Two days ago, legendary baseball pitcher Roger Clemens escaped a possible jail term for allegedly lying to Congress concerning use of steroids. In a surprising turn of events, the judge ruled a mistrial because of prosecution miscues. Outside, fans huddled around him, wanting autographs. Some gave hugs. In Twitter, he has a surprising number of supporters who just can’t bring themselves to believe the Rocket has done anything amiss.
In Italy, Amanda Knox is appealing her murder conviction of her roommate. There’s a good chance she’ll walk free as well. I can’t judge her guilt. It’s just that neither can her fans, but that didn’t stop them from holding a rally for her back in her home town of Seattle.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Back in 2002, there was Scott Peterson of Modesto, CA, who was found guilty of murdering his wife and unborn child while having an affair. He’s been sitting on death row since 2005. It hasn’t stopped him from enjoying an active correspondence with female well-wishers.
Of all things, even the notorious Charles Manson has enjoyed an epistolary harem of female devotees.
So what gives?
These people might ask, If I exercise kindness because it makes me feel good, am I any different from the criminal who kills for the same reason?
I’m aware of the power of groups, public opinion, and entrenched cultural mores to influence what we think and do. This tendency may well be evolutionary, haling back to pre-history when we needed the tribe to enhance our surviving. Weighed down by external pressures, many people live unhappy lives simply because they aren’t in touch with who they really are. They don’t live authentic lives and, in the end, they pay the bill. Perhaps we should admire this minority for standing tall and defying group-think.
Excuse me, I won't go there. Are these aficionados outside the mainstream more insightful than you and me; more courageous as well? I contend they also need the group, but find the chance for greater solidarity, and for personal attention, in the sub, or defiant, group. I saw the same tendency when I was a social worker dealing with troubled youth. Almost always, they had problems with reading in their home schools and diminished self-esteem. To cope, they found each other.
Some of us find taking the uncrowded path an easier way to garnish our need to validate ourselves. When I was a child I played a very cunning game of getting attention by taking the contrary opinion. If you called it “white,” I’d call it “black.” I hope like the dickins I’ve grown out of it. In college I was the terrorist in the classroom.
Cults are built on recruiting the disenfranchised, or those who think they’ve not been allowed to sit at the table. Revolutions derive from resentment.
Can altruism sometimes be pathological? I’m beginning to think so. Studies exist indicating there are people who think wrong doing is rooted in bad upbringing or poverty. Lavish love and you can right the wrongs and redeem a life. Often sensitive and perhaps deprived of a happy childhood, they have a need to love those they perceive as victims. Romantics, the true arbiters of social ferment, can walk perilously close to the edge here. Likewise, co-dependency can also foster misuse of affection. Love becomes an instrument of control.
I find myself wanting to say a lot more about the social phenomena of good will towards society’s miscreants; indeed, in some instances, cold-blooded murderers often masquerading as victims. But let me end with a fascinating study focusing on the traits of gentiles who risked their safety to rescue Jews in the time of Hitler. In his riveting book, When Light Pierced the Darkness (1986), Nechama Tec defines six characteristics shared by these rescuers:
1. Individuality or separateness, an inability to blend into their social environments. [See my earlier comments.]
2. Independence or self-reliance, a willingness to act in accordance with personal convictions, regardless of how these are viewed by others.
3. An enduring commitment to stand up for the helpless and needy reflected in a long history of doing good deeds.
4. A tendency to perceive aid to Jews in a matter-of-fact, unassuming way, as neither heroic nor extraordinary.
5. An unplanned, unpremeditated beginning of Jewish rescue, a beginning that happened gradually or suddenly, even impulsively.
6. Universal perceptions of Jews that defined them, not as Jews, but as helpless beings and as totally dependent on the protection of others.
The altruistic, in other words, can take on a certain nobilty in courageously rescuing the needy and the victimized. Not so when their recipients are themselves the victimizers.