Monday, February 15, 2010

"If You Poison Us, Do We Not Die?"

Today's quotation is a pretty famous one:

...--I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his suffrance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

This speech has often been quoted as a poignant and trenchant defense of human rights. We are all the same species, and should be treated with the same respect, irrespective of superficial differences such as skin color, religion, cultural practices. Shylock argues for similarity, resemblance, bonds of nature or, in the terms established by the play, "kind." We are the same kind, therefore we should treat one another with kindness.

But wait, that's not what he says, is it? No, he says we are the same kind, but you have not treated me with kindness. Therefore I will do my best to destroy you.

It's the terrorist's argument. Look in the mirror and see your own hypocrisy. See how little you live up to your own "democratic" or "Christian" ideals. See "the villainy you teach me." You made me what I am, now you must reap the fruits of that sowing. We are the same, but you have not acknowledged it, so I must kill you. Or, we are not the same, because you are a hypocrite and I am not, so I must kill you. Whatever circuitous path this argument takes, it always ends up in the same place.

There's a powerful and seductive illogic at work there.

These days, our whole relationship to the problem/question of "diversity" is fraught with contradictions. We insist that all people are similar, that there is no difference. This is the basis of democratic ethics. And yet, whenever those differences are elided or erased, some of us get mad.  We're asked both to ignore and to celebrate difference. We're proud of our minority status, but resentful if someone else mentions it. We claim special privileges because we're different, but get angry if someone says we've gotten special privileges for being different.

Because this is all so confusing, some parents insist that their children not mention racial or other differences at all. They aren't allowed to remark on the fact that some people have a different skin color, different features, different hair. This, of course, is silly--but it speaks to the anxiety we all have about diversity. Many college applications now have a mandatory "diversity question," which asks students to write about how they might "contribute to the diversity" of the college community. It's a trick question, of course. The only right answer is one that a) asserts and celebrates one's difference, and b) proclaims that differences aren't really relevant.

This, we now believe, is an ethical stance. Ethics as irony.

But what is the ethical subtext of Shylock's speech? See me, he says. Recognize me. See how we are the same--we will both die, the Jew and the Christian. See my suffering and death as the mirror of your own, and know me as part of yourself.

That's a genuine ethical moment, and that's why this speech is so often quoted without its terroristic finale.  It's true, and courageous, and urgent. But as soon as Shylock makes this plea--and it is a plea--he closes off the possibility of dialogue. See me and see what you made. I have no responsibility for what I have become, because you, you hypocrite, you who insist on differences and inequalities, have created my hate. See in my rage the mirror of your own. You have killed me already, and now I must kill you.

"The villainy you teach me I will execute."  Murderous extremists say that, and school shooters. This is your fault. I bear no responsibility.

But without responsibility, there can be no freedom. It's not enough to be similar, to be equal. We have to be responsible for our choices, too. Personal responsibility is the bedrock of a free and just society. By blaming the racial/religious/political other, we give up our freedom utterly.

Shylock voices what Nietzsche called "slave morality" here--the morality of the victim who defines himself solely against a villainous oppressor. His values aren't his own; he's doomed to forever re-valuing the morality of the master. In some ways, I think that we've all become Shylocks--angry victims of some perceived hegemonic other--the government, the media, the insurance industry, the guy who just cut us off on the freeway.

Which isn't to say Shylock hasn't been wronged--he has. But when his plea for justice becomes a promise of vengeance, he subverts the very notion of common humanity. He becomes the caricature his enemies have created.

Which means, in essence, that they've already won.


  1. GM--

    You and I are on parallel tracks at our respective blogs. This post, about our humanity and but how it easily lapses into victimhood and thereby a rationale for violence is a step I neglected to go. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. This play really does force one to confront those big ethical/ontological issues. Although sometimes it's rough going, emotionally. For some reason I find this play challenging in ways it never was when I read/taught it in the past. I think I'm going to watch that movie soon, for a little distance. Thanks again for sending that.