Human Rationalization, Alterity and the Challenge of Moral Courage

Alex Tizon was a remarkable American journalist who died too young in March 2017 at 57. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for investigative reporting and spent his career telling the stories of those most marginalized in American society. The Atlantic Monthly has just published his final story in its June 2017 issue, entitled: “My Family’s Slave.”[1]  As might be surmised, it is an extraordinary tale. Tizon’s grandfather, a hardened Philippine soldier who died by his own hand in 1951, a year after Tizon’s mother married, “gifted” Eudocia Tomas Pulido, known to all simply as Lola, a deeply impoverished young woman, to his daughter in 1943. She was 18, and Tizon’s mother was 12. As sad and odd as it may sound to say so, this was not an altogether unheard of act in the Philippines when it occurred. As Tizon observed,

Slavery has a long history on the islands. Before the Spanish came, islanders enslaved other islanders, usually war captives, criminals, or debtors. Slaves came in different varieties, from warriors who could earn their freedom through valor to household servants who were regarded as property and could be bought and sold or traded. High-status slaves could own low-status slaves, and the low could own the lowliest. Some chose to enter servitude simply to survive: In exchange for their labor, they might be given food, shelter, and protection. … Traditions persisted under different guises, even after the U.S. took control of the islands in 1898.[2]

Tizon’s mother and her husband brought Lola to the United States to serve as their domestic when they emigrated in 1964. Despite her title, however, both the journalist’s father and his mother treated Pulido contemptibly, even as she worked long hours seven-days a week in support of the large Tizon family, which included five children. While occasionally promised an “allowance” by Alex Tizon’s parents, Lola was never paid for her services, although she lived with, and served their family for some 56 years.

This story sharply reminds its readers of the cruelty and callousness of which humans are capable, and of their capacity to tolerate evil and wrongdoing in furtherance of their prejudices and beliefs, emotion-driven convictions and/or perceived self-interest. It also reminds those who read it that slavery continues in our current era, even in supposedly highly “developed” nations. More, and of more analytic interest to me here, Tizon makes clear that his parents were aware that what they were doing was immoral and illegal, but they allowed the situation to continue notwithstanding. Above perhaps all else, the question that “My Family’s Slave” leaves its readers pondering is how Tizon’s mother and father (and later, step-father) could rationalize their decades of execrable treatment of Lola. Alex Tizon “freed” her and gave her a home for her last 12 years when that opportunity arose on his mother’s death in 1999.

As it happened, Tizon’s parents sought to “justify” their actions in a variety of ways, some conscious and some not. First, Lola was always “other” and “less than” in their eyes. Second, it had always been so, as they saw matters. Third, and importantly, to reveal and accept the truth of their actions, would have required a measure of moral courage that neither parent showed. Such a course demanded a rethinking of their most profound assumptions of who they were and who Lola was, and this they never managed to do. Fourth, fear played a profound role in their choice-making. Tizon shows that his parents dreaded the repercussions for their professional lives and legal standing as well as for their children should others come to know the true status of their “live-in relative.”

Tizon suggests that his mother, particularly, could not admit that she had countenanced such a travesty for nearly the totality of her life. He recounts an argument between he and his mother concerning Lola while he was home for a visit while attending college and long after he had realized what this woman was to his family. It arose out of the fact that Lola was having major dental issues and had never seen a dentist:

I said that Lola needed to see a dentist. She was in her 50s and had never been to one. I was attending college an hour away, and I brought it up again and again on my frequent trips home. …

Mom and I argued into the night, each of us sobbing at different points. She said she was … sick of her children always taking Lola’s side, and why didn’t we just take our goddamn Lola, she’d never wanted her in the first place. …

I came back at her, saying she would know all about being a phony, her whole life was a masquerade, and if she stopped feeling sorry for herself for one minute she’d see that Lola could barely eat because her goddamn teeth were rotting out of her goddamn head, and couldn’t she think of her just this once as a real person instead of a slave kept alive to serve her?

‘A slave,’ Mom said, weighing the word. ‘A slave?’[3]

Tizon’s mother died unable or unwilling to ask forgiveness or admit to anyone what she had allowed to occur in her household. Tizon recounts that her last gesture before dying intimated some measure of repentance, but if such was so, it remained unspoken:

The day before Mom died, a Catholic priest came to the house to perform last rites. Lola sat next to my mother’s bed, holding a cup with a straw, poised to raise it to Mom’s mouth. She had become extra attentive to my mother, and extra kind. She could have taken advantage of Mom in her feebleness, even exacted revenge, but she did the opposite. The priest asked Mom whether there was anything she wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. She scanned the room with heavy-lidded eyes, said nothing. Then, without looking at Lola, she reached over and placed an open hand on her head. She didn’t say a word.[4]

Whatever the meaning of his mother’s final ambiguous gesture, it could not, and did not, itself atone for her responsibility for the calculated heartlessness with which Lola’s daily life had unfolded. Genuinely to grapple with all that she had willingly visited on Lola demanded a searching of conscience and a measure of moral courage that Ms. Tizon never exhibited. In effect, Alex Tizon’s story suggests that his mother had learned the lessons of heartlessness and alterity (othering) too well, and taken those too much to heart to imagine life otherwise. She could never accept responsibility for her own willingness to rob Lola of her humanity. As her son remarked to her in his anger, she could not see Lola as a person and was willfully blind to the fact that Lola was indeed a slave.

While this story of slavery in 20th-century America is obviously shocking, Tizon’s mother’s behavior and willingness to other and degrade another human being is all too familiar. Humans have demonstrated this propensity in history and in our modern era. The Nazi ideology systematically othered Jews and killed millions while declaring their lack of humanity. Too many Germans agreed and supported the holocaust. In recent memory, Hutus, Serbs and Pol Pot as well as officials in Myanmar have practiced their own genocide, while refusing to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of those they murderously and pitilessly persecuted. This list can too readily be extended. Indeed, our own nation’s history is riddled with such behavior, including, for example, the country’s terrible treatment of African-Americans, Irish immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Japanese Americans in World War II and, perhaps most obvious, Native Americans, among many other groups. This history suggests that while Lola’s experience was doubtless extreme in our nation in modern times, the human (and American) behavior underpinning her subjugation is more than familiar. Whatever else might be argued, Tizon’s story illustrated humans’ capacity to other and to rationalize even the most tragically abhorrent of actions and behaviors.

Indeed, our nation’s current politics includes a major strand of thinking and behavior that rests on a propensity to other entire groups and treat them as “less than.” These thoughts and arguments are not genocidal, nor do they seek to justify enslavement, but they are no less troubling. Human capacity for “othering” exists as a continuum of possibilities and not as a single phenomenon, and individuals may lose their rights or dignity in societies as a result of such practices without recourse to the ultimate degradation represented by slavery or genocide.

President Donald Trump, for example, has disparaged and othered immigrants, individuals with disabilities, Muslims, Jews, government employees, former President Obama, Hillary Clinton, African Americans, Latinos and women in his ongoing efforts to mobilize voters around fear, hatred and ire. Millions of his supporters, and Republican partisans particularly, continue today to excuse these statements and actions. They also have rationalized Trump’s increasingly apparent contempt for the rule of law as well as his childishness and intellectual laziness, as the product of efforts by others to tar him and prevent the realization of his agenda. The President himself has claimed that he is the target of an unprecedented effort by unspecified “others” to discredit him. Trump has embraced dark and far-fetched arguments that a “Deep State” is conspiring against him, or that virtually all mainstream media here and abroad are engaged in “Fake News” when reporting his statements and actions.[5]

The difficulty with these contentions is that they are preposterous on their face and shown to be false in any case, as Trump reveals his mendacity and incapacity for his office each day. The fact that so many GOP voters are willing nonetheless to embrace these fabrications suggests a poisonous ideological or partisan zeal that finds them rationalizing that their president is surely better than any alternative that could be proposed by those who criticize Trump (read “other” Democrats), who would surely be worse than their known leader. In addition, some Republican officials and voters persist in believing that those “others” (i.e., Democrats, immigrants and career civil servants and so on) are not worthy of respect, and Trump will indeed realize his promised claims, if only “those others” can be prevented from stopping him from doing so. The frightening corollary, too much in evidence in today’s public conversation, to this mode of thinking is that “those people” must be shunted aside or walled off somehow, as they are the enemy and not fellow citizens.

This is ugly at its root and, unfortunately, all too human, and it poses a profound dilemma for self-governance in a heterogeneous society. Just now, as 75-80 percent of Republican partisans continue to support Trump while only 36 percent of the overall population does so, this inclination has become a central political question for GOP leaders.[6] Thus far, few of those individuals have exhibited the moral courage to challenge Trump publicly, although many have made it clear privately that they regard him with contempt. Nonetheless, if still worse is not to befall the Republic at the hand of this President in coming days, those officials must step forward and put country ahead of party and push back when Trump behaves outrageously, sullies the rule of law or degrades individuals or entire populations falsely. That is, they must demonstrate the moral courage that Alex Tizon’s mother never reached in her own peculiar relationship with Lola. They must practice that essential virtue, if freedom is to persist in the face of a populist demagogic assault on its foundations. If they do not, the consequences are predictable and, perversely, they will fall most heavily on many of Trump’s most earnest supporters. As author Aiden McQuade has noted:

It is a hard lesson of history, that when the moral courage of political leaders fails in the face of prejudice and vested interests, it is almost always the vulnerable who are the ones to pay in the bloody routine of violence that ensues.[7]

Only time will tell whether the nation’s current Republican congressional leaders will rise to the challenge that Trump’s manifest incapacity and othering-based demagoguery constitute. The civil and human rights of millions of Americans, and perhaps self-governance itself, may hang on their choices in the coming weeks and months.

 

Notes

[1] Tizon, Alex. “My Family’s Slave,” The Atlantic Monthly, June, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/06/lolas-story/524490/ Accessed May 18, 2017.

[2] Tizon, Alex, “My Family’s Slave.”

[3] Tizon, Alex. “My Family’s Slave.”

[4] Tizon, Alex. “My Family’s Slave.”

[5] Associated Press, “To Trump Supporters, the Rea Story is about Leaks, Sabotage,” http://www.nydailynews.com/newswires/news/national/trump-supporters-real-story-leaks-sabotage-article-1.3178564  Accessed May 19, 2017.

[6] Shepard, Steven. “What will it Take for GOP Voters to Cut Trump Loose?” Politico, May 17, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/05/17/donald-trump-polling-support-238519 Accessed May 17, 2017.

[7] McQuade, Aidan J.  “Jefferson, Hamilton and Moral Courage in the Struggle Against Slavery.”  https://aidanjmcquade.com/2017/02/24/jefferson-hamilton-and-moral-courage-in-the-struggle-against-slavery/ Accessed May 19, 2017.