Helping the Least Among Us

Last month we witnessed humanity at its worst: the senseless killing of some of our most beloved members of society—children, teachers and firemen. It’s unimaginable what is happening inside the heart and mind of someone capable of such depravity. We’ve seen the pictures of those beautiful children. We all know some first-graders and delight in their wild imaginations, their innocence and how they say the darndest things; they’re adorable. We all can name a teacher who made a distinct impact on our lives. And we all are grateful for the role that firefighters play in our society; they run toward danger while we run away. Truly, these senseless murders were a demonstration of the lower demons of our nature.

The questions that haunt us are “why?”; “How could this happen?”; “What breeds so much hatred into the human heart?” These killers must be mentally ill. And it is certainly likely that they suffered from some sociopathic or psychopathic illness. But is there something in our society that produces such evil behavior? Even though these are tough questions and the magnitude and complexity of the issues are daunting, it is, nevertheless, a brave and mature society that enters into these conversations. And while they will generate conflicts and disagreements, they do not have to create divisions and judgments. Divisions may be a big reason why these murders strike back at society.

Author John David Ebert recently commented on his Facebook wall:
[These killing sprees are] not a function of psychotic individuals or the conservative right insisting on making guns available. It is rather the very structure of American society itself, a society based on intense social competition, greed and social punishment. Penalizations for failing in American society are harsh: ostracism, social banishment, humiliation and imputations of worthlessness. It is a society based on rewarding the few, very few, “winners” and on punishing the losers with excessive severity. The humiliated and disempowered “losers” strike back in an effort to restore their damaged identities the only way they perceive that they can: by hurting the society that has humiliated and punished them, striking back with violence that empowers the individual to restore and maintain a sense of dignity and identity in the face of a threatened erosion of that identity.

Is this true? Is America’s rigid competitiveness the problem? Isn’t it what makes America exceptional? Does Ebert suggest a society that celebrates mediocrity, that coddles weaklings or works to include the marginalized? I get the impression that many Americans want a tough America that weeds out the weaker citizens (a la Ayn Rand). This is not entirely unfounded; sometimes the forced promotion of people over more qualified people is an injustice. Is not the “mean” coach who pushes his/her athletes to be their best doing them and society a favor? Ebert’s critique sounds like he wants a pussy society. Isn’t America strong because everyone takes responsibility for themselves?

Or do we? Is America’s brand of “live and let die” practiced without a sense of connectedness? What about “united we stand, divided we fall?” What about “you never leave a man behind.” How do these apparently contradictory, deep-seated American values—individualism and nationalism—manifest in social practice?

Of course, if “winning” is the highest priority (for an athletic program, for example) there is no place for coddling weakness. What do we want as a country? As a society? What does “winning” look like? Where do we look in our society to identify American exceptionalism? The monetary success of some individuals? The athletic prowess of some individuals? The glory of being an übermensch? Are the weaker citizens left to identify with a successful hero to vicariously feel good about themselves? What happens to those who cannot accept their inferiority in contrast to these exceptional specimens? Might our society be inadvertently guilty of loading people down with burdens they can hardly carry without lifting a finger to help them?

As usual, the answer is probably not as black and white as the question. Surely we can be both driven to succeed on a personal level and include (as a measure of “success”) our weaker neighbors in the shared glory of a successful community, can’t we? Is there a society that can uncover the mystery of “all men created equal” while acknowledging and celebrating the blaring inequalities as well?

The only social “exceptionalism” I care about is measured by fun. Yeah, that’s right—laughter, fraternity, a “Cheers” environment where everybody knows your name, a society that most resembles a party, from setup to takedown, everyone finding a job to do, a role to play, a contribution that is unique and unmeasured by comparison. A society that doesn’t judge another person by what they like or how they or their preferences differ from the judge’s. When are we going to acknowledge that we humans (as Americans and as earthlings) are different and get over it? Or better yet, get into it?

My measurement of a successful society is how well it takes care of its weakest members, and by that I mean those living and breathing among us with disadvantages—whatever they may be. This is the true meaning of all boats rising, even if it means we won’t “rise” as high as we would without the other boats. Rising high by throwing the weak overboard is only exceptional in its contemptibility. And when the occasional castaway survives and swims back to that boat, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

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