Flies, Angels, and Cake

We are either a product of brute biology -- how we are designed -- or of culture, and designs of our own. To some extent, inevitably, it must be both. But how the balance is struck is itself subject to evolution, and we may lend a guiding hand. We may mix the batter.
01/22/2013 01:51 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

This is definitely not about guns, although they will be mentioned along the way. Guns do worry me. I wish they didn't, but they do.

Of course, I have heard that guns don't kill people -- people kill people. Guns clearly make them better at it, however. But even if they didn't, the whole "people kill people" thing wouldn't comfort me much. Because, frankly, people worry me, too. I wish they didn't, but they do. And people with guns -- well, they can just about worry you to death.

But this really isn't about guns. It's about flies, angels, and cake.

I do worry about us, and I don't think this is because I'm prone to morbid fantasies. I think it's just because I've watched television, and gone to high school. I think it's because I've watched football, let alone soccer. We'll get back to all of that. For now, let's get to the flies.

I mean, in particular, William Golding's flies, as in Lord of the Flies. I trust you were obligated to suffer the book at some point during your education, as was I. It tells the tale of a group of perfectly normal, perfectly decent, perfectly innocent children marooned on an island, alone together. It tells how a bit of jostling for places in a pecking order and unfettered peer pressure converts them into a hoard of horrifying, rampaging savages.

For those who don't know, they are eventually rescued by a passing ship -- and their micro-culture is subordinated back into the macro-culture of the adults. They are innocents once more -- though, perhaps, there is no going back. We are left with a lingering chill.

Golding's book is a time-honored classic, and he a Nobel laureate, suggesting there is much more to this than a contrived story. He was telling us something fundamental about the darker aspects of human nature.

History, of course, bears that out. We needn't go nearly so far as all the great atrocities to have plagued our collective experience. We needn't invoke Nazis and the Holocaust, although we could. We might turn merely to the more fly-infested carcasses in readily accessible closets.

High school comes to mind. You are rare, indeed -- admirable and rare -- if you can't recall some occasion when the prods of peer pressure induced you to taunt, mock, or denigrate some poor unfortunate consigned to the cold shadows of high school unpopularity. Or, maybe that poor unfortunate was you.

As you mull over the relevant recollections, let's also invoke a recent pop-culture provocation. The most recent episode of American Idol featured the audition of a young man with a serious, lifelong stutter. The way the Idol producers framed the introduction of Lazaro Arbos to the viewing audience -- made up largely of kids and young adults -- they clearly knew they would be tugging heartstrings, and bringing tears to eyes in family rooms around the country.

But here's the irony of it all. What made the story so compelling was neither the young man's stutter when he talked, nor the beauty of his voice when he sang -- though both were undeniable -- but the hardship over which he had triumphed to take the stage. And that hardship wasn't really the stutter itself, but the constant derision of his peers his disability had earned him. Lazaro described a life lived in lonely desolation because his peers routinely added the insult of their dismissive contempt to the injury of his speech disorder.

Why is that ironic? Because those same "peers" were the ones watching the show, and crying in solidarity with Lazaro, and reveling in his perseverance and vindication. The peers roaming the corridors of schools in clans who caused the pain, shared it in the privacy of their homes. They cried for it.

So the question is: Who are these peers? Are they the caring, compassionate, even empathetic viewers the Idol producers knew they would be reaching -- or are they the malevolent bullies who made Lazaro's life such a compelling case study in isolation in the first place?

They are, ineluctably, both. The irony of this is all but overwhelming. That intrinsic to the young man's name -- as he resurrects himself from the ashes of his immolated childhood -- speaks, I trust, for itself.

And here's where the angels come in. For there are, indeed, better angels in our nature. They were with us as we shed tears, or held them back, in response to Lazaro's story. But they seem to shun us when we gather in our fly-festooned groups.

Those groups, and the tyrannies they perpetrate, are everywhere. They are the insular cliques of high school corridors. They are the militant zealots of any given jihad. They are any group that hears only the echoes of its own rhetoric -- as told by Thaler and Sunstein in Nudge.

They are the football fans who, in devotion to their team, feel obligated to hate the fans of the opposing team. They are the football fans who occasionally come to violence in the stadium parking lot for that same purposeless passion. They are the rabid soccer fans around the world who do so even more routinely.

Just imagine a stadium full of such fans, prone to riot and mayhem, each with a gun in hand. A war zone takes shape in the mind.

Nor need the provocation be nearly so great as the outcome of a soccer match. It might be as flighty as a goose.

Just such a tale was told last week in the New York Times. Two neighbors squared off with guns in hand over the disputed wanderings of an itinerant goose. This altercation might have involved two opposing fingers, wagging. And as such, it would be fleeting, forgettable, inconsequential in the span of two lives. Those same two fingers, curled around opposing triggers, might well have meant the irrevocable end to one or both of those lives. Over a goose.

So we should indeed do something about guns. But this isn't about guns. It's about people, and their hands. It's about unclenching fists, and uncurling those fingers.

Imagine a world in which compassion and kindness were the most revered attributes. (If you are hearing John Lennon in your head now, I think that's fine.) Imagine a world in which power derived from influence, influence derived only from respect, and respect was accorded only to the honorable. In such a world, power could not corrupt -- for power could not coexist with corruption. In such a world, mountains of money in the absence of genuine merit would exert little influence, and would represent failure. No child of such a culture would ever aspire to such impoverishment.

This, I know, must sound like pie in the sky. But pie has nothing to do with it. I have cake in mind.

We are at best half-baked if we delegate to the endowments of brute biology the control of our destinies. It is biology and the exigencies of survival that have given us ethnocentrism, xenophobia, suspicion, and aggression. We have some need of these, of course. But we are only half-baked if these constitute our complete recipe. We are half-baked if peer pressure bands us into groups from which the better angels of our nature are excluded, and which gang up on the vulnerable who pose no threat. We are at best half-baked beings if we choose to persecute the likes of Lazaro Arbos.

We are either a product of brute biology -- how we are designed -- or of culture, and designs of our own. To some extent, inevitably, it must be both. But how the balance is struck is itself subject to evolution, and we may lend a guiding hand. We may mix the batter.

I imagine raising children who know that if they are kind, I will admire them -- whether or not they are "cool." I imagine raising children who know that if they are seemingly cool at the expense of kindness, I will renounce rather than respect them. I imagine raising children who know I have done my best, but that they can do better.

This requires no pie in the sky, nor anything lofty nor out of reach. Those of us who heard the story of Lazaro Arbos cried, or held back tears. All that is needed is for us to tell one another. All that is needed is for us to acknowledge in public the tender compassion we reveal in private. All that is required is for us all to aspire to be the first to say: "No -- I will not be one more taunt, one more humiliation. I will not be one more reason this person lives in lonely isolation. Knowing I would cry over this story were I to hear of it in private, I will not join with any public group to be the cause of it."

We are shaped by some forces -- genetics, biology -- we do not control. But culture is a medium of our devising. We created it, we control it. It is accountable to us, and we are accountable for it.

How can our culture condone its own hypocrisies? We tyrannize one another in the name of defense against tyranny. We tear up in private tenderness over the redemption of the very kind of person our prevailing public behaviors make cry every day. Thankfully, Lazaro took up music. Others contending with such desperate isolation, to oppose the tyranny of ostracism and alienation, have taken up arms.

We are better than this. In private, we are better. We can choose to be better together as well. We can choose to revere kindness over coolness. We can raise children who know that being kind is always more important than being cool, and fitting in.

Of course, as a culture, we could decide that kindness is cool -- and then we could have that cake, and eat it too. And surely no fly would ever befoul it. And the angels would draw up a chair, and ask for a slice.


Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com

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