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October 26, 2005



It's not too late to talk to your teens about that incident.

I have the same feelings as your mother--not because I don't want to see, but because I resent being "shown" as a shock tactic to get me to send money. Show me because these things must be known, not because it will scare me into sending a check.


This is basically the message of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A couple weeks ago, during my morning walk, I saw a person sleeping under a tarp at one end of the shopping center. I continued on to the supermarket at the other end and got, along with my own items, a little something for him to eat. By the time I got back to him and dropped off the food, he was awake, had his sleeve pulled up and had fresh, bleeding needle marks in his arm. My first thought was, "I wish I hadn't seen that," and if I had seen it before I probably would have kept my distance from him. Jesus wouldn't have.


living in the city, this is a huge issue for me. i like living in an urban environment precisely because it forces me to acknowledge the sprectrum of human experience, from unimaginable wealth on the gold coast and the side streets of wilmette, to unimaginable poverty in austin, grand boulevard, and so many other neighborhoods you drive through heading north on halsted street.

nothing makes me angrier than this new suburban movement to create "urban developments" - little towns and cities recreating the "downtown," with a centralized place for shops and restaurants with nearby apartments, condos and homes. these people want the best of both worlds - a sterilized, perfectly manicured urban set-up that conveys a sense of community, without those pesky homeless people, crazy people, and occasional prostitutes. the chicago tribune ran an article about this trend, and one guy living in a place like this boasted, "my friends tell me my neighborhood looks like a movie set!"

that someone could be so happy to live in a place that seems fake is beyond me. that such a willful ignorance of the actual human condition is desirable makes me somewhat ill.

do i like walking past homeless people begging for change or crazy people yelling at me? no. oftentimes i find myself near tears. but that's life, and it reminds me that i live IN it, not somewhere outside of it in some gated community with a sprinkler system and an inground pool. i can't absolve myself from responsibility, which is what i think many people who say or think "don't look" are ultimately trying to do.


I like this post. Thanks, Hugo.

The Happy Feminist

Your post reminded me of what I have read about the importance of "witnesses" in the lives of abused children. Even if an adult can't do anything to stop the abuse, it makes a difference that the adult has acknowledged the child's humanity or has acknowledged that what is happening to the child is wrong.


You're on a bit of a roll these days, this is great. I've been trying to write a sort of secular version of what you express here for years. A few years ago I went through about a six month phase where I consumed just about as much English language material as I could about the 1994 Rwandan genocide--journalistic accounts, academic material, first-hand survival stories, the justifications of the perpetrators, news of the tribunal, documentaries, everything. This was, at least in part, a bit of intellectual curiosity behind this on my part, but it was more than that. I've long maintained a belief, which can probably be accurately be described, despite all my skepticism and rationalism, in humanity's collective ability to do good by each other and make the world a more just and more beautiful place. But that faith isn't worth much if I can't maintain while looking the most dramatic and serious counterevidence in the face. If my faith in good requires avoiding information/images about the depths of depravity and evil to which humanity can sink, it's not a faith worth having. When these events took place, I was living in freshman dorms, having a blast with my new intellectual and social freedoms, and developing a too-easy absolutist non-interventionist foreign policy ethic (in a class on the Vietnam war, natch). I had *no idea* what was going on in Rwanda in real time. How cheap and worthless my self-righteous global justice ethic was then.

The anecdote about the homeless fits well here. If we're serious (as I am) about equal respect as a foundation for a democratic society, it means very little if we can't bring ourselves to the simple jesture of respect that is not pretending the other person doesn't exist in a public place, how much can equal respect mean?


Yes, it's hard to look. There's physical fear (justified sometimes, particularly for a small woman), annoyance, guilt, wondering whether this individual is the "deserving poor" or just a chronic freeloader, wishing the individual would go to one of the "professional" aid locations such as Salvation Army, rectory at the university, etc, and psychic fear (is poverty "catching"?). It is worth looking at one's reaction, and worth a discussion in a youth group.

As for photos/movies or paintings of folks with gorgeous bodies, it is OK in my opinion to objectify them as unusually fine specimens of Homo sapiens, and not necessarily sexual (eg, hets can look at same-gender individual, gays at different-gender individuals and still admire their bodies). Face it, what else do we do when we watch classical or modern dance? And I think it is just fine to admire the aesthetic characteristics of less-gorgeous people, in fact, they are often more interesting (speaketh one who has studied in many a life drawing class with a wide variety of models).

The issue is whether you expect people with whom you have relationships to be as trouble/content-free as the photos and paintings/sculptures, or to measure up physically to an impossible standard created by models/actresses along with plastic surgeons. User of live people, or not? That's the issue, not the presence or absence of images. (I exclude porn made under financial duress).


Nancy, there's a colossal difference between aesthetic appreciation that honors and lust that depersonalizes and objectifies. One of the tricks of the trade that pro-porn folks use is to suggest that the line doesn't exist, and that masturbating to internet porn is no different than gazing in rapturous awe at Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn doing their thing. For me, the difference lies in the distinction between appreciating the lovely qualities of a body, and desiring to possess have access to and to possess that body.

La Lubu

Great post. Right now, my city is in the midst of a NIMBY fight against the Salvation Army. The neighborhood adjacent to mine is livid that the Salvation Army wants to build a larger, more comprehensive facility there, with space to house homeless families (a growing contingent of the homeless around here). Currently, the SA facility is in my neighborhood---they're landlocked and can't expand. Since my neighborhood has been designated as a medical district, the price of land has shot up as medical facilities are buying up all the land that's commercially zoned.

It's getting really ugly. The latest argument is that the people using Salvation Army assistance will be publically urinating and defecating in Oak Ridge Cemetary, maybe even on Lincoln's Tomb! This argument came after the original one, that the new facility would be built on one of the main drags into town, that folks arriving from the airport would be driven by and *gasp!* see a homeless facility, and get the "wrong idea". (They could have something there. New arrivals could get the idea that the populace gives a damn about the downtrodden, which would not exactly be correct).

Frankly, I walk by the current facility and have never had a problem with the folks there. Unlike when I walk through the NIMBY neighborhood; go figure.


djw -- Are you familiar at all with Immanuel Kant, the 18th Century philosopher? Substitute Kant's sense of 'duty' or 'the moral law' for 'God' in Hugo's 8th and 9th paragraphs (starting with "God is calling me to see, and respond to, the very things that those around me tell me I ought not to look at"), and you can capture a lot of what Hugo's getting at here in that secular context you want. The foundation that Kant provides for morality -- a foundation that is at once compatible with both atheism and a liberal Christianity -- is, in my opinion, one of the greatest achievements in the history of philosophy. Reading Kant is anything but easy, but well worth the time and effort.


Hugo, very interesting and thought-provoking post.

It makes me think there must be a key difference between types of looking, because we're also taught not to stare at those who are weird or different than us. I originally came from a small town, and I remember my first trip to San Francisco -- I was about ten -- and I was fascinated by the homeless people. I don't think I was staring rudely, but I was looking avidly. And my parents admonished me not to stare because I would make the men uncomfortable and it was rude. There's certainly a difference between staring at someone because you're objectifying them and looking at someone because you're curious, but it often seems like both of those are considered wrong by fair-minded people (even if you're just curious, it's an invasion of privacy and a bit of an objectification). I don't think I want to put myself in the position of arguing that we shouldn't be concerned about how we look at those who are different.

But this creates a problem, because it seems like the first step towards "looking" in the way you mean, Hugo, is precisely this sort of "curious looking" that is also considered rude. I have a feeling that people are going to respond to this post saying "Well, it's rude if you stare, but not if you look compassionately" - but it's not that easy. For one thing, nobody's motives are pure: everyone looking does so for a mixture of many reasons, including compassion and fascination and sadness and whatever. For another thing, even if your motives were completely pure, it's not at all certain that the people being "looked at" would appreciate or know that. They still might take offense, feel like an exhibit or object, etc., in which case it still might be wrong to "look".

Bleh. Not sure what I'm trying to say. I certainly agree that it's important to see things and not hide from them. I guess I'm just trying to point out that it's not as easy as all that. And the reasons it's not easy aren't simply due to fear or repugnance or hate. How do you see, and how do you look, in a way that does any good?


I know my Kant, or at least I kinda do. I've never done any of the Critiques properly, although I'm pretty familiar with the first hundred pages or so of C of Pure Reason. I regularly teach "What is Enlightenment, " "perpetual peace" and Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. So yeah. I don;t disagree, I think Kant helps. I think the non-secular versions of positive-duty based morality are often easier to see translated into the context of day to day life, even if they're no stronger in the philosophical sense.


One of the tricks of the trade that pro-porn folks use is to suggest that the line doesn't exist, and that masturbating to internet porn is no different than gazing in rapturous awe at Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn doing their thing.

Now, see, I would say that one of the tricks of the trade that anti-porn folks use is to suggest that it's OK to objectify and treat somebody, or an image of somebody, as a thing whose entire purpose is to be gazed upon, as long as you do not involve anything between the navel and the knees. It also suggests that lust is some kind of evil cancer whose mere touch destroys any aesthetic or intellectual value a thing may have.


Rayven, perhaps I need a whole post on the distinction between "looking at" and "seeing"...

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