It’s possible, based on the media, blog, twit and chat site traffic that saturates the e-waves this morning. All I know is that she was found not guilty, and since the media had judged her guilty all along, this constitutes a travesty of justice.
So what is wrong with me? Why haven’t I been interested in the goings-on of the morbidly immoral since the Joey Buttafuoco case in 1992? (And then only because we share the same first name.) Where’s my outrage at how “these people” live?
Could it be genetic? Some kind of acquired condition? Early-onset Alzheimer’s maybe?
Psychologists tell us it’s normal for people to need others to look down upon*. It helps (in a perverse way) to build our self-esteem by pointing out that as bad as things are for us, they’re worse for someone else. As poor, fat and stupid as we may be, there is someone poorer, fatter and more stupid. It’s why the “Jerry Springer Show” is apparently still on the air somewhere. Without such people to ridicule we might be pretty depressed.
But with the economy in the tank, national obesity at 30+ percent, and educational achievement** placing the US in the bottom half internationally in literacy and the bottom third in science, the objects of our derision must be lower than ever before. As our societal standards diminish, our ideas about people at the bottom, the ones who make it okay to be the way we are, go down right along, into a sort of cultural bottomless pit. Perhaps we should just designate those at the bottom of the social ladder a class of Untouchables, and get it over with.
Then there’s my world, the world of literature. How many books have we seen that deal with the problems of the underclass? How many stories about characters who are drifters or live in trailers? As writers we find their terrible decision-making fascinating. Their dilemmas are rooted in basic needs and emotions. As one of my mentors, Bruce Holland Rogers, said, “Good fiction is sympathetic characters behaving badly,” and these characters (and real people) sure do.
And to be completely honest, I just wrote a story about a brother, sister and her son who live in a trailer, and the brother is an ex-con, so maybe I am guilty as charged.
The key word in that maxim, however, is “sympathetic.” As a writer I care about my characters, no matter how badly they act, and my goal is to get readers to feel the same by showing their full stories, to explain what made them come to those points in their lives. That seems to me to be a significant difference. The people I know who’ve commented on Casey Anthony all wanted her found guilty. They displayed no sympathy for her, but accepted the media’s judgment. I find that distasteful. The media’s worse—they throw the Casey Anthonys of the world into our faces every day, imploring viewers to look down on them—no explanation, no understanding—just hate them, and you will feel better about yourself. That is repulsive, and it’s why I don’t watch much TV.
Well, how about that? I can look down on other people. Maybe I’m okay after all.
*See the work of Roy Baumeister and others.
**This is a downloadable pdf file.