Are the fundamentals of right and wrong a matter of time and place?
Joe Paterno was a revered college football coach whose career spanned decades. His leadership included winning games and deep concern for his student players. His legacy was destroyed by a single mistake: Not following up on a charge of child sexual abuse by a former assistant coach. Disgraced, Paterno was forced to resign. He died not long after.
Was that fair?
If you say no, then what would have been a just cause to push him from his pedestal and send him hurtling into the abyss while the rest of us clucked our disapproval at him as he fell? If he had committed the abuse himself or actively worked to cover it up? Wouldn’t that have been enough? Isn’t there some point at which the bad overwhelms the good?
Maybe there isn’t such a point?
How do we balance a man’s good works against his bad deeds? Where is the line where we go from saying “OK, this guy’s a great man but he has some peccadilloes,” to saying “I don’t care what he accomplished, he’s a monster?” If the person who discovers a cure for cancer turns out to have molested five children before, during and after he made his discoveries, how are we to judge him?
The same questions can be asked about societies. Where is the line where we go from saying “This was a great civilization that had some flaws” to “This was a civilization that was evil?”
In my May 2012 “Contrarian” column I wrote that if we want to stop child sexual abuse we have to understand the underlying motivation, and to understand that we have to look at the sexual use of children in its historical, sociological, and psychological contexts.
In this column I want to use child sexual abuse as a measuring stick of evil.
Stripped to its essence, this act of oppression is the exploitation of the weak by the strong. The stronger person gets what he wants without regard to the well being, dignity, or wishes of the weaker person. The aftereffects for the victim can be devastating and lifelong.
The above also describes slavery.
Many of our country’s founding fathers were slave holders.
What if they had been pederasts instead? Would that have been worse than being slaveholders? Would they be regarded any differently than they are today?
Now at this point, some of you might find the comparison offensive and say: “Yes, today we all know slavery was wrong but back then it was accepted so we can’t use today’s standards to judge people back then.”
My response: Are the fundamentals of right and wrong a matter of time and place? If some primitive tribe practices cannibalism is that OK because, in their context, it’s accepted? Or do we say: “No, it’s not acceptable. Their context is irrelevant because they are primitive.” In that case, does the advanced nature of ancient Greek civilization give their many pederasts a free pass because everyone was doing it?
Unfortunately it’s been a long, hard slog in humanity’s rise from the cave and the jungle. Fortunately, we are more civilized today than we were in the past. Things that were acceptable even 50 years ago in this country are now looked upon with horror.
But before we point an accusing finger at our ancestors of centuries back, perhaps we should look at ourselves in the mirror and have a little humility and understanding, for things we accept as normal today will be looked upon by our descendants as revolting and barbaric.
Which brings me to the subject of pigs.
The website Wired (October 8, 2009) describes an experiment done at Cambridge University in the advancing field of pig cognition. With just five hours of exposure to a mirror the average farm pig can learn to interpret reflected images to find hidden food. The ability to use a mirror is considered by scientists an indication of complex cognitive processing and higher levels of awareness.
Science Daily (July 27, 2010) reported on research from Newcastle University on pig emotions. Pigs were taught to associate one sound with a treat and a different sound with something unpleasant. Half the pigs were placed in an enriched environment (more space, pig toys), and the other half in a smaller and duller environment. When an ambiguous sound was played, the pigs from the enriched environment approached, expecting a treat. The pigs in the poorer environment stayed away. The fortunate pigs displayed an optimism their less-fortunate experiment-mates did not; like humans, their prior experience affected their future expectations.
These and other recent experiments indicate the intelligence and inner emotional life of a creature our society has condemned to live and to die on giant farms where they are treated as so many widgets. Pregnant sows are kept in gestation cages only slightly larger than their own bodies. They cannot move or turn around. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University's Department of Animal Science has described it as "Asking a sow to live in an airline seat." Their deaths are not easy, either. From an article by Joby Warrick in the Washington Post (April 10, 2001): “Hogs…are dunked in tanks of hot water after they are stunned to soften the hides for skinning. As a result, a botched slaughter condemns some hogs to being scalded and drowned. Secret videotape from an Iowa pork plant (provided by the Humane Farming Association) shows hogs squealing and kicking as they are being lowered into the water.”
The great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, (Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978) wrote: “In relation to them (animals), all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Some of you may be thinking, “Come on! They’re only pigs. They’re just animals. They don’t really experience pain and terror.” If so, I urge you to read what people have written about other oppressed groups when voices were raised to protest their treatment.
I’m not saying the Holocaust is the same as the modern industrial farming of pigs. And I’m not saying a slave holder is the same as a child molester.
I am saying that when we point a disapproving finger at times past and places far away we should be careful not to look in the mirror for we may not like what we see.
I and our readers would like to hear your thoughts on this column, including from those of you whose ire has been roused by what I said here. Please leave a comment below if you’re reading this online. If you’re reading this in Change magazine’s print version, you are welcome to visit the magazine’s web site and leave a comment. Thanks.