Steubenville, Paul Ryan, and the virtue of selfishness at all costs

Some peaceful trees. Because we're about to get serious here. Photo courtesy Luke Jones.

Some peaceful trees. Because we’re about to get serious here. Photo courtesy Luke Jones.

As someone recently pointed out to me, “people these days are so rude.” To call it rudeness is not quite apt. The more accurate term is “selfishness,” which I define as a fundamental misunderstanding of how human social interactions work; a combination of misplaced priorities and lack of general awareness. Don’t worry – I’m not about to launch into a brimstone-fueled tirade about bad people and sin. I just want to make some observations, highlight some trends, and ask a few questions.

This last December there was some stir over a photograph and a sensational story revolving around the death of a man in New York City’s subway system. For those who missed this story, a man was shoved down into the path of a subway train; for several moments, the man scrambled frantically in front of a group of people (including the photographer who managed to get of several shots) who offered no aid. The photographer explains that he was trying to alert the train’s conductor with the camera flashes, so maybe things aren’t as terrible as they seem. But make of it what you will – even if the photographer’s story is genuine, what about the other looker-ons?

There’s another story in the headlines recently, which is in a similar vein: the trial of two high school football players accused of the rape of a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio. Though only tried as juveniles (a major mistake in this critic’s opinion), they were found guilty of the rape charges. Certainly horrible enough on its own, the story does not end there. Not only does it seem very likely that adults in the defendants’ high school football program may have tried to cover up the incident, but the most damning evidence against the defendants came from eye witness accounts, several of whom, instead of stopping the horrific actions being perpetrated, opted to record the events on their cell phones, the videos of which were later distributed in a light-hearted and mocking manner.

You can see where I’m going with this. I could easily dredge up a dozen more stories like these from recent times (including this fantastic video where filmmaker Casey Neistat goes to public areas in NYC and makes overt attempts to steal a chained-up bicycle that draws the attention of no one). There is a large enough portion of our society that has been lead to believe that when difficult things happen, when other people or their welfare are at risk, it is acceptable to not only refrain from assisting but to document it for their own use or gain – as some sort of sick voyeurism.

While there are plenty of people asking “why do these bad things to others,” as there should be, we should also be asking, “what about everyone else?” Why, instead of doing something, saying something, do people reach for their phones – not to call the police, but to take pictures? Why did the adults who were aware of what happened wait to come forward, if they did at all?

I believe people, our society, and our nation have cultivated an absence of empathy. In some circles, the word “empathy” is only mentioned with utter contempt – these we call Randroids, or as they usually prefer, Objectivists. They follow a belief system (promoted largely by author Ayn Rand) which finds virtue in selfishness and greed. It quantifies humanity and places varying degrees of value on life, justifying excess and vindicating poverty. But whether you’ve read Rand or not, this mentality of taking care of oneself first and foremost (and spurning anything beyond that) permeates almost every aspect of our society.


Paul Ryan has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Photo courtesy Tobyotter.

For many Randroids, Obamacare and the concept of state provided healthcare could not have been more anathema. This is evident in the laughable budget proposal to come from Paul Ryan recently, which would dismantle Obama’s healthcare reform as well as go after Medicare instead of increasing revenue (yes, that means increasing taxes) – in essence allowing him and his to maintain their levels of unprecedented wealth at the expense of government programs that literally do and will save thousands of lives, poor lives. But it is not as if Ryan is unaware of this – to him, this would be a step toward Randian “justice.” (This concept of “justice” being that wealthy people are the best people and should be treated as such while the poor – well, if they’re worthy, they’ll find a way to make it.)

But unlike “trickle down” economics, which does not actually occur in the real world, this mentality, this attitude does. Your neighbor might not have read Atlas Shrugged but he’s looked around and learned that its morality of living me-and-mine-first is acceptable, even something to be celebrated.

Instead of operating on a policy of empathy – most popularly summed by Jesus, as the “Golden Rule,” to treat others as you would want yourself to be treated – it is the inverse, of acting punitively against any and everyone, as they are likely thinking along the same lines. If you believe everyone is exploiting you or using you at every opportunity, then the thought process goes that the only way to achieve balance is to do the same to others.

Randroids and the Gordon Gekkos of the world love the entirely unscientific term “Homo Economicus,” which is meant to describe humans’ supposedly innate tendency toward selfish behavior (which is used to say the behavior is “natural” and “rational”). Though this is not a point I want to belabor in this piece, there is documentation of empathetic behavior among primates (and rats) as well as there being strong evidence of compassion, altruism even, among early humans.

I bet he's not going to pick that up. Photo by PeterGriffin.

I bet he’s not going to pick that up. Photo by PeterGriffin.

There is nothing natural about selfishness at the expense of others. It is a learned attitude, much like intolerance. And as such, it can be unlearned, but this does not happen over night. It is a choice, a decision, a pattern of behavior that demands consistency. It would be one thing to dismiss the Stubenville incident as immature kids not being able to act appropriately, but this isn’t the only case – just look at Penn State or the Catholic Church (if we’re talking only about sexual abuse. Isn’t great that this is such a common phenomenon that there are various categories?). It happens all to often.

You are responsible for your behavior, and your behavior affects more people than you could ever imagine. If you have a problem with the callousness with which individuals in this nation disregard each other, like I do, then you have a responsibility to change that in your every day actions. Call them out, make a statement. Be compassionate.