Is it ethical to laugh at a train wreck? What can ‘Tiger King’ teach us about the tiger within?

Fresno Bee, April 19, 2020

It seems wrong to take pleasure in other people’s suffering and degradation. But our culture encourages us to watch people do strange and shameful things. There is a continuum from porn to Tiger King.

Tiger King is a documentary about a dysfunctional subculture. It involves sex, drugs, suicide, murder, and exotic animals. At one point during the show a commentator says, “Even if it’s a train wreck, you can’t help but look.”

But shouldn’t we at least try not to stare? The Golden Rule applies in train wrecks. Gawk at others only to the extent that you would have them stare at you. In addition to turning the other cheek, we should also learn to avert our gaze.

Some viewers may tune into Tiger King for noble reasons. Perhaps they are concerned about animal welfare. Others may want to know what’s going on in the American heartland.

But most viewers are just looking for laughs. We watch this stuff with smug self-righteousness. “Hey, look at these idiots,” we say. “At least I’m not as dumb as them.” Or we experience the vindictive pleasure of thinking, “Those morons got what they deserved.”

But it is mean-spirited to think that stupid people somehow deserve their suffering. It is cruel to cheer on their pain. Sympathy is destroyed by smugness. Contempt undercuts compassion.

It is not exactly evil to watch this kind of stuff. Consenting adults can watch what they want, so long as they don’t deliberately harm others for their pleasure. To watch something is not to cause it to happen. The spectator is not responsible for what he observes.

But there is something degrading about a whole culture of “disaster voyeurism.” We watch “fail videos” on Youtube. We consume coverage of tornados and hurricanes. Reality shows and documentaries display a world full of weirdos. We linger on social media waiting for politicians and celebrities to say stupid stuff.

The late-night comedians serve up a daily dose of mockery. We shrug and laugh and sip our wine. Rarely do we mourn or grieve, or take action.

Philosophers use a German word to describe this, “Schadenfreude.” This means to take pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Schadenfreude is woven into the human psyche. It helps us feel better about ourselves to see other people fail. If you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em.

Sarcasm and mockery have ancient roots. Ancient Greek dramas ridiculed the stupid and the powerful. Shakespeare has the gods say, “what fools these mortals be.”

Mocking laughter is also a sign of freedom and enlightenment. Authoritarian societies ban poetry, art, and criticism. And really stupid people usually don’t get the joke. They are immune to irony. Some fools think we are laughing with them, when we are really laughing at them.

There is wisdom in laughter. Pompous idiots deserve to be lampooned, especially those in power. And in bad times, sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.

But ridicule corrupts the soul when it becomes habitual and one-sided. It becomes dangerous when it kills compassion. Racism, sexism, and fascism are often fueled by cruel jokes and heartless mockery.

When we mock “them,” we hold ourselves apart. The risk of Schadenfreude is that in making fun of other people’s misfortunes, we become callous and indifferent to their suffering.

Compassion grows when we understand that stupidity and misfortune afflict everyone. We all stumble and fall, and do stupid things. We should laugh at the absurdity of the human condition. But we must put our own failures on the table and learn to laugh at ourselves.

Mean-spirited laughter says, “Thank God I’m not as stupid as those fools.” But sympathetic laughter says, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Each of us is as foolish as the other. There is a Tiger King within each of us. But rather than feeding our narcissism and cruelty, we should tame it. Rather than hoping for the idiots to fail, we should want them to become enlightened.

Each person’s enlightenment is their own business. That’s why it is wise to look the other way and leave people alone. It is wiser still to look within and learn to laugh at the fool you know best.

Religious Pluralism

Today, It’s Impossible to Ignore Religious Diversity

Shreveport Times, Sunday Feb. 21, 2016

It may have once been possible to ignore religious diversity. But globalization, immigration, and the Internet have ended the illusion of homogeneity. We disagree about religion. In fact, people have always disagreed about religion. The best solution for living well in the midst of radical religious disagreement is an open-mind, a compassionate heart, and a political system that provides for extensive religious liberty.

FialaShreveOpEdWhile the candidates slug it out on campaign trail, President Obama has been actively reaching out to diverse religious communities. He has offered insight into the problem of religious diversity—and created an opportunity for philosophical reflection on this crucial topic.

Obama spoke as the Israeli embassy in January. He visited a mosque in early February. Two days later, he spoke to a multi-faith assembly at the National Prayer Breakfast. Obama is spreading a message of inclusion, tolerance, and hospitality.

At the Prayer Breakfast, Obama said we should pray, “that our differences ultimately are bridged; that the God that is in each of us comes together, and we don’t divide.” That’s an important idea at a time when religious violence is on the rise and mainstream parties are flirting with intolerance.

We certainly need more tolerance and hospitality. But we also need to understand that behind these important values there are deep and substantial disagreements. And we need to see the value of secular systems of government, which protect religious liberty, while permitting substantial disagreement about fundamental things.

Some people affirm a light and breezy kind of pluralism, which holds that all religions point in the same direction. That’s a nice idea. But it is not true. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and atheists disagree about fundamental truths.

We should admit these disagreements. Indeed, the fun of studying religion lies in discovering new and interesting ideas about fundamental reality. Our differences are important. But we can agree to disagree and thereby avoid violence, hatred, and bigotry.

Tolerance is a value for mature people, who are brave enough to acknowledge that disagreement is not a threat. Hospitality is a value for people who are curious about the wild and wonderful ideas that strangers have. Inclusion is a value for those who feel compassion for the excluded and abused.

The way forward is to cultivate courage, curiosity, and compassion. We need to understand the depth of religious diversity, while affirming the importance of toleration, inclusion, and hospitality.

At the Israeli embassy Obama stated, “An attack on any faith is an attack on all of our faiths.  It is an attack on that Golden Rule at the heart of so many faiths…” He is right. We need to imagine ourselves as “the other”—as a stranger in a strange land, where people believe strange things—and imagine how we would like to be treated.

This is a deceptively simple solution to intolerance. The Golden Rule is part of a common ethical core found in the world’s religious traditions. That ethical core is shared despite radical disagreement about other things.

The Golden Rule provides a basis for hospitality and inclusion. But political toleration rests on slightly different grounds. The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Behind this idea is an entire philosophy of politics and religion. The political philosophy of secular states holds that government should stay out of the religion business and that each person should be free to find their own answers to questions of ultimate concern. Related to this is a conception of religion, which holds that religion is something private and internal to persons.

External conformity has little to do with sincerity of belief. And religious faith cannot be subject to coercive force. I could torture you and force you to make a confession of faith. But a coerced confession does not indicate what you truly believe.

If the state uses its power to enforce religious conformity, all we end up with is violence and misery—but no increase in faith. Indeed, coercion often backfires in the realm of ideas, since it discredits the ideas of those who resort to force.

At the National Prayer Breakfast Obama pointed out that “fear does funny things.” Fear, he said, can lead us to lash out against people who are different. And it can erode the bonds of community. When we are fearful we resort to coercion. We want to destroy the thing we fear and we learn to hate.

The solution is an education that creates curiosity and compassion. Martin Luther King, Jr. once explained that “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.”

King is right. The more you know, the less you hate. The foundation for a better world rests upon toleration, hospitality, and inclusion. Our ongoing task is to strengthen that foundation and build upon it—in our schools and institutions, and in our hearts and minds.

 

 

 

Celebrate decency of ordinary people

Life is more wonderful than we often think

Fresno Bee, December 26, 2016

  • Be grateful for good news
  • Don’t let cynical grumps get you down
  • Take time to recharge your moral batteries