Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Discussion.

It so happens that I am a big fan of the podcast. It is like the best invention for housekeeping since... the mop. I start the dishes, or the laundry, or scrubbing toilets, I turn on my iPod, and suddenly the podcast is over and my house is sparkling and I have no idea how it happened. And to top it off, I have fascinating conversation material for dinnertime. Podcasts are magic, I tell you.

Today I listened to a podcast by WNYC's Radiolab. You can find it here. It's well worth a listen. Highly interesting. Short. In fact, you should listen to it now. Don't worry. I'll wait.

Go ahead. Shoo.

Seriously. I'm. still. here. I give you permission to leave for a while to entertain yourself with something far more interesting than my meaningless blather.

You didn't listen to it, did you? *Sigh* Your loss. Now you just get to hear my own boring summary of the podcast.

Here it is (as a preface, I should explain that in my effort to make this easy to read, the tone is flighty. I do, however, have profound respect for the show, its participants, and their opinions. Okay. You may continue):

The protagonist in our story is an entomologist man who studies bugs called Gryllacrididae (crazy violent crickets). I can't do justice to his fascinating experiences here, but I will say that as he studies the bugs, he begins to relate to them. He begins to believe that maybe they are not so far removed from humanity.

But then, he accidentally smooshes one (that's the scientific term for causing thoracic injury), and when the bug's guts start oozing out, the bug eats them. Yes. The violent cricket-bug starts eating itself. And for someone who has begun to sense a kinship with these bugs, watching this is... well, not just gross, but "horrifying" and "unimaginable." Until... an old professor of his comes to mind reminding him to be objective. And from an objective viewpoint, the entomologist can see that the bug is probably just smelling fat. Nourishing, good tasting food. It doesn't know that it's eating itself. This bug is just using basic instincts to sustain life. And so, the world makes sense again.

Then. Sometime later. Entomologist gets news that his old professor was shot during the apparent mugging of a lady friend. The professor dies. It's a senseless killing for... a purse, maybe? But this senselessness is unsatisfying. The entomologist feels his professor egging him on, urging him to find the sense, to be objective. And so our entomologist (although he's still seeking full understanding for this event) believes, that since the shooter was probably "hopeless, poor, angry, scared," this act of violence was not "unnatural or inhuman. [. . .] It's profoundly human." And the podcast ends with this acknowledgement that the act is, perhaps, incomprehensible, but that trying to make sense of this--trying to understand--is important.

And... I. got. angry. I was washing dishes at my sink, muttering to myself, "I refuse to open my mind to the possibility of understanding for human behavior like that."

I know. I'm weird. My visceral reaction could be due in part to ill feelings I was harboring from having read earlier the horrifying details of the Josh Powell case.

However. My initial reaction stands. A cricket acts on instinct. I maintain that humans have choice. I refuse to believe that a person--because of his/her upbringing, class, environment, education or genetics--is predestined to behave homicidally. If understanding causes us to say, "Well, with a background like that, anyone would have done the same thing," then I flatly refuse to understand. Because to believe that reduces humanity to a series of inputs and outputs. It makes us just really complex computers.
Let me be clear: I think forgiveness is important. Necessary. But, personally, I've only ever found forgiveness possible when I give up hope of understanding. Understanding and forgiveness are different in my book.

But I am often wrong. Almost always, in fact. If you have survived this long-winded, annoying post... what do you think?


  1. Okay, I haven't listened yet, so I'm afraid to weigh in, but I so will listen. I love love love podcasts. Just wanted to say that. Most especially RadioLab.

    I read and very much enjoyed this piece by Ira Glass on precisely why RadioLab is so great: http://transom.org/?p=20139. It's long, but I felt warm and fuzzy reading it. Love those guys.

  2. Such an interesting read. I agree with you that understanding and forgiveness are different, good way to put it. I guess I believe in spectrums - there are many things that drive people to do things based on their circumstances. I came to believe this after living in nyc and doing research on reading abilities for children in the projects. Often I'd have to go to the school and tutor a child and usually through the course of our discussions I would learn the most discouraging, disheartening things about these sweet, darling 7 year-old's lives. I realized how much I take for granted as "inate human nature" that was actually taught to me over a lifetime of cultural expectations and situations. I have long felt that the final Judgement will be based more on what you did with what you had, not what you did right or wrong, because everyone's circumstances are just so, so different. (Obviously, that's totally my opinion, and I have nothing to back that up!). However, I'm with you where, in the case of homicide, unless you are a sociopath or perhaps live in a primitive tribe in the Amazon, you just plain have to know that it's wrong. And even if you don't know it's wrong, you should be punished. It's just WRONG.
    We could probably talk for hours about these things, there are so many things we could discuss!
    Anyway, I enjoyed this post!

  3. Elise, I love podcasts too. And I love you! I'm so behind on reading friends posts, and I've certainly missed reading yours. I don't subscribe to RadioLab but I should. My favorite is PlanetMoney (I can't tell you precisely why, because I think business is kinda boring, but they make everything so engaging, riveting even, am I a dork or what?). So I will check into this episode, thanks for sharing!