Monday, December 15, 2014

What fairy tales can teach about torture and racial profiling

Thorn bush
Photo courtesy of Elsie esq.
Dear readers, it has been more than a year since we last posted. A long stretch, but it seems each of us has moved and/or gone through some other major life change (I got married and then moved twice!).

But for my part, it's been more than that. From Kate Kelly's excommunication this summer, to recent tensions over the relationship between law enforcement and people of color, to the heartbreaking report on the US use of torture, I have found myself in a position that's disorienting for a writer: at a loss for words. The internet is not at a loss for words, and in that swirl of perspectives, I've frequently asked myself what I could add that would offer anything new, anything worthwhile. I don't say this out of a false sense of humility - I say it as someone who hears many bright, intelligent voices, and still wonders what yet another bright, intelligent voice will add.

So I've read. I've listened. I've cried. I've worried. But in writing, I've remained largely silent.

What I have written about over the last year are fairytales. That focus might sound like an escape, but fairy tales teach much more about these issues than you likely imagine.

Take this tale of torture and racial profiling for example:


"The Jew in the Thorns" shows up in the Grimms' collection. It begins the tale with a master who swindles his apprentice out of his fair wages by convincing him that a small amount of money is in fact a generous fortune. When the apprentice sets out with his fortune, he soon encounters a stranger, to whom he offers everything he has. To reward the apprentice, this stranger grants three wishes: a gun that will hit anything he aims for, a fiddle that will force everyone to dance, and the ability to make any request of another person and have them grant it.

Further down the road he sees a Jewish man, who watches a song bird and wishes he could catch it. The "good servant" shoots it down and rudely commands the Jewish man to get it, addressing him as "rogue." While the Jewish man crawls between branches to avoid their thorns, the hero plays the fiddle, which forces the Jewish man to dance in agony. The servant continues to torture the Jewish man until he offers him a bag of gold, and the servant justifies accepting it by assuming it must have been stolen in the first place.

After escaping, the Jewish man runs to a judge and tells him that a man with a gun and fiddle assaulted him and stole his money. When the "good servant" - that is how the tale refers to him throughout - is set to trial, the judge at first insists that the Jewish man must be telling the truth because no Jewish man would lie to the court. The servant is sentenced to be hanged but first requests to play his fiddle - the judge can't refuse thanks to the magical gift- and suddenly everyone is forced to dance. When the servant finally demands that the Jewish man confess where he got the money or risk the fiddle's music again, he confesses to having stolen it and admits "you have earned it fairly." At that, the judge has the Jewish man hanged.

It's a disturbing tale. Unlike most of the stories I cover with my students, there's no debating the bias in this one: a man who is initially portrayed as trusting and generous turns his rewards into weapons when he meets a complete stranger, assuming that the stranger is a thief and therefore deserving of abuse and theft, simply because of the man's religion and ethnic background. Perhaps even more disturbing, the story assumes that Jewish men of the time are at an advantage: after all, the judge initially claims to believe the victim simply because he is Jewish. In that context, the tale of racial profiling and torture justifies using violence against people without any evidence of their wrongdoing, simply because of their background. The confession made under duress facilitates the hero's happy ending, a problem that the story glosses over.

From today's perspective, it's easy to see that the "good servant" is wrong. We recognize that nineteenth-century Germany did not systematically protect Jewish criminals from prosecution and that Jewish Germans were no more likely to be criminals than other Germans. We also recognize that this confession comes through torture, which motivates the victim to say whatever he thinks the torturer wants to hear, and we understand that assuming a person is a thief is not justification for a private citizen to assault them.

But when it comes to today's issues, perhaps we're not far from the sentiments of the culture that produced this story. American psychologists designed a system of torture and received an enormous paycheck as thanks, which they likely justified to themselves with similar reasoning: if these men have committed similar offenses against others, is it really so wrong for us to treat them the same way? And if we're sure they're guilty, do we truly need enough evidence to press charges, before we begin torturing them?

Yes, it is wrong.

And similar logic shows up when we suggest in casual conversations and on news stations that we don't need to talk about vigilante and police violence against unarmed black men, since black men are more likely to be killed by one another. Or that black men should focus on a different social problem that they are perceived as causing for themselves. By trying to dismiss the violence perpetrated by our own, we white Americans think like the "good servant": many members of this group kill/steal/commit crime, so is it wrong for us to do the same to them?

Yes, it is wrong.

And what about the master from the beginning, the one who cheated the servant before he set out on his adventure? When I teach this story, my students search for a logical connection that doesn't exist. "Was the master Jewish?" they ask, seeking to understand why the servant targeted that group. But the story gives no indication that he was. In fact, the story suggests the opposite. After all, the servant trusts the master, even as he is cheated by him. But he immediately turns against a man who has done nothing to him, simply because he is Jewish. Clearly his judgment is lacking, even if the narrator attempts to justify the servant's assumptions.

But the narrative about the master is there for a reason: it provides the zero-to-hero plot line that we love to this day. Like in any number of comedies, we watch a hard-working, under-appreciated man strike back at a wealthy, system-rigging representation of the powerful men who have taken advantage of him for his whole life. In this story, he doesn't know he was cheated from the start, but the reader does and can triumph over the ending. But the problem with this story's direction is that it distracts from the people who have actually harmed the servant and instead pits him against other victims. Instead of promoting honest employers or a system of government oversight that prevents employers from abusing employees, the story allows the hero to redirect the abuse onto someone new. By imagining that people from a different cultural group are the ones who hurt honest workers, the story fails to resolve the original problem that it set up.

If we imagine that poor people, or even a particular ethnic group, take advantage of government resources, is it really so wrong to attempt to slash government aid programs and tell minimum-wage earners that their problems are solely the result of their own bad habits?

Yes, it is wrong.

And at the end of the day, when I struggle to put into words my reaction to systemically-reinforced violence that the color of my skin protects me from, that's one thing I can say for sure.

It is wrong.
It is wrong.
It is wrong.

Perhaps some day we will see our own errors with the clarity that this other story from the Grimms' collection suggests: in "The Bright Sun Brings it to Light," a poor man attacks a Jewish stranger in order to steal his money, assuming that he has a great fortune from robbing others. Only as the Jewish man dies does he realize the man had no fortune, just as he insisted. And as the victim predicts while dying, the truth cannot remain hidden but eventually comes to light.

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