Barbarians at the tweet

There are plenty of things I don't care about. Tomorrow's weather forecast in Adelaide. Who won the last Canadian Football League Championship. When "Dumb and Dumber" is next scheduled to air on VH1.

But I don't actively "not care" about those things. They just don't occupy my time or my thinking. And if I were told about them, at most I would shrug my shoulders and say "OK".

To actively "not care" about those things requires energy and attention. Which is also what it takes to tweet about not caring about something.

And that's what an individual named Kurt Schlichter did the other day. Except, he didn't take to Twitter to publicly declare that he didn't care about something trivial. He took to Twitter to declare how much he didn't care about the death of a 2-year-old child.

He's since removed the tweet, retroactively editing the record. But of course it's been captured forever in screenshots and debate:

 
 

Schlichter is, like anyone, entirely free to not care about any event at all -- including the death of a child. But in deliberately making a point of it to his 176,000 followers (and anyone else who happened to read his public message), he wasn't "not caring". He was voicing his open hostility to the matter.

That's probably because the child's death made news because his mother needed a special exemption from immigration laws so that she could travel to the United States from Yemen. Imagine the pain of being a parent, separated from your stricken child by great geographic distance, and having to get special permission to dodge red tape just to hold that child's hand before he died.

It's one thing not to care. If anyone tried to care about each tragedy unfolding in the world every day, they would die of heartbreak. It's impossible to care about every bad thing happening in a world of seven and a half billion people.

But to be openly hostile about a child's death -- to take to a public forum to say "I don't care" -- is to engage in a form of barbarianism. But it isn't a swashbuckling, sword-swinging barbarianism. It is instead a basement-dweller barbarianism. It is the kind of thing a person says from the safety and security of his or her own home, hiding from scrutiny in a dark corner of a basement, somewhere hidden from the prying eyes of other human beings.

Basement-dweller barbarianism isn't just unbecoming conduct. It's hostile to the idea of civilization itself. To be civilized doesn't require that we mourn every death or feel sympathy for every bad situation. But civilization does require that we think of other human beings as just that...human beings. People with souls. People with feelings. People whom our Declaration of Independence says are endowed with "certain unalienable rights".

Those things are incompatible with the basement-dweller barbarian mentality, which prizes little more than displays of bravado that don't have to be backed by real human interaction. Civilization is for people who interact with other people. We can agree to disagree about many things, but we can't have a civilization if we don't choose to see other people as fellow human beings, worthy of the same regard and possessing the same innate rights as ourselves. Lessening the regard we have for other people undermines humanity itself.

People can concoct whatever tests they want to describe a nation, or even a nation-state. Some will find those definitions in borders, place of birth, or shared culture. But the basic test of civilization is whether we see humanity itself as a pre-existing condition, as something that exists in every one of us prior to our belonging to any other group. Civilization is tested by how each of us responds to the stories and circumstances of other human beings.

It's perfectly sensible not to indulge in the details of every tragedy. One cannot stop to cry over every dead squrrel on the road, every worker laid off a job, or every house fire. It's acceptable, even, to be quietly unmoved by the sorrows of another person.

But to celebrate your own lack of concern or interest in other human lives? That's barbarianism.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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