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Category: Humans

Take It or Leave It
Like most people, I was taught that I should take responsibility for my actions. If I messed up, my parents and teachers said, I should own up to it and try to make things right — especially if others came to harm because of my mistake. It’s always nice to apologize to people too, but as I understand the responsibility rule that part is optional. The main thing is to stand up and be accountable. Being nice is covered under a different section of the rulebook.

I have never questioned the wisdom of this take-your-medicine maxim. It is based on honesty, after all, and we all know that’s a good thing. It seems fair and honorable, too — I certainly want other people to treat me that way.

It might even be good for you. Admitting mistakes can be a hard thing to do sometimes, but don’t you always feel better once you’ve stepped up and faced the music? Not only is it evidence of character for anyone watching, but the act of taking responsibility itself seems to build character by reinforcing your own self-respect.

Furthermore, it could be argued that accountability is at the very foundation of a properly functioning free society. For the system to work, enough of us have to carry our own weight so that the whole enterprise doesn’t sink under a too-heavy load of mendacity and bad faith.

That said, I can understand why this concept may not work for everyone. Even though the practice of owning up brings some very desirable benefits with it, for some people there might be a point of diminishing returns. If you are the kind of person who makes mistakes all the time, for instance, you might be better off hiding a few of them. Honesty is the best policy and all that, but you don’t want to get a reputation for being a total screw-up. Fairness, for all the hype, is probably a luxury that only the competent can afford.

Better to lie. To yourself and others. If that fails, sometimes denial and rage will work. And whatever you do, don’t apologize.

Or better yet, play dumb. Under the circumstances, no one would doubt your sincerity.
Killer
Tilikum died last week at the age of thirty-six. That’s a long time for an orca in captivity.*

At his death, he was the most famous member of his species, or at least the most infamous. During his sad life, he was involved directly in the deaths of three humans. In the last of these incidents he acted alone, and the killing was particularly brutal.

There were calls at the time to “put down” Tilikum. “Execute him” better reflects the public mood right after the incident. People naturally reacted with horror at the thought of a 12,000-pound killer whale murdering a defenseless trainer who meant it no harm. The rage passed, though, when the creature’s life story became known.

Tilikum had been captured off Iceland when he was about two — just on the cusp of living separately from his mother. Like all orcas, he was utterly dependant on the close-knit social structure of his family. His first stop, however, was a small concrete tank where he waited alone for over a year for his destiny to unfold. When that day came he was kept in tight confinement with two larger orcas who disliked and physically abused him. At times during his long captivity he exhibited behavior consistent with deep depression, stress, and psychosis. When people learned how he had been mistreated — especially after the movie Blackfish came out describing his plight — opinion quickly turned in his favor and against the inhumane practices at places like SeaWorld.

Tilikum was spared. His actions were, after all, a product of his own nature and the awful environment he was made to live in. Also spared were the humans who enslaved and mistreated him. Whatever responsibility they bore for the deaths was forgiven, SeaWorld paid a fine, and everyone moved on with their lives. For Tilikum, that meant a long illness in captivity and his eventual, very difficult, death.

It’s hard to find fault with the people who care for orcas or any of the creatures held for public display at zoos and aquariums. They seem to genuinely care about the animals in their charge. Members of the public (including me) like seeing the animals and watching them perform. It is hard to deny, though, the inherent cruelty of the whole enterprise. A zoo is a prison. The “performances” are unnatural abuses of living beings. The misuse of captive animals, no matter how humanely managed, is an ugly reflection on the humans who oversee it.

Including us.

*Most marine biologists place the life expectancy of male orcas in the wild at 60 years.
Object Lesson
I think I have located the one good thing that will come out of this ugly election season. It’s right here, inside my thick skull.

I consider myself a feminist, but I try not to get cocky about it. That’s because I am not a woman. I’m a middle class white guy, so I don’t have much personal experience when it comes to oppression. In particular, I have very little real, first-hand knowledge of how women are mistreated by men. Everything I know about that subject comes from what others tell me and from the small lessons I manage to eke out from my own observations. This presidential year has been very educational.

I have heard locker room talk before, but nothing like this Trump stuff. I’ve never been much of a participant in such conversations, but I do know what it means to objectify women because I do it myself. At least in my own mind. In my defense, I can only say that I try not to let it affect my behavior.

Trump’s comments about how he uses women, however, have raised my consciousness. When his smug boasts were juxtaposed against the emotional stories of those clearly frightened women, I felt something of what they must be going through. I guess I needed to have the repulsiveness of the abuse shoved under my nose for it to fully register.

It’s still a man’s world, but from what I sense inside myself, that might be changing. It will be a slow change, to be sure, and all kinds of habits and institutions will conspire to make it even slower. But I really believe that feminism — wherever it finds a home — will be at the forefront of that change. The world (along with me) will be better for it.
Some Kind of Genius
Well, another year has gone by, and another bucketful of MacArthur Fellowships have been handed out. It did not escape my attention that I was once again passed over for these so-called “genius grants.”

I don’t begrudge this year’s recipients the recognition, the money, the endorsement deals, the powerful new friends, the primo reserved parking, or the armies of groupies that will come their way as a result of this award. I don’t care about that stuff. I assume they are all intelligent, chock full of humanitarian fervor, and mostly deserving of their good fortune. No doubt they have accomplished great things (though not great enough, it should be noted, to be famous already). And none has a criminal record or a history of unkindness toward the weak, including helpless little newborn puppies. That we know of.

Let me declare for the record that I am not trying to claim that I am a genius (though everyone knows the SATs are rigged). I’ll bet, however, that none of this year’s recipients is either. The word genius is thrown around so much these days simply as a generic term meaning very smart, or possibly very very smart. But genius? Not unless it means “kind of bright with a really good press agent.”

Again, I am not bitter. A little tart, maybe, but that taste is located on a totally separate part of the tongue. In any case, I am not pitching myself as a potential MacArthur Fellow. Believe me, that is the furthest thing from my mind. I prefer to occupy my thoughts with things like finding a cure for cancer or crafting a solution to global warming. Whenever, that is, I’m not actually saving newborn puppies instead of doing who-knows-what to the poor little buggers…as some people who will remain unnamed like to do.

If any members of the grant program selection committee were to be curious about my ability to make any headway against these problems, I would like to direct their attention to my backyard. I am particularly proud of the repair job I did on our wheelbarrow. The use of screws, wire, glue, beeswax, and glitter is certainly unique. Some people have even called it ingenious, and that is a word that does sound very much like “genius.” Also, the way I have brought order to our kitchen storage situation has been recognized as a marvel of efficiency by everyone who has carefully inspected my cupboards. It shows, I think, a kind of anal retentiveness that borders on brilliance.

But never mind. I wish nothing but (more) good luck to this year’s MacArthur Fellows — even the ones who are not technically fellows but, you know, women. I don’t envy them, nor am I jealous, nor do I know the difference between those two things. So let them have their precious grants. I understand that sometimes injustices do occur and that life is essentially unfair.

You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. Although it helps tremendously, believe me.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon