November 30, 2008

Onward Christian Shoppers: Ironic? No.

I was half asleep after the long drive home from Pennsylvania and fully asleep by 7:00 PM. Because of that, I woke up at 2:00 this morning and wound up watching CNN. As I watched the Prime News program anchored by Mike Galanos, I saw the following segment. The pay-off quote here comes at about the 1:35 mark:

Guest and forensic psychologist talks about how the trampling death of Jdimytai Damour at a Valley Stream, NY Wal-Mart on Black Friday was a typical case of herd mentality resulting from the loss of personal responsibility and the anonymity of a crowd situation, but then he notes at 1:38 that there is an "inescapable irony" that the tramplers were Christians. The psychic dissonance at work here was enough to stop me dead in my tracks. How can this event be both typical and ironic? Russell seems to be making the case that we should expect some special behavior from those who consider themselves (and are considered by others) to be members of a particular religion, as if a religious belief would immunize someone against typical human psychology.

I have my doubts about Russell's contention that the crowd that killed Damour, injured his co-workers, and couldn't be bothered to let the police try to rescue the hapless temporary worker, let alone stop their shopping frenzy long enough to lend their own aid, were typical. I'm not a psychologist nor even a particularly observant student of human behavior. He may or may not be correct in making that assertion. I can state from personal experience that I have been in a violent crowd situation, saw someone get knocked down and stopped to help that person get back on their feet and avoid injury. If that isn't typical behavior, in a crowd or otherwise, it's a sad statement about human nature. I didn't stop and think about doing it; I just did it because that's my own instinct. I'd hope that someone else would do the same for me if I needed it. I may not be typical, though. That small gesture might represent abnormal behavior. Perhaps there's something wrong with me.

The notion that one would expect Christians to behave differently, though, that a consciously-adopted belief should alter social behavior, is ludicrous. I don't find anything particularly ironic in Christians trampling someone, at least no more so than I'd find it ironic that Jews, Hindus or atheists would trample someone. Brian Russell seems to want it both ways; what's typical for everyone else is somehow atypical for Christians. Is there some evidence that he, as a psychologist, can present to back up this statement? He doesn't mention any in his discussion with Mike Galanos, and so the statement comes across as rather glib to my ears.

It hasn't been my experience with those who subscribe to the Christian belief set that they act much differently from anyone else. They may ascribe different motivations to their behavior and they may see a different significance to events than others, but aside from some very superficial and intentional things, I've never noticed much of a difference.

One thing that Russell says which I do find myself in agreement with is that the Black Friday homicide of Damour says something about our culture which is profoundly disturbing. That is, according to Russell, it demonstrates a fundamental devaluation of the well-being of others and a synchronous elevation of self-gratification as the highest good. Russell notes several other recent events that he connects with the Wal-Mart trampling, such as the recent online suicide of a Florida teenager during which nobody intervened and the hit-and-run victimization of an elderly man in Connecticut which saw the injured left lying in the street without anyone helping him. One could compile a huge list of such inhumanities, of course. It's easy to do in a country in which a large fraction of the populace can't afford health care.

We live all too much of our lives in customized bubbles now, I think. We have so much technology connecting us in superficial ways that we're losing our ability to connect in unmediated ways. We're suffering not from a lack of religion but from a lack of the real basis of morality. We're losing our empathy, our ability to understand without cogitation that others feel what we feel, are hurt by what hurts us, and have the same needs that we do. That the trampling took place at a Wal-mart is not insignificant; Wal-mart is perhaps the cheapest outlet in America for the purchase of the very devices that mediate our experience of the world, so the death of a human being in the clamor for inexpensive access to mediating, customizable, sensually titillating gadgets is precisely the message that we need to take away from this. These push-button self-gratifications have taken on a life of their own for much of our population, not in the way that another human being might be loved but in the way that our own hand, our own eyes, our own bodies have meaning to us. As we become more fused to the toys and technology that we place between ourselves and the fleshy, carbon-based world in which we should be living, we retreat further into this silicon cocoon. Empathy is abstracted, sympathy is viewed as some sort of deficiency, and "self-reliance" becomes a shorthand for "I'm getting what's mine, screw the rest of you."

Far from being resistant to this mindset, religious belief may make it easier. It allows the use of "God's will" to explain away the unthinkable, but more to the point it is a handy way of dividing people. It's one of the fissures among many that allow one group of people to see some other as less valuable, less good, less acceptable. Witness this statement by the very recently deceased George Docherty, the man largely responsible for cramming the "under God" bit into the US Pledge of Allegiance:

An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms," he said in his sermon. If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life.


Given the willingness that exists amongst the religious to denigrate others in this manner, why on earth should we expect, as Brian Russell seems to do, that they wouldn't be prone to the kind of behavior that occurred at Wal-mart and claimed one life? I am seizing on Christians here because that is the religion mentioned in the segment from CNN linked above, but I don't consider them a special case in this regard. I certainly heard the same sort of talk from Jews when I was growing up in a Conservative to Orthodox Jewish family, for instance. I was once informed by a Hindu priest that I couldn't be allowed to enter a temple at certain times because I was a mleccha, a term which I later learned translates roughly into English as a "barbarian" as well as a class label considered to be even more untouchable than the classic Untouchables. Need the caste system even be brought up in this context?

Such divisiveness is an inherent part of all religions, and the division always implies the lesser value of some human lives as compared to others if it doesn't state it explicitly. That value is assigned largely on the basis of belief. By adopting Christianity, the belief goes, one is forgiven at the outset and can obtain an unlimited number of future dispensations. Christians don't believe this is true of non-Christians, of course, and an atheist... well, an atheist can't even be an American.

It is ironic, though, that a forensic psychologist, who is at least nominally a scientist, should make the kind of statement that Brian Russell made about Christians without the least bit of empirical evidence to back it up. Christians are plenty violent, plenty callous, and just as much afflicted by the empathically deadening effects of consumer culture as anyone else. It was, after all, a Christian contingent that brought us the so-called Culture War in this country. If Christians are capable of declaring war against non-Christians, why should it seem ironic that some of them are capable of killing someone, too? Don't wars usually involve that sort of thing?

Jdimytai Damour was just collateral damage, an inanimate object in the minds of those who killed him and injured those who tried to save his life. This isn't about Christian or non-Christian, believer or non-believer. This isn't about Valley Stream, New York and it isn't about Wal-mart. This is all about America. This is what we're becoming.

Shock and awe hasn't even gotten off the ground yet. Watch out for we Americans; we're capable of anything, and we don't even understand why.

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