McGill-a-Grams: Hating the Sin

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It’s easy to make slam-dunk moral judgments in the face of a despicable crime. It’s harder to try to understand the alleged criminals.

By Shannon McGill

Aggravated assault suspects (from left) Kevin Harrigan of Warrington, Kathryn Knott of Southampton, and Philip Williams of Warminster. Credit: Philadelphia Police.

Aggravated assault suspects Kevin Harrigan of Warrington, Kathryn Knott of Southampton, and Philip Williams of Warminster. Credit: Phila. Police.

On September 11, a gang of three young suburbanites descended upon two gay men walking down a street in Center City Philadelphia, taunted them with homophobic epithets, and beat them both within an inch of their lives.

There is no excuse that can be made for such an act. It’s outrageous, incomprehensibly cruel, and reprehensible.

Within days, the perpetrators became notorious on a regional level, first as a virtual manhunt set social media users after them. Then, the fallout followed as an angry public dug into their personal histories.

One suspect was fired from his job as a coach at a Catholic High School. Another’s Twitter feed went viral. Everyone is still talking about what monsters they are; how horrible, how disgusting.

So much more of our energy went into hating the criminals than into supporting the victims.

We love to hate villains like this. It’s almost intoxicating to point our fingers at the people who we believe committed such a heinous crime, and feel self-righteous in our condemnation of them, especially when a case is so black-and-white.

When a violent crime seems to be motivated by hate alone, hating the bullies back feels comfortable. It feels like the right thing to do.

But it isn’t.

I don’t want to minimize in any way the brutality and horror of what these people allegedly did. If they’re convicted, of course they should have to pay the price for being so terrible, and public shaming is the very least of that.

But still, vilifying these people—being outraged, being angry, ridiculing them—maybe these are all necessary as preliminary reactions, so that we can get our bearings and reassure each other that we all feel the same way.

Hating the bullies feels like the right thing to do–but it isn’t.

But after the dust settles, we have to dig deeper.

Outrage is easy. It’s a way to process the senselessness and ignorance of such an incident. But outrage can’t be resolved through hate. It must be resolved as true concern, self-examination, investigation, and ultimately compassion.

Our outrage must lead someplace constructive—perhaps to a conversation about how this attack may have been a manifestation of some people’s latent feelings of privilege, entitlement, insecurity, and rage.

We have to be brave enough to not just use this latest round of idiots as scapegoats, but to turn the microscopes on ourselves and ask honestly, “Are there any echoes of those same attitudes knocking around in my own head?”

We are quick to call out the assailants in this case, but we’re more reluctant to admit how we ourselves may benefit from the same systems of economic class, codified gender norms, and race that caused anyone to believe 1.) That this beating was justified, and 2.) That it could be gotten away with.

I’ve been thinking of this incident since it happened, and the only way I was able to make sense of it was by framing it in terms of the Tao.

To a Taoist there is no absolute bad and no absolute good. The universe has an unfailing and nearly imperceptible way of balancing itself. Every occurrence that at first seems negative will have a positive counterpart somewhere down the line. This ancient Taoist parable, which I read 20 years ago and still consider weekly, is a good illustration of this concept.

This crime was a horrible thing, but the universe is going to right itself, and there are ways you can help it.

First, understand that this was a crime motivated by hate, ignorance, prejudice, bigotry and intolerance. Let the expression and illumination of these awful traits make you realize how ugly and unnecessary they are.

Let this realization give you the strength and courage to root out any traces of those backward feelings you have in our own heart and GET RID OF THEM.

We can’t forget, but we must forgive. The sooner we do, the sooner we can all get better.

Start by converting your hatred into curiosity and sympathy. Pity whoever did this for being so intellectually and morally bankrupt and so closed, and theorize about how they got that way. If we can understand how people become bad, then maybe we’ll have the power to stop the next act of violence before it starts.

Challenge yourself to feel compassion for the “bad guys.” This is very hard for me too, but when I get there, I’ll take it as a sure sign that I have truly evolved.

The way to heal and move on from this painful crime is not more hate and ridicule. Even as a justified reaction to somebody else’s hate and ridicule, these feelings have never brought us closer to where we want to be, personally or collectively.

Rise above and keep going. We can’t forget, but we must forgive, and the sooner we do, the sooner we can all get better and start making the people around us better too.

If we generalize this strategy to all the atrocities with which we are confronted, the net effect could be astounding.

If only we were willing to see the people who we believe are evil as fellow human beings who are broken.

If only we could investigate the causes of their brokenness with compassion and recognize the events and patterns that turn people into rage-a-holics, I’m convinced that could be the seed of world peace.

Having sympathy for the devil. It’s easier said than done. But let’s just try.

Send your imponderable quandaries to mcgillagrams@gmail.com.

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