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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Is the right reaction sometimes the wrong reaction?

Saudi judge refuses to annul marriage of girl, 8

A Saudi judge recently refused to annul a marriage between an 8-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man -- a union apparently arranged by the girl's father to settle his debts -- a lawyer in the case told CNN.

This is the kind of news that elicits from me an immediate, visceral rage reaction. A second later, I'm raging about the American government and it's righteous indignation over the Taliban's refusal to permit the education of girls, while we play footsie with a wealthy oil nation that treats the institution of marriage as the most primitive form of slavery.

And of course, I'm right.

But it's possible to be wrong in being right. Right now, it's about five minutes after all that raging and ranting is done, and I'm feeling guilty. Because I know that sexism is my biggest button, and all my own righteous indignation is triggered when that button gets pushed. 

At the same time on CNN.com, I find reports that a giant coal sludge spill just inundated a town in Tennessee; Zimbabwe is about to try a human rights activist for trying to overthrow Mugabe; Hamas is firing rockets at Israel again; a seemingly innocent financier committed suicide because he'd lost so much money with Madoff; the military has taken over in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, following the death of the president; the Pope took a jab at gay marriage; and the Congo continues to be ravaged by violence so brutal and unending that 5 million people have died since 1998.

But that news about the little girl handed to a middle-aged man to pay off a debt -- the twisted feeling in my gut is reserved for that story.  Why is that? My initial response is that it's an identification thing -- that could be me. But I know that's not true. I don't actually identify with an 8-year-old Saudi girl any more than I identify with a Zimbabwean peace activist or a French financier. I have a daughter about the same age, but the thought of her fleeing a raging battle or drinking water poisoned by coal ash is just as upsetting. 

So then why?

I think the simple, plain truth is that, early in life, we each pick a cause to cling to; something that we hug close and hold dear all our lives; something that we reserve our moral outrage for. Whether the thing that twists our gut is the defiance of god's law, the rape of the environment, the scourge of poverty, the abuse of domesticated animals -- each of us has something that, at some early point in our lives, spoke to us in a way that left a permanent imprint on our brains, and forever after, THAT is the thing that draws a visceral response.

Is that a bad thing? I suspect it is, in the sense that it reflects how unreasoning we really are and how little we can be relied upon to assess need, risk, and the magnitude of tragedy with any semblance of balance and perspective. And then of course there are those of us who embrace the wrong outrages, who nurture venom toward the crime of being too dark, too irreligious, or too (insert random characteristic here). Maybe that's what evil is -- a  misdirected urge we all share. And maybe if we didn't feel that way -- if we didn't elevate one evil above all others in that place in our brains where we store up our anger and our indignation -- maybe we'd actually be better off.

Or maybe we wouldn't give a shit about anything anymore. I really don't know.