The dark threads of human behavior

In varying degrees, we sometimes behave in ways that mock the very things we value.  Some of us are shocked by the realization of what we are capable of doing, even as we desperately scan our past for its dark origins.  But all too often, the quest for intelligibility in our actions collides against the illusions we quickly weave around our actions. Our capacity for “motivated irrationality” is only matched by our skill at self-deception.  Thus, our minds remain opaque to ourselves.

Leo Echegaray will probably never understand what made him turn his own 10-year-old daughter into a sexual object.  At some point, he may have deceived himself into thinking that she was not his real daughter, and that he was really in love with her.  No one knows how he worked through the darker threads of his soul to justify what he was doing, or how he managed to conceal to himself the meaning of his act.  In this daunting situation, he certainly is not alone.

I suppose US President Bill Clinton will never understand why anyone as powerful, as clever, and as attractive as he could ever find himself hooked in a potentially damaging relationship with a very insecure young woman like Monica Lewinsky.  Like Echegaray, he might have thought he could get away with it.  But that does not explain why and how he got into it.  If the meanings of our actions were always immediately transparent to us, we should never find ourselves in situations that could damage us.

Some people may object to this comparison, for indeed in Clinton’s case, we are dealing with two consenting adults; whereas in Echegaray’s, we are face to face with an adult who raped his own child.  But the point I am making is that in both situations, we expect a rational human being to be able to restrain himself from doing anything so foolish and self-destructive.  “It is because people often behave in bizarre ways,” says Jonathan Lear in his book “Openminded: Working out the logic of the soul”, “ways which cause pain to themselves and others, ways which puzzle even the actors themselves, that psychoanalysis commands our attention.”

Most Americans think that like any other human being with a problem, Bill Clinton may need therapy and personal counseling to help him sort out what is causing all the trouble within him.  But as president of the US, they also believe he is doing a great job, and there is no reason to expose him to further humiliation.  Republicans insist he is a criminal, a morally inept leader who lied before the nation and obstructed justice, and should therefore be tried and removed from the presidency before he does further damage to it.  The polls show that the Republicans do not understand the mind of the American nation.

The admirable sensibility shown by the American people on this issue is obviously born of compassion and humility in the face of the intractable threads of human behavior.  Its opposite, arrogant knowingness, is what gets in the way of the kind of non-defensive selfunderstanding to which, Lear says, nations and individuals must aspire.

It is true that reason demands that we defend our laws and our institutions if we must remain a community.  We should not flinch from the task of penalizing those who violate the values of the community if we are to preserve some order in our social lives.  But reason also requires that we recognize the persistent unintelligibility of a great part of human behavior.  That we temper our inclination to punish with the recognition that all of us are potentially self-destructive and immoral, even if only in our dreams.

Obviously, I am saying all this not on behalf of Clinton who, I am certain, will not be impeached, but because of Leo Echegaray, who I am afraid, will not be spared.  Killing him may or may not deter future rapists; it may or may not frighten fathers who sexually abuse their daughters.  But one thing is sure: killing him will not lead us any closer to an understanding of the dark inner threads and social contingencies that predisposed him and many others to commit the outrageous acts for which we sentence them to die.  Maybe nothing will ever make us fully understand the ways of the human mind.  But this should give us all the more reason to moderate the certainty that the imposition of the death penalty presupposes.

Do we really know what it means to kill a human being, asks Edward Tivnan in his book, “The Moral Imagination”.  Tivnan brings up George Orwell’s story of a condemned man he was leading to the gallows while stationed with the colonial police in Burma.  As they marched, a dog suddenly appearing from nowhere approached the prisoner and tried to lick his face.  “Everyone stood aghast,” Orwell recalls.  As they resumed their walk, the condemned man self-consciously stepped aside at one point to avoid a puddle.

“It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.  When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.  This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive.…He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less…”

Many Filipinos will likely tell Orwell that the world would be better off if permanently rid of the likes of Echegaray.  Other nations do not think so.  It all depends on the self-image we hold as a people.


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