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Friday, May 3, 2013

The rise of the freak show

My parents, as were most parents of people of my generation, were stern about labeling other humans as freaks and responding to them with anything other than respect.  In my youth, carnivals used to come to town, set up a midway in some outlying pastureland, and pull the curious in by hordes, particularly to the freak shows.  Our parents would shame us for expressing any desire to see them, and maintained a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-you stance.  They made clear that people who gawked at people with strange differences were among the lowest of the low.

That did not deter many from availing themselves of chances to gawk at and ridicule people with those differences.  It became a matter of a community outcry when I was working for the town newspaper.  Our community was the site of a huge state mental hospital.  Most of the hospital caregivers were African Americans.  Every year the hospital had an open house on a Sunday afternoon that gathered a large attendance.  And every year, a reporter and photographer was sent out to cover the event, which the hospital administrators regarded as a community relations effort.  The photographers were forbidden by hospital policy to photograph any of the patients. This prohibition covered up something the the black caregivers were offended by and complained about to the pastors of their churches.  Visitors to the open house would sometimes come for the purpose of watching and making fun of the strange behavior of the some of the paients,  sometimes even goading them on.  The caregivers related this kind of disrespectful and abusive behavior to their own experiences with racism.  Rather than jeopardize their jobs by complaining to the hospital administrators, they expressed their concerns to clergymen, who brought the matter to the attention of hospital administrators and community leaders.  Through some sermons and some letters-to-the-editor, the matter became a public issue.

One of the pastors remarked in a newspaper column that the event was designed as an opportunity for the public to become acquainted with how some of the less fortunate people were being cared for, but many regarded it as a freak show.  The event was canceled and instead opportunities for interested public to take guided tours of the hospital were offered.  Not too long after, the hospital was closed and patients were "mainstreamed" into the community.

That did not end the matter of freak shows.  There is a good portion of the population that thrives on watching people make degraded spectacles of themselves by acting out in public.  Today, one need not seek out a carnival sideshow or an institution for the afflicted.  Television is saturated with the
shows that appeal to that need for people to watch others debase themselves.  The appeal seems to be that everyone needs someone to feel superior to and make derisive fun of.  It started with the displays of the stupid, mean Jerry Springer show, and now pervades television in the so-called reality shows.  

The most insidious aspect of people making derisive fun of other people is what it reveals about  the people who do so.  Their lives are lived, as Thoreau put it, in such miserable desperation that they need some unfortunate to feel superior to in order to give their own lives some validation.  It is a parallel to Germany of the 1920s and 1930s when after the defeat of World War I the German people were looking for some way to regain their sense of esteem and consequence.  Hitler's appeal was that he offered them scapegoats of Jews and other minorities and organized the notion of a superior race that resulted in the Holocaust.  The people felt good about themselves because they had someone to persecute on the grounds of inferiority.  This happened in the land of Beethoven and Bach, and was, of course, a direct contravention of Christian doctrine.  Christ is to some the son of God, to others the shrewdest political scientist to advance democratic principles and the most incisive social psychologist who ever lived, and he addressed this matter of holding others in demeaning contempt:

if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool," you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:22)
 That is not to say that Christ never called anyone fool. In a parable, he has God calling a man driven by greed a fool. (Luke 12:13.  Martin Luther King, Jr.,  gave one of his brilliant sermons on this text.)  The principles laid out by Christ have been accepted as the principles of a just and equal society, and making "freaks" of other people is an act of self-degradation.  But avoiding derisive contempt for the unfortunate does not prohibit one from recognizing abject foolery among the fortunate, as Christ did in his parables. 

I hesitate to call anyone a fool, although I encounter people who qualify constantly.  There are people out there so immersed in self-righteousness borne of malice toward anyone who does not subscribe to their brand of ill-will and disrespect  that there are few other words adequate to describe the state of their human condition.  Madville Times notes one such example which demonstrates how the blogosphere has attained the aspects of a freak show. 

Some people display mentalities on the blogosphere that inspire derisive contempt.  The insult and abuse and perverse falsehoods through which they regard other people suggest that they are among those unfortunates whose attitudes, words, and actions verge into the freakish.  It imposes on one the question of whether they should be regarded with compassion like village idiots, or if they have consciously chosen to be the way they are.  On the surface, these people seem to be everyday rinktums, but on the Internet they turn into blazing assholes.  

For those who feel the need to point and giggle at poor floundering creatures, they need not seek out the circus or devious tours of a funny farm.  They need only go to the Internet.  Furthermore, the derision and contempt is often well earned. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States