The lazy imagination of the witch-hunter

The lazy imagination of the witch-hunter September 17, 2015

If we are worried that we are mediocre — living lives of quiet desperation, tortured by restlessness and vague desire, etc. — then one potential response would be to do something about it. We could do something to improve the world, or to improve ourselves. We could learn something, fix something that’s broken, help a neighbor or a stranger in need of assistance. Reach out, connect, tend, practice, prepare, repair, knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend, etc.

But any of that, alas, will take some effort. It will require time, and work — including tedious grunt-work, some of which is likely to be unpleasant for longer than we’d like.

So it’s tempting to take the shortcut by comparing down. Identify someone, or some group, who by comparison might make us appear to be above average. If “my reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault” takes too much work, then we can seek our comparison, glittering over their fault. And, like bright metal on a sullen ground, the contrast between our timid mediocrity and their more obvious character deficiencies will show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off. And then maybe we’ll feel like our lives have meaning.

Actually, I DO expect the Spanish Inquisition. Nothing is more predictable.
Actually, I DO expect the Spanish Inquisition. Nothing is more predictable.

Alas, however, this technique only works briefly before it begins producing diminishing returns. It becomes like a narcotic addiction that requires ever-stronger doses to achieve the original effect. Whatever initial buzz we may have gotten from contrasting ourselves favorably with litterbugs and people who talk at the theater will soon fade and the anxiety of our apparent meaninglessness and mediocrity will resurface. We will again feel restless and tortured — like Masters’ boats “longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

So then to feel better about ourselves and to silence the droning sense of meaninglessness, we will need to identify some person or group who are even worse, and then worse still. And with each step the process gains momentum, accelerating as it spins downward. Soon we will be compelled to contrast ourselves, perpetually, with the Very Worst People we are capable of imagining.

That these people are imaginary, and that we will be at least semi-aware that they are imaginary, won’t matter by this point. This entire process has been a work of imagination — of changing who we can imagine ourselves to be without changing the reality of who we are. So this final turn into utter fantasy won’t seem out of place, but something we’ve inured ourselves to, gradually, by degree.

The imagination at work in this process is a dull, lazy thing. This is, remember, a shortcut — a process of moral sloth, a path chosen due to its promise of not requiring us to change, or work, or learn, or grow. Our slothful habit, reinforced throughout this journey, is thus bound to produce a lazy imagining of the Very Worst People. We’ll simply reach out to whatever superlative evil archetypes are closest at hand from the folklore, literature, and folk-religion we’ve encountered.

And thus everyone who sets out on this shortcut winds up at the same place: Comparing themselves favorably against Satanic baby-killers. That is always the form we settle on for the Very Worst People we can imagine.

It’s not hard to see why. Satan embodies superlative evil. That’s what he’s for. Ever since Dante, at least, Satan has been undisputed as the pinnacle of evil. All the monsters of history — the Hitlers and Stalins and Saddams and Genghis Khans — are just lieutenants to Satan, so the process of seeking ever-more-evil people against which to compare ourselves favorably will ultimately lead us beyond mere Nazis or Commies or terrorists or whoever to the capo di tutti capi himself: Satan.

And what is it we imagine that these Satanic Very Worst People will be doing? Well, murder is the first thing that lazily comes to mind when we try to imagine a Very Worst crime. And the most heinous kind of murder would seem to be that which takes innocent lives. To spare ourselves any effort imagining or defending what we might mean by “innocent,” we leap directly to the readiest symbol of innocence: babies. The Satanists are killing babies.

This stock form of the Very Worst People we can imagine has endured, with only minor variation, for centuries. From the ancient blood libel, to the witch trials of Salem, to the Satanic Panic of the late 20th century, we see this same figure arise again and again. The process always ends in the same way: Satanic baby-killers.

It gets tweaked, a bit, in different times and places — with lurid flourishes and grisly embellishments borrowed from ever-changing folklore and pop-culture. Thus we get things like Carly Fiorina’s fever dream of an imaginary video showing “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” Or Jim Bakker’s weird warning that your neighbors are “going to eat their babies.” But neither of them is really adding anything to the narrative that hasn’t been lazily said a thousand times before by the likes of Mike Warnke or Cotton Mather. Cannibalism and harvesting organs are things we’ve long imagined the Satanic baby-killers would be doing because of course they would. That’s their function, after all, to be the Very Worst — so any awful thing we can imagine is, and must be, a part of their agenda. (It’s almost an ontological argument for the existence of Satanic baby-killers.)

Wherever we find anxiety about mediocrity and a sense of meaninglessness we will also find Satanic baby-killers. It’s all so sadly predictable. And so very lazy.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

P.S. I believe the alternative to this increasingly and predictably delusional process of moral sloth is, as I said there in the first paragraph — to do something. Learn, teach, work, share, help, mend, repair, and all of that. There is no shortcut and no substitute.

I keep repeating myself and yammering on about Satanic baby-killers because I believe this weird process requiring us to perpetually invent them is harming my religious tradition and my nation. I believe it harms real people — both the victims it inevitably puts in prison or the gallows, and the witch-hunters themselves, whose souls it inexorably corrodes.

But of course simply describing the pattern that often prevents us from growing, from improving, and from actually making the world better for ourselves and others is not, itself, a substitute for any of that work either.

Hence this postscript, which is a warning and not an accusation, and is addressed primarily to myself, although you’re free to listen in: Remember not to fall into the temptation to become a witch-hunter-hunter — the temptation to lazily avoid the work of becoming a better person by reassuring myself that at least I’m better than Mike Warnke or Cotton Mather or Donald Trump.

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