front of the plane — and toward the  seat next to me. He took up the entire width of the aisle as he moved slowly toward me. I shuddered to think what was about to happen. In the event, I spent the next few hours curled up in half of my seat while the seat next to me overflowed with human person.  I should have been refunded half my fare, at least.

I gather this sort of thing happens fairly regularly, though I realize that some airlines require that large persons are required to pay for two seats (I hesitate to say “fat” persons: I suspect it is politically incorrect). This is eminently sensible. Unfortunately this was not the case in my flight from Denver. And the persons so charged would disagree that it is sensible as a recent story suggests — and I hasten to mention that this is an extreme example:

The death of a 407-pound woman after being denied boarding on three flights was “preventable,” according to an attorney for the woman’s husband, who plans to pursue legal action against three airlines.

As I say, this is an extreme example. But it makes my point: the husband of the person at the center of this episode is going to court to sue the airline which made every effort to accommodate a very large person but was unable to do so. As a result, she was forced to delay her flight and eventually was unable to receive the medical attention she required to save her life. Presumably. We are dealing in a counterfactual here since we have no idea what would have happened to this woman had she been able to fly home and receive the attention her attorney says she required. And if she was that sick why did she leave home in the first place? One wonders. In any event, it is a sad business (no, Yahoo News it is not a “tragic” event, just very sad. Tragedy happens rarely and we always bring it on ourselves. The Greeks knew that.)

But the question of just who the victim is in this situation requires analysis. The airline made every effort possible to accommodate a passenger who required extraordinary measures just to get her aboard. They even attempted to get her on two other planes that they hoped could be modified to allow her to board. The passenger who sat next to me, on the other hand, paid for one seat, yet he took up two — or, perhaps three (I couldn’t see beyond him to the third seat next to the window). I was inconvenienced as were a number of passengers in the case of the deceased woman whose flight was delayed while the airline attempted to figure out how to modify the plane to accommodate the woman. I did not die — fortunately. But I was royally pissed off and didn’t want to fly THAT airline again. I did not contact my attorney.

But those of us who have been imposed upon or somehow inconvenienced these days claim the status of “victim.” It is likely to garner sympathy from the people around us and it sometimes translates into large rewards from sympathetic juries. But win or lose we can feel sorry for ourselves. I know I still do.  But we would prefer to win. We do indeed live in a litigious age and the lawyers stand at the ready to file a brief on our behalf and get us into court so they can collect their fee and make the payments on their vacation home. Whatever. It is the way of the world.

Clearly the woman in this case was a victim. But whether the airline was responsible for her death remains for the courts to decide. From what I have read, it will be a hard case to make. But lawyers are clever people and I will never sell them short. Someone will pay big-time I suspect. And I will simply sit and stew, remembering the terribly uncomfortable trip I had those many years ago in a flight from Denver to Sioux Falls. So it goes.

The Cost of a Human Life

The latest on the killings of 17 Afghanistan civilians by an American soldier starts as follows: “KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States has paid $50,000 in compensation for each Afghan killed and $11,000 for each person wounded in the shooting spree allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official and a community elder said Sunday.”

I must say, I am proud of my government that it is willing to come up with such a sum to compensate the families of the victims. It beats the $1,000.00 or $2,000.00 the Afghan government paid out for the woundings and killings (respectively). It shows how much more generous we are. But seriously? How on earth does anyone come up with any dollar amount to compensate a distraught parent for the loss of his or her child? It cannot be done. And how do we decide on the correct dollar amount for a wound? Some wounds are more serious than others. Perhaps they should have come up with some sort of sliding scale. Again, seriously?

I am reminded of the calculation Ford Motor Company came up with some years ago for the victims in fiery collisions in their Pinto motor car. Ford, led by Lee Iacocca at the time, got out their handy calculator and figured out how much each maiming and each death should be worth — and then decided it would be cheaper to run the risk of law suits than to recall all of the Pintos on the road to replace a part that would have cost $11.00 per vehicle. So they didn’t recall the cars.

Surely, this is the reductio ad absurdum of our urge to quantify everything from love to life itself. How much does it cost? How fast can it go? How long before the battery runs out? How much is it worth to you?  Look at the chart and tell me how bad the pain is from 1 to 10. If it can’t be quantified, it ain’t real, so we think.

I don’t know about you, but I know if I was handed a check for even as much as $50,000.00 for the killing of my son or wife by a half-crazed soldier I would find it totally inadequate. You simply cannot measure some things — like the life of a loved one — by dollars and cents. And you cannot quantify something like love or fear, but they are very real. We need to tear ourselves away from the prejudice that wants to put a number on everything. The exact sciences are exact because they are supported by mathematics. That is entirely appropriate. But when the social sciences start posing as exact sciences by using math in the form of statistics and “studies” and “polls” we have started the skid toward absurdity — which is called “scientism” and it accompanies blind commitment to the scientific method in all walks of life.

Everything cannot be quantified. In fact, many of the most important things in human life cannot be quantified. But they are not only real, they are the very things that make us human. This is not a plea for metaphysics; it is a plea for common sense, and the rejection of the blind faith we all have in numbers. They cannot tell the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased that our government chose to compensate the families of the victims of the shooting in Afghanistan. I don’t see any other way it could have been done — except to have the U.S. government commit itself to a total withdrawal of troops from that country. But this seems even more doubtful after the chaos stirred up by the shooting itself. And, oh yes, make sure the perpetrator of these crimes is justly punished. But even if we cannot see an alternative to dollars for lives, it can never be enough.

Who Are The Victims?

The student riots in Happy Valley following the firing of Joe Paterno must give us pause. To be sure, the media love to blow these things out of proportion to help their ratings, and it would be a mistake to think the entire campus of thousands of students is in an uproar at the firing of their favorite. So let’s say there are a few dozen at the heart of this sad event with a few hundred curious hangers-on who just want to see what’s going on — and maybe get their face on TV. Most of the students, we must assume, are attending classes, studying, or planning the next party. But what on earth were the idiots thinking who sent threatening letters to Coach McQueary whose only fault in this saga, we are told, was to report to Coach Paterno that he saw Sandusky molesting a young boy in the showers? It would be ironic if it is the same twisted sense of loyalty to a favorite that kept Paterno from bringing the whole mess into the open when he had the chance out of a sense of loyalty to his favorite assistant coach. That is, these idiots who single out for abuse the man with a conscience  have the same moral blindness that their hero exhibited toward a favorite assistant coach.

But let’s stand back and consider what’s going on here.  A man, Sandusky, was let go because he was allegedly guilty of molesting young boys. A fellow coach, McQueary, sees the event and reports it to his superior, Joe Paterno. Paterno then goes to his Athletics Director and reports the event in vague terms (from what we hear). But then nothing happens. Paterno’s moral blunder stems from his position of power at Penn State which gives him the ability to move mountains, yet he says nothing more. The event becomes known to the public at large and he is eventually fired for failure to do the right thing, which is the only thing the University could do in the circumstances. And then students riot over what they perceive to be an injustice, or, perhaps, simply because they are bored. Some of them write threatening notes to McQueary which forces the University to allow McQueary a leave of absence to avoid further violence. There are numerous victims in this sad affair, but the real victims who are doubtlessly suffering from untold trauma, to wit, those young boys who were molested, are being forgotten.