The Innocent Heart: Forging Tragedy into Justice
The Fable of the Child and the Dog
I haven’t always hated dogs. When I was a kid we had this dog that I really loved, really sweet and gentle. We played all the time. She was really special to me. One day, out of nowhere, she snaps on me and bites my hand deep enough that I had to go get stitches. It was so bad that my parents went and put him down. Since then I’ve been terrified of dogs. I don’t get them. They look really sweet but you never know when they’re going to turn on you. I’d rather not have any dogs in my life, if at all possible.
I loved my humans but one day their baby grew up to be old enough to play with me. The child would grab my ears really painfully, pat me too hard, and pull on my lips. I would try to let the humans know I was hurting—I looked at them with my big open eyes, asking for help. They thought it was funny and laughed at me. When I growled or tried to get away, the humans yelled and told me to be still like a good dog. Finally one day I couldn’t handle it and I let the child know it had to stop. I bit him too hard. The humans were scared and angry, and they took me to someone who killed me. I hate humans.
Reflect on the stories above and how each version of the story feels to read. What judgments do you make about the characters in each version? Is there a clear victim in this story? A clear perpetrator? Do you feel that what happened to the child was just? Do you feel what happened to the dog was just? What does it mean if both versions of the story have equal validity, as well as equal bias? Who has more power in these stories?
The Dog lives in a world created by and for humans, cared for by humans who do not understand her language or appreciate her suffering. Her attempts to set boundaries read to the humans as disobedience; her attempts to communicate pain read as comedy. She can’t escape her conditions; she lacks the human hands and know-how that would let her unlock the doors. From the Dog’s vantage, it looks like the humans revel in their cruelty. Eventually, the only recourse the Dog has is to commit violence against the Child who loves her, but hurts her.
The Child in this story, on the other hand, experiences deep pain and betrayal when his beloved pet suddenly, bewilderingly turns vicious and cruel. This pain and betrayal, left unhealed, poisons the child’s psyche and becomes a barrier to him ever rediscovering the possibility of a joyful relationship with a dog. Though the Dog experienced the Child as a torturer, the Child lacked the insight to understand the Dog’s distress. The Parents, too, fail to apprehend the gravity of the situation and act to avert tragedy. They believe they are innocent and the Dog was not. The Child internalizes this lesson as well.
Moral Pluralism, Tragedy, and Innocence
Let’s acknowledge and then set aside the maligned notion of “moral relativism,” which should point us to looking at the cultural context in which an act was done, but has come to stand for (rightly or wrongly) an unwillingness to make moral judgments. Instead I want to consider the possibility of moral pluralism. Googling the definition of “pluralism” gets this: “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.” This seems simple enough to help us look at the fable with the view that two different sources of moral authority may coexist and be in dialogue, that we can make judgments and also hold the possibility that a different judgment may have validity as well.
A practice of moral pluralism opens the possibility that what the humans did to the Dog was harmful, and what the Dog did to the Child was harmful, and any meaningful growth requires the inclusion of both these truths. We might go so far as to hold that both the Child and the Dog are innocent. Poet and mystic Victor Anderson, cited in The Heart of the Initiate, says, “How beautiful is the black lascivious purity in the hearts of children and wild animals.” He speaks to this purity in celebration of the feral state, of animal instinct as innocence itself. The Child and the Dog simply are what they are, acting in accord with their basic needs and desires for comfort and pleasure. The Child delights in playing with the Dog, but the Child also delights in the cruelty of his play. Amoral delight is a normal aspect of child development, part of the child’s process in learning morality. This Child is no different than the cat who tortures his prey. The Child and the Dog need the Parents to understand these desires at play and set appropriate boundaries so that all can coexist in harmony.
In this fable, the Parents also delight in cruelty, laughing at the Dog’s distress, but punish and inhibit the Dog from her instinctive efforts to find relief or communicate her displeasure. Harm was not intended, but harm happened, and if the humans do not take time to reflect upon the situation and accept responsibility for their part of it, then future harm could happen. We might imagine the upset and outrage the humans would feel if I were to come forward and say they had a role in the tragedy. Who the hell is this person to say it’s their fault? But when we move into shaming, blaming, and finding fault, we’ve begun to lose the expansive potential of moral pluralism. Moral pluralism offers us the capacity to acknowledge that everyone played a role in the tragedy. The feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal of both the Humans and the Dog are valid and merit compassion and healing.
In my work as a therapist, my experience is that when people feel that the legitimacy of their pain is in question, we tend to become more rigidly hostile or defensive. When we feel that we are being met with compassion and understanding, that allows us to have space to consider having compassion and understanding for the other view. When we can see the merit of conflicting positions, then we truly have a hope of preventing future tragedy.
The Myth of the Innocent Victim and Evil Perpetrator
Moral pluralism is an uncomfortable discipline in a world with so much confusion and insecurity. I think many of us long for a simple moral framework upon which we can base a sense of confidence in who we are and how we live. One such moral premise is the notion that there are innocent victims and evil perpetrators in the world, and these are entirely separate people that we can identify and treat accordingly. If we looked at the fable through this lens, we might feel pressured to believe one story and dismiss the other—we’d fear that seeing the merit of the Dog’s story would be to say the Child “deserved” to be bit, or by having sympathy for the Child we are saying the dog “deserved” her treatment.
In a simple moral framework, “innocence” is a state of purity that is celebrated but fragile. Innocence is weighted with feeling, weighted with the pain of innocence lost. That feeling is used to manipulate us through the political use of “innocence.” A white 17 year-old wealthy male who borrows father’s car and causes a tragic accident has made “an innocent mistake,” whereas a Black 17 year-old male who is shot while walking home from buying candy at a local store is a “thug.” A 21 year-old white male who commits a deliberate mass shooting is referred to as a “boy” in the media, and his family gets interviewed to talk about his more sympathetic qualities. An 18 year-old Black male who is shot after jaywalking and stealing cheap cigars is referred to as a “man” in the media, and the articles about him highlight how he was “no angel.”
We see that “innocence,” is politically granted according to social position, not by life experience. According to the myth of the innocent victim, a person who is not wholly without sin or crime cannot be a victim. A criminal is marked as a separate kind of human being, if in truth they are granted any humanity at all. Thus anything done to stop or contain the criminal is considered justifiable. Only when the “wrong” person turns out to be a criminal does the discourse of innocence and criminality become confounded. Women who accuse respected men of rape and children who accuse beloved community members of molestation experience the dizzying reversal of the victim being put on trial. If their histories are not spotless, according to social judgment, then their victimhood is questioned. If the accused appears to be upright, then their criminality is questioned. The cognitive dissonance is intense. In the United States we aspire to a blind justice system that simply weighs the merits of the case and determines guilt or innocence, but in practice it is clear that media and bias shapes our expectations of what guilt and innocence look like.
When we divide the Innocent Victim from the Monstrous Criminal, we have lost the capacity for expansive moral pluralism, which could help us to address the real needs of actual victims and criminals who are all too human and complex. As a case manager, I have worked with a number of people convicted of criminal charges. The work taught me a number of things:
- The primary difference between a “criminal” and everyone else is that the “criminal” was caught while breaking a law, and prosecuted;
- Most “criminals” do not think of themselves as evil or desiring to harm others; and
- Even the most unlikable, unsympathetic person can be victimized.
The dilemma of the humans in the fable is the dilemma of people with privilege in the United States. Those in power support a society which is set up for us and people like us, such that we don’t even need to think about it—the people on TV look mostly like us, everything is written in our native language, buildings are designed for our bodies. We grow up with our own desires, struggles, and pain, and then someone tells us that our lives are causing harm to oppressed and marginalized people. We are confronted with voices and desires wholly different from our own, voices that challenge and question our deeply held sense of who we are in the world. The question is, will we buckle down and cling to one rigid pole of morality, or will we acknowledge what is legitimate about our perspective and open ourselves to the legitimacy of these other perspectives?
The fable draws upon the archetypal figures of Child and the Dog in part because these are emotionally charged. We project a lot of love, fear, joy, and protectiveness around dogs and children. Often it seems like harm to either is treated as a greater, more painful tragedy than the daily catastrophes that befall humans across the world. (Evidenced by the website doesthedogdie.com, which tracks movies with dogs in them and warns viewers about the dog’s fate, so that the viewers can be emotionally prepared.)
I want to acknowledge that comparing oppressed people with animals is part of a long tradition of dehumanization, but I think many of us at one point or another plays each of the roles during our lives: Child, Dog, and Parents.
For example, I grew up as a male in a fairly privileged White, middle-class family in the Midwest, and I have been the Child for much of my life. I graduated in a somewhat challenging job market but still managed to score livable wages until 2008, when my move to Seattle coincided with the Great Recession. I’d been working as a web content editor and networked before moving, but by the time I got to Seattle I was unable to find work in that field.
My income sunk from $20 per hour to $8.85 minimum wage as I could only find employment in the service sector, first as a gas station attendant and later as a Barista at a high-end fashion retail store. When I did my first holiday season, laboring physically harder for less money than I ever had for my corporate jobs, I overheard one of the customers telling her friend, “There is no recession in Seattle.” Later, when the Occupy protests were marching past our front doors, another customer (a similarly middle-aged, White, middle-to-upper class woman) stood by the counter while I made her drink, rolled her eyes, and said, “Aren’t you guys sick of this?” In that situation, I was the Dog.
She expected me to validate her perspective while I worked a job that paid me to be polite and professional to her. Occupy drew attention to the economic structures that put me in this situation, and I had a moral truth that I could not share without potentially compromising my job. And, again, this woman could not know, because she lived in a context set up to confirm her expectations and sense of self. If I’d spoken my honest perspective, I risked punishment and loss of the low wages I was getting.
Against the Rise of the Fascist
The weeks following the Daesh attacks in Paris in 2015 felt like the weeks following the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Anti-Muslim rage and xenophobia was treated as a legitimate political viewpoint by certain sectors of the media and political establishment, and even though the United States had executed near-constant military actions and warfare in the Middle East for the past fourteen years (and more!), certain politicians announced that the problems in the Middle East were due to our lack of military effort. On the other side were the people pointing out the sheer insanity of re-enacting the same patterns—causing the chaos and trauma that radicalizes people against the West, funding and training insurgents who become our next enemies.
In other parts of the United States, a Black Lives Matter activist was physically assaulted and called racial slurs at a political rally for presidential candidate Donald Trump, who suggested that “maybe he deserved to get roughed up.” In Minnesota, Black Lives Matter activists gathered to oppose yet another extrajudicial killing of a Black man by the police, and white supremacists opened fire, injuring five. According to several activists, when they told the police about this attack, the police responded with: “This is what you wanted.” The state-sanctioned murder of Black people, however, was exactly what Black Lives Matter opposes.
The common thread is that those in the positions of dominance and power—the United States, the police, a billionaire capitalist running for President—endorsed or permitted violence in response to assaults on their power. They justify this violence in part by portraying themselves as the victims who deserve protection from harm, that anything they need to do to preserve their power and reputation is necessary and all who oppose them need to be controlled. They dismiss the possibility that those who critique and oppose them may have moral truth that needs acknowledgment, as well as pain and anger that needs healing.
Like the humans in the fable, they respond to these assaults by suppressing the source of pain and confusion with violence. The popularity of Trump’s violent, chest-thumping rhetoric in Trump is part of this backlash. What attracts attention is not simply that he’s “un-PC,” which has always had a place in our culture (see the continued existence of the TV shows Family Guy and South Park), it’s that he is proud in his disrespect of women, the disabled, and people of color. He speaks to the resentment of privileged people who feel hemmed in by social change, those who feel their own anger and hurt are not being honored.
All of this, with the increase in visibility of white supremacists, suggests the re-energizing of the Fascist. The Fascist justifies any form of violence, tyranny, and oppression in the service of promoting the interests and well-being of the in-group, who are celebrated as somehow superior, moral, innocent people in comparison to anyone else. The Fascist will argue that certain skin colors and religious affiliations are intrinsically violent, evil, needing to be controlled—and even if we are the ones committing violence, selling weapons to the people who become our enemies, and blowing up hospitals, it’s all moral and ethical because we are protecting the “innocent” heart of our culture.
That simplistic morality ultimately harms us all. We need a concept of justice that acknowledges both victim and perpetrator have agency and personhood, but still does not excuse the crime. We need a wider lens that allows us to see how the West has participated in creating the toxic cultures that poison us with terrorism from without and xenophobia from within. We can condemn people for committing violence against citizens with the intent to foment chaos and terror, and we can recognize that our strategies of intervention gave those terrorist the training, means, and excuse to commit their acts. We can look with concern upon violent crime within communities and recognize how our systems of economic inequality and oppressive policing foster patterns of violence.
What is the world in which you want to live? Do you want a world of harmony, of fairness, in which everyone is treated with respect and shares love and joy? Isn’t that worth putting down the tools of violent control and shame and taking up the healing we so desperately need? Isn’t that worth considering a new perspective, considering new structures of governance and diplomacy that serves those goals instead of creating more trauma and misery? I’m not asking you to believe my view of things. I want us to listen to many voices, to consider many viewpoints, to acknowledge without silencing the discomfort of this, to acknowledge and honor the anger, confusion, and disorientation this brings. Let us rediscover the heart of innocence.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.