Having just finished and turned in my final paper of the semester, I want to revisit briefly my dragon of the day from two weeks ago– cruelty– because I’ve been continuing to think about it often, and it just so happens to fit beautifully with my paper topic. While the details of everything I wrote are certainly not necessary to rehash here, I’ll summarize as concisely as I can to say that my paper was about Daniel Deronda (a Victorian novel by the illustrious and scandalous George Eliot) and about the aesthetics within the novel.
All that to say, my paper considered how we determine (unconsciously or not) how we will treat someone based on his or her physical appearance. *eyes roll into the backs of everyone’s skulls*
Yes, I realize this is an obvious statement, but I want to think about it in the context of cruelty, and when it is deemed socially acceptable (even if it’s not at all) to be cruel, given someone’s physical/mental/religious/etc state. In Daniel Deronda, cruelty was always sanctioned when the upper-class British characters were dealing with Jewish characters (not for nothing is this considered to be a proto-Zionist novel, as the Jewish characters planned to form their own state where they could be free from such discrimination).
This of course comes in a long line of discrimination. Let’s not forget that it used to be acceptable– even encouraged– for the upper classes to visit the mental hospital of Bedlam and (for a small fee) look at, poke with sticks, and laugh at the baited, caged, and chained inmates. In fact, the highest numbers of visitors to Bedlam usually came around work holiday times. And later in the Victorian era, there was what’s known as slumming: well-to-do Victorians would essentially take ‘tours’ of London’s East End slums as a depraved form of tourism (sometimes dressings as members of a lower class themselves), and they would wander the streets to see and scrutinize slum inhabitants like they were a circus display.
I’m not convinced society has changed significantly since then. We may have changed the ways we “slum” or “poke,” but the act of cruelty I wrote about two weeks ago (which is still clearly weighing heavily on my mind) was perpetrated in part against this person because the perpetrators believed they could get away with it. When someone has a disability (physical or otherwise) or even when someone is simply non-confrontational to a fault, it’s so easy to tear them apart casually, carelessly, cruelly. When slum inhabitants don’t have a voice, when inmates of psychiatric facilities don’t have a defender, when those that people view as “less than” don’t have a way to speak up, it pushes me to the edge.
I think automatically here of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, whom Fitzgerald describes thusly: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy– they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” This description makes me shudder, and not just because of Fitzgerald’s flawless prose. Carelessness and cruelty go hand in hand, and it is far too easy to bully and trample the life, the dreams, of someone who may have a more difficult time fighting back.
It also disturbs me that with Bedlam, the donations that ‘tourists’ would give to keep the facility running were at their highest when the hospital allowed visitors to come visit it like a zoo. When they banned visits from outsiders, donations plummeted. Additionally, Victorian ‘slummers’ often did so to entertain themselves, but philanthropists and missionaries often went slumming in the guise of “helping” the poor. They determined the “undeserving” versus the “deserving” poor– who they should help, in other words, and who should be left to flounder and fall by the wayside because they were ‘less than worthy.’ Sometimes, of course, they did help improve conditions in the slums, but it’s not those people I’m thinking of today.
Do we have to see or experience someone’s suffering to know we should help them? Do we have to see the effect our own cruelty has on someone to know we should be careful? If the answer is yes to either question, we should all shudder.
Now, as a final and unrelated side note, I may not have access to the internet for the next two weeks (although hopefully I’ll find some time to log on between now and then). In case I don’t, however, I just wanted to say I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth; I’m just going to the other side of it.
So, while I’m gone, I’m going to post this for all my reader-writers. It’s a short story competition in fantasy, sponsored by Baen Books, and which I will be entering myself. While I realize it is creating more competition for myself by spreading the word about this contest, the best writer will win regardless, and it’s only winning if you’re up against the best. So, happy writing until next time, and here is the link from Baen Books (thanks to Larry Correia for posting this on his blog, as otherwise I might not have seen it!).