Thursday, May 4, 2017

Jimmy Kimmel is Wrong, and That Hurts

People who watch more TV than me tell me that Jimmy Kimmel weeps pretty easily. So maybe audiences weren’t surprised Monday night when he barely contained his emotions while describing his newborn son’s diagnosis of a life-threatening congenital heart defect. The video of his description certainly gained traction online, particularly among viewers touched by his thesis, delivered near the conclusion: “No parents should have to decide if they can afford to save their child's life.”

Yet apparently that statement isn’t as uncontroversial as Jimmy and I believe. Almost simultaneously with Kimmel’s twelve-minute monologue, I argued online with an anonymous provocateur who insisted no tax money, none whatsoever, should move toward teenage girls who get pregnant out of wedlock. When I asked whether that moral equation unfairly targeted newborn children, this person literally replied: “Not my problem. Maybe if a few more people suffered they wouldn’t make the same stupid choices.”

Audiences who share my moral convictions, which realistically means most people reading this essay, will share my shock and umbrage at this statement. I could discuss the epigenetic consequences of thrusting infants into deprived conditions, presetting their brains into lifelong patterns of pain avoidance. I could discuss the lingering moral and economic consequences of a society that kicks the weak. But let’s be honest, I’d be preaching to the converted. You probably already believe this.

The family photo with which Kimmel accompanied his monologue

Rather, I choose to focus on two elements, which are really one. First, this person, writing under the shield of anonymity, believes society has no obligation to protect children, the poor, and other disadvantaged. Second, she believes the government should cause people to suffer to serve moral ends. Contra Jimmy Kimmel and me, this person really believes some people should be too destitute to raise children, damn the consequences, if it suits her moral framework.

Combined, these are the attitudes of a sociopath. To use proper clinical language, Antisocial Personality Disorder describes a non-genetic, learned tendency to view others as categorically lesser than themselves. The sociopath doesn’t perceive others as having rights or deserving protection, so screwing the powerless is a perfectly reasonable action; only those powerful enough to fight back deserve deference. This is one possible outcome of Nietzsche’s will-to-power philosophy, and a guiding principle of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

Unfortunately, it’s also the attitude of a certain subset of American political discourse today. We saw this during the Republican primary debates of 2011, when an anonymous audience member answered a question about saving an uninsured veteran from preventable death by shouting “Let him die!” People who are poor, or who didn’t save money, or who hit unfortunate circumstances beyond their control, aren’t unfortunate this social arrangement. Those with less are undeserving, inherently inferior people.

I recently sat listening while a self-described libertarian fulminated about the evils of poverty protection. I’ve learned not to interrupt such people, even when they say something measurably wrong; it only energizes them. So when he said, of poverty assistance, “When did we take away the right to fail? That’s the only time people move forward,” I realized something. This schlemiel thinks chronically impoverished citizens have encountered momentary setbacks, and could recover, like dot-com entrepreneurs!

To the political sociopath, the poor are poor because they deserve punishment. Perhaps they made bad choices, like getting pregnant out of wedlock. Perhaps they bought a house before the market cratered. Perhaps they’ve hit an economic snag, and ought to reorient themselves to the majority. Whatever it is, to the sociopath, the sufferer’s plight has no relevance to them. Appeals to common morality, like Jimmy Kimmel and I make, fail, because they don’t care.

I don’t say this to propose solutions. I have none available, because these people see the world so completely differently from me that I cannot bridge the gap. Confronted with the reality that it takes money to make money, or that our financial system has structurally separated work from pay, or even the reality of starving infants, these people respond, as my interlocutor did, “Not my problem.” Their only philosophy is, what’s mine is mine.

Kimmel, in his monologue, claims the idea that children shouldn’t die is bipartisan. But clearly it isn’t. Kimmel’s underlying message, that society has an obligation to help its poorest and most defenseless members, falls flat for people who think suffering is educational, or temporary, or compartmentalized. Some people in Western society literally don’t care if babies die. And that’s a judgement on us all, even those of us who don’t share that twisted, soulless morality.

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