Love Thy Neighbour?

21 01 2008

Σαμαριτης δε τις ο͑δευων η͗κθεν κατ’ αυ͗τον και ι͗δων ε͗σπλαγχνισθη
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him (Luke 10:33; KJV)

In my absence from blogging, I have been rather busy. Nonetheless, I have happily found the time to watch several new films, the latest of which was the Australian Jindabyne. Set in the small outback town of the same name, the film details the interpersonal relationships of a group of protagonists, united in friendship and separated by a traumatic occurrence that leaves them ostracised by the rest of the town and suspicious of one another. While enjoying a weekend of fishing in a remote location, one of them discovers the murdered body of an Aboriginal girl. Rather than curtail their long-anticipated vacation by having to hike back to the car and drive to an area with mobile phone reception, they choose instead to leave her body in the water for a couple of days and deal with the situation when it is already time for them to depart. The response of the media and of their fellow citizens is brutally harsh; while they believed that there was nothing that could be done for the girl and that her passing was no reason to alter their plans, they are rapidly taught to acknowledge their own irresponsibility in failing to call the police immediately.

The film was slow and key points were not threshed out with the sort of attention to detail that made Australian dramas like Lantana and Soft Fruit such a joy to watch. Nonetheless, there were some issues that set me thinking and, while I would have liked to have seen them treated more thoroughly, they were provocative in their own right. Would the response of the fishermen have been any different had the body been that of a white girl? This is a key question for, while they vigorously (and, I am sure, justifiably) denied that there was any racist motivation behind their tardiness with reporting the crime, their responses may well have been different indeed. It would seem, as social psychologist Daniel Batson once declared, that true empathy is only possible when we are relating to somebody who is like ourselves. One might do well to remember (mis-)reading of the Biblical injunction:

ואהבת לרעיך כמוך
“And you shall love your fellow man as yourself” vs “And you shall love your fellow man [who is] like you” (Lev 19:18)

There really is nothing particularly strange about such an idea. Speaking for myself, I succeed in crying genuine tears every single time I watch Schindler’s List. If I am going to be honest with myself, there is no real reason why the Holocaust should provoke such emotion in me. I lost family, but they died fully two generations before I was even conceived. How can I weep for them, but not weep for an ancestor on my father’s side of the family who met with an unfortunate and early death? Have I really been so thoroughly indoctrinated into believing that the Holocaust affected me? The answer is yes. When I watch Schindler’s List, I cannot help but identify with the people who are suffering. If I watch footage from Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka, I cannot help but believe that the people being murdered are somehow like me. I cry because something I relate to is being harmed.

Do I cry when I see images from Darfur? Does it pain me to hear of the massacre of Pakistani Shi’a Muslims at the hands of local Sunni militia? The short answer is no. On an intellectual level I am well aware that these are people who are suffering and that, in every possibly meaningful way, they are just like me. But they don’t look like me. They don’t speak my language, wear my clothes, live their lives as I do, nor do they even believe in the same god that I claim to disregard. In other words, in every meaningless and superficial fashion, they are not like me at all. And, when it comes to an emotional connection – the sort that sheds tears, or causes one to cut their fishing trip short – they are nothing like me and I feel nothing for them at all. I play Free Rice to feed the starving nations of the world, pay lip-service to my support for the ‘underdog’, and possibly even set aside a small amount of money for a charity that I am more likely to be suspicious of than anything else. If it were Jews who were suffering in Darfur (particularly the white, Ashkenazi variety, for already I perceive too many differences between myself a Jew from the East) then you can bet that I would be more interested. Even if they were not Jewish, but people to whom I feel a greater natural affinity than I do for black Muslims, then my lip-service would have something more genuine about it and my distrust for the charity may be less than my desire to help. In the context of the Australian film, I am sure that the fishing party from Jindabyne would have done something earlier were they to have discovered the body of a white Australian, despite their desire to stay and fish.

Don’t get me wrong: I am disgusted with myself for feeling this way. The depressing part is, it’s absolutely normal. Can anybody truly claim to have internalised the Levitical injunction? Or to live their lives in accordance with the parable of Jesus, as quoted above? I will be honest with you: I have never even tried. Too busy, I suppose.

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One response

31 01 2008
Kathy

A truly honest soul searching on your part Simon! You are quite right in saying how hard it is to relate to far off ethnically different tragedies though very few would be brave enough or even truthful enough to admit to this. However if the event happened in front of you or you were forced to be a part of such atrocities then it would be a very different story.
Surely in the movie ” JIndabynne” the characters would have re-acted immediately if something could have been done to save the girl whether she was aboriginal or white.

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