Last week, the comedian Patton Oswalt was mocking Donald Trump on Twitter when he was attacked by Michael Beatty, a mean-spirited, Trump-loving conservative troll. Oswalt said his first impulse was a snarky, mocking reply, but then he looked at Beatty’s other tweets and noticed he was asking for money to help pay medical bills he’d racked up from a severe illness. Oswalt decided to be the bigger person:
Aw, man. This dude just attacked me on Twitter and I joked back but then I looked at his timeline and he’s in a LOT of trouble health-wise. I’d be pissed off too. He’s been dealt some shitty cards — let’s deal him some good ones. Click and donate — just like I’m about to. https://t.co/6zRdZ430WG
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) January 24, 2019
Thanks to Oswalt’s intervention, Beatty’s GoFundMe page raised over $45,000, even though he only asked for $5,000. He was excessively grateful, promising to be a better person in the future:
Patton. You have humbled me to the point where I can barely compose my words. You have caused me to take pause and reflect on how harmful words from my mouth could result in such an outpouring. Thank you for this and I will pass this on to my cousin who needs help. A cascade. pic.twitter.com/6Is7KflPeY
— Michael Beatty (@MichaelBeatty) January 24, 2019
Naturally, the media was all over this. Oswalt’s generosity was widely reported as a heartwarming inspirational story, liberals and conservatives building bridges, a Twitter troll learning the error of his ways and becoming a better person, etc, etc.
Well, I want to dump some cold water on that. I can’t help thinking the wrong lesson was learned here.
After all, this guy wound up getting the help he needed because he decided to be an asshole to a famous person on Twitter. Meanwhile, there are millions of people who could have used that help at least as much, but didn’t get it because they were being polite and suffering in silence. What message does that send?
This is the same critique I have of the Bible story of the prodigal son. It’s a bad moral because it says that those who do wrong and later repent should be rewarded above those who did the right thing all along. I’m in favor of giving wrongdoers an incentive to reform, but it shouldn’t be greater than the incentive for not doing wrong in the first place. That just encourages people to be bad as long as they can get away with it!
This is especially true when the wrongdoer in question is a Trump supporter suffering the ravages of America’s dysfunctional health care system. As I’ve noted many times, conservative voters supported a candidate who promised to dismantle the safety net that might have helped them in a crisis. Why should we feel bad for them when they’re getting what they said they wanted?
His devotees didn’t vote for him in spite of that cruelty, but because of it. Now they’re dismayed that it’s rebounding on them – as we can see in that legendary quote from a prison employee forced to work without pay during the government shutdown, who complained of Trump: “He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
We can’t help every needy person in the world. There’s an ocean of suffering, too much for any individual to cure. As such, whenever we’re deciding whether to help someone, we have to engage in triage. We have to determine whether the person in front of us is the most deserving recipient, or whether there are other uses of that money, time and energy that would create more overall human happiness.
I’m not saying we should only ever help the single neediest person in the world, or that people need a flawless record to be deserving of charity. But I am saying that “actively supporting malice and cruelty toward others” is an excellent indicator that a person isn’t deserving of help. To say otherwise sends the wrong message about our moral obligations toward each other.
Sure, if we meet Trumpers’ hate and malice with acts of generosity and good-heartedness, we might change a few minds. But in terms of who has the better claim on our compassion, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the vulnerable people who played no role in electing him and who face immense suffering now and in the years to come: the children in concentration camps; the refugees who are being sent back to places where they’ll be tortured and killed; the immigrants who are being ripped away from lives they’ve made for themselves in the U.S.; the women who are almost certainly going to lose choice and autonomy over their own bodies; the tens of millions of people who are going to face hunger, war, displacement because of climate change. Doing what we can about these evils should be our first priority. As for the deplorables who brought this about, morally speaking, they can go to the back of the line.