Reviewing the Reviewers: The Love Jerry Controversy

Posted: June 11, 2010 in Braak, reviews, theater
Tags: , , ,

(UPDATE:  Nicole from Nice People responds in the comment section here. Not a hundred percent sure how I feel yet, though I am disdainful of the idea of putting personal safety ahead of art.)

Well, controversy is important in the theater, and I like it.  Love Jerry is a play currently in production by the Nice People Theater Company; it is a musical about a pedophile, about his family, and about how they deal with each other.  I guess; I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m intrigued by the idea, especially because of Wendy Rosenfield’s recent Inquirer review of the piece.

(Maybe you thought the controversy over this was the censorship of their online ad?  No, though, because that’s not actually that controversial. “Corporations are squeamish about things that might offend people.”  There; that’s the whole story in a nutshell.)

Anyway, Rosenfield’s review does, in fact, seem a little off the mark.  Here’s how it opens:

The title of Megan Gogerty’s musical Love Jerry isn’t a sign-off, but an entreaty. Nice People Theatre Company, in producing this show about an active pedophile, asks a not-so-nice question: Can you love Jerry? I’d like to ask an even less nice question: Why should I be forced to try?

See, intriguing.  “Why should I be forced to try?” is a problematic question for a reviewer to raise.  In the first place, she wasn’t forced, she volunteered (moreover, a regular audience would pay for the privilege).  In the second place, suggesting that the play forces her to try suggests that she’s already committed to not trying.  In the third place:  why?  Because the point of compassion is that it’s for everyone.

The idea of this play interests me; the online ad for it, which ends with “can you love Jerry?” is fascinating, because it’s like a dare.  Sure, you think you’re a compassionate person, but it’s easy to be compassionate most of the time.  How good are you at having empathy for people who are actually potentially despicable?

The play veers away from discussing the child, because it’s not, as author Gogerty points out, about the child.  Rosenfield objects to this, suggesting that it makes a victimized person into an abstraction, further victimizing abused children — but of course, this isn’t true; there is no real child in this play.  No matter how realistically the child is presented onstage, that child will still only be an abstraction.  So, since no one was actually victimized to make the play, perhaps it actually is worth exploring the premise without the overwhelming horror and empathy that necessarily comes into play once we start talking about the child.

None of this is meant, obviously, to endorse or justify child abuse.  And THAT’S doubly interesting, because despite the fact that all I’m saying here is, “Maybe we need to consider having empathy for pedophiles, too,” I still feel the need to say, “Of course, I’m not endorsing child abuse.”  Well, OF COURSE I’m not endorsing child abuse.  Having empathy for someone isn’t the same thing as agreeing with them; it’s not the same thing as saying that what they did was right, or okay, or even tolerable.  It’s simply a condition of recognizing other human beings as complex individuals (not creepy monsters, typically abstracted into perverted boogeymen), with complex motivations, who suffer from their psychology in much the same way as everyone else does.

If you read here, Wendy’s got a few more comments about the review, which itself garnered a lot of comments from supporters of the play.  I’ve got a little more to say about that, but later.  First, look at this:

After all, love, therapy and forgiveness is the same cocktail the Catholic church claims it served up while managing its pedophile priests, and look how successful that’s been for the church and its young victims.

An interesting point!  Though, as Carl points out, way down in the comments section of this post, for all the attention and controversy they get, the Catholic Church actually has a lower rate of child abuse than Protestant ministries.  Now, obviously there could be a lot to that, but it does show that the position that Rosenfield espouses is a little facile.

Not only that, but the traditional, legal alternative to “love, therapy, and forgiveness”  — that is, judging, condemnation, and imprisonment — has an absurdly high recidivism rate.  So high that there’s almost no point in letting people out of prison, since we basically have to watch them constantly forever afterwards, anyway; and, not only that, but the few people who are “rehabilitated” by their time in prison, in order that we can keep tabs on those who aren’t, have to live the rest of their lives in traumatic paranoia.

Rosenfield asks whether or not the pedophile’s side of the story was one that really needed to be told — she seems to think this is a rhetorical question, with the answer being “Obviously it doesn’t.”  But it’s actually not a side of the story that is told very often, and the play has the potential to raise some good points:  that social ostracization doesn’t actually help solve anything, for one.  That demonizing human beings, however demonically they may be have, doesn’t actually cure them of anything.

Now.  In the Drama Queen article, Rosenfield says that Nice People Theater Company actually asked that her review on the Inquirer website be taken down.  If that’s true, it’s wholly inexcusable.  Rosenfield’s review is not, in any way, out of line; she thought the premise of the show was flawed, and said so.  It’s as valid position as any; I don’t necessarily agree with her, but so?  I don’t agree with a lot of people about stuff.  The response to that is considered debate, not trying to erase the offending opinion.  Moreover:  you absolutely do NOT get to say, “I’m going to do a play that I know is going to be extremely controversial” and then complain when people don’t like it.  You should be reveling in your bad reviews; Wendy Rosenfield’s complaint about the premise of your play proves that you’re doing your job.

This is also interesting:  if you look at the comments on Rosenfield’s review, many of them are clearly from NPTC’s supporters, but their support actually seems to undermine their position.  The review posits that the play is fundamentally morally flawed, but the counter-response to this argument is, “How can it be morally flawed if such and such child-abuse organizations support it?”  That’s Appeal to Authority, right there, which as we all know is a fallacy of defective induction.  Rosenfield isn’t claiming that child-abuse organizations don’t like the play; she’s claiming that they shouldn’t.

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Comments
  1. […] The Love Jerry Controversy Posted: June 11, 2010 by braak in Scratchpad, braak Tags: controversy, love jerry, theater 0 (cross-posted at Threat Quality Press) […]

  2. wench says:

    If the person has the urge but suppresses it, they’re a decent person, just like every other person with anti-social urges who manages to keep control of themselves. If the person has the urge and gives in, they’re just as much a jackass as every other looser who puts their own wants ahead of someone else’s personal rights. Except we get really spun up about pedos because they’re targeting children, and people are not reasonable, rational creatures when it comes to a threat to their kids.

    I don’t feel sympathy for rapists or thieves or murderers or other criminals, so I don’t really feel sympathy for active pedophiles. If you’re so bloody special that getting your jollies is worth destroying other people’s lives, then I’m so bloody special that I can shoot you.

    If you’ve got the urge but, like everyone else with urges you manage to behave yourself with a reasonable amount of composure and kindness and *don’t* molest kids, then you are an admirable upstanding member of society and should be allowed to live in peace, just like the rest of us who exert self-control on a daily basis when confronted with people we’d really like to, say, set on fire. Or choke. Or whatever.

    And a play about someone who likes to fondle munchkins, asking me to feel sympathy? A good idea gone wrong. We as a society are way irrational about pedos. But trying to be all sympathetic is asking a bit too much. Perhaps we could try asking for logic instead of sympathy; come up with programs, think clearly and reasonably about ways to deal with the problem – but I’m not going all tree-hugger-hippy-love on someone who is actively engaged in causing harm to other people. They need to stop causing harm and start trying to be a decent person before I can give them even an ounce of sympathy. They need to take the first step. You can’t coax and baby someone into fixing themselves. They have to come to it on their own or it doesn’t work.

  3. braak says:

    I don’t feel sympathy for rapists or thieves or murderers or other criminals, so I don’t really feel sympathy for active pedophiles. If you’re so bloody special that getting your jollies is worth destroying other people’s lives, then I’m so bloody special that I can shoot you.

    See, I don’t know about this. Obviously, if my child were the victim of a pedophile, I’d probably want to kill him. If I came across a man raping a woman in an alley, I’d probably want to kill him–but in both cases, I think once the anger passed, I’d consider what I’d done to be morally reprehensible. My morality is mine, and not contingent one what other people do or don’t do; you behaving immorally is not implicit license for me to behave immorally towards you.

    As for sympathy–well, this is another complex issue. I’d like to think that, given a little time and perspective, I can have compassion for everyone. Even people that do terrible things; but what does that mean, to have compassion? Certainly, it doesn’t mean condoning or endorsing the terrible things they do; it doesn’t mean excusing them of their crime, or helping them avoid responsibility for it.

    So, if empathy and compassion doesn’t forgive or excuse reprehensible behavior, why shouldn’t we work hard to extend it to everyone we can?

    In a lot of ways, I think this lack of empathy towards people is at the root of, for instance, our extremely terrible prison system. By not having empathy, and therefore caving in to our righteous indignation at criminality, we send pedophiles to prison to be punished, and are smugly satisfied by the thought that they’ll be raped and ruined as much as they’ve ruined. But, obviously, that’s a totally worthless scenario. Punishment doesn’t undo the damage that they’ve done and, importantly, it doesn’t actually make them less likely to do it again. It actually further marginalizes them, both socially and psychologically, making it more likely that they’ll repeat the offense.

    This is true with most major crimes, actually, if you think about it. Prison is, as they say, a very expensive way to make bad men worse.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brett T Mapp, braak. braak said: Today, I weigh in on the Love Jerry controversy: http://wp.me/pj2r9-SO #theater #theatre […]

  5. RickRussellTX says:

    One can be pitied for having urges that are so outside the social norm as to be criminal.

    But I’m not sure one can be pitied for being too weak to resist them, or too weak to seek help. I’m not saying a life on Depo Provera with no hope of sexual gratification is a great life. But on balance, a person with a shred of morality would choose that life over the alternative.

    If they are unable to choose it, I have a hard time feeling empathy for them, and prison is really the only option. Psychological interventions are not likely to work, we have no way to enforce pharmaceutical solutions, and permanent surgical solutions carry too great a risk harming the falsely accused.

    In short, I think the simple answer is that a pedophile has to either get help voluntarily or go to jail.

  6. braak says:

    Well, whatever. Whether or not Jerry the pedophile actually deserves empathy is a case for the play to make — I just think that it’s not so outrageous a concept that it should be dismissed out of hand, or that it’s socially irresponsible to consider it.

  7. dagocutey says:

    I’m feeling the need to clear some things up here. The somewhat random use of the words “sympathy”, “empathy” and “compassion”, is making me unsure of what people are trying to say. I went to Merriam-Webster’s site, and here’s a nutshell reference: “Sympathy” – the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b : the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity . “Empathy” – : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another . . . without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. “Compassion” – sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. In my myriad psych courses, it was always explained this way: sympathy is simply feeling sorry for someone, empathy is sympathy brought on because you can relate to a person’s specific circumstances, and compassion is sympathy accompanied by action. So unless you struggle constantly with illegal and socially abhorrent urges, you can’t have empathy for Jerry. And unless you’re currently working to help persons with Jerry’s issues, what you’re feeling isn’t compassion either. Can you feel sympathy for a vile, horrifying criminal? Three words: Dead. Man. Walking.

  8. braak says:

    Wait. Empathy: Struggling constantly with illegal or socially abhorrent urges isn’t as much a stretch as it may seem–is it necessary that they be the same urges, or that they be analogous urges? Perhaps of a different magnitude, but a similar bent–how many people struggle with wanting things that they know are socially unacceptable? Moreover: do they have to be actual conditions that I’m feeling, or can empathy be the product of an imagined, hypothetical similarity?

    As for compassion: the definition that you provided does not include anything about actually taking action, only the desire to alleviate suffering. Of course, I do desire to alleviate suffering, for everyone; but specifically taking action isn’t always feasible. There is, after all, a lot of suffering. Moreover, how great an action should be taken? Am I not here arguing that we should try and extend compassion even to the most vile among us? That’s an action, and one that could potentially have consequences. It seems a little unfair to suggest that you can’t be compassionate towards someone if you don’t actually know how to alleviate their suffering.

    Except, obviously, with Buddhism, but I never really received Dharma transmission, so I’d be hesitant to try and instruct people in Buddhist theory for fear that I’d get it wrong.

    Finally: I don’t see why I can’t murder someone that I also feel sympathy for. Human beings are composed primarily of contradiction.

  9. dagocutey says:

    In order to empathize, I’m thinking that the your experiences don’t have to be identical to the other’s, but the magnitude does need to kind of match up. If the “socially unacceptable” things that you want wouldn’t result in your being categorized as scum of the earth, I don’t think you can empathize with a pedophile.

    “Moreover: do they have to be actual conditions that
    I’m feeling, or can empathy be the product of an
    imagined, hypothetical similarity?”

    I think what you’re asking about here is “sympathy”. Empathy occurs when you witness someone going through something and your gut says, “Fuck, I’ve been there.”

    Re: compassion, it’s complicated. Please bear with me, as linguistics are a fetish of mine — there’s a debate among linguists re: word origin. “Compati” means sympathy, which is the angle that Merriam-Webster takes. But the word is not spelled “compation”. Enter camp #2, the verbophiles who break it into “com” and “passion”. This group concludes that that it literally means “with” and “action upon suffering”. This is the MMPI definition, and accepted by most mental health professionals. So I’ve always understood it to mean that compassion cannot exist without some form of action, however small. Maybe it’s because compassion is stimulated by strong sympathy or empathy, that it gets misused so frequently. It’s the feeling that takes over when you’ve OD’d on the injustice of something, so much so that you can’t help but reach out in some way.

    “Of course, I do desire to alleviate suffering, for
    everyone; but specifically taking action isn’t always feasible.”

    Therefore, compassion isn’t always feasible. This isn’t a shortcoming on our part, it’s just fact.

    “Finally: I don’t see why I can’t murder someone that
    I also feel sympathy for. Human beings are composed
    primarily of contradiction.”

    I totally agree — I definitely have at least a modicum of sympathy for everyone I’ve wanted to kill.

  10. Carl says:

    There are things to be said about this– things, so many things– when and if the time can be made to say them. Until then, ‘hmmmm’ will have to suffice.

  11. braak says:

    Carl, you don’t ever say anything anymore except, “Man, I wish I had the time to say something.”

  12. dagocutey says:

    Yeah Carl, what’s up with that?

  13. Carl says:

    Man, what I wouldn’t do for the the time explain why I don’t have the time to comment on the things I don’t really have the time to read anymore. If only.

  14. braak says:

    Listen…if you are going to work in the theater, then my opinions on theater-related subjects are WELL WORTH reading.

  15. dagocutey says:

    Yo Carl, are we breaking up? (Meaning the collective “we”, of course.)

  16. wench says:

    I guess I see your point, but – at the same time – I don’t necessarily agree. I feel that moral outrage against pedophiles is not useful, and I feel that sympathy for them is not useful. Neither solves the problem.

    My statement – ” …If you’re so bloody special that getting your jollies is worth destroying other people’s lives, then I’m so bloody special that I can shoot you” – was a sort of expression of what I was thinking, about respective logics. If, by the offender’s logic their needs come above other people’s needs, then by that same logic my needs come above theirs for my actions. They should not be surprised or offended that I take a stick and beat them when they deliberately injure someone. After all, I’m just following their example.

    I know. Lowering myself to their level. But there’s a point to it. I’m not doing it because it gives me pleasure, or because I want to, or because it serves my own needs exclusively. Motive means nothing and everything, when you come to violence.

    It’s not really something I’d like to do – but I would do it. I don’t see that allowing someone who has proven that they are willing to cause others injury to continue to injure is in any fashion moral, if it’s within my power to stop it. If I have to beat someone to make them realize there are consequences to their actions, I will do it. It will probably make me sick to my stomach, but I’ll do it.

    I’d rather call the cops. That’s their whole purpose in life. But, like you said, if you see someone committing a crime which injures someone, you have to stop it. Otherwise you’re about as useful to the victim as a piece of furniture.

  17. braak says:

    If I have to beat someone to make them realize there are consequences to their actions, I will do it. It will probably make me sick to my stomach, but I’ll do it.

    The problem that I have with this is, I don’t think it’s the best way to make people realize the consequences of their actions. See, hurting somebody really badly–if that really worked, then child abusers should have a really low recidivism rate, right? Because prison is pretty horrible for a child abuser, and you’d think their horrible torment would teach them the lesson of their crime.

    So, then, why is it that you say, “If I have to beat someone to make them understand that their actions have consequences, I’ll do it”? I mean, is the implication that beating or killing someone is at the bottom of your list for stopping someone from being a child abuser?

    Obviously, there are circumstantial issues involved, but assuming a situation in which a known child-abuser is not currently abusing children, in what way is beating or killing them anything other than expressing your own anger and disgust?

    If, by the offender’s logic their needs come above other people’s needs, then by that same logic my needs come above theirs for my actions. They should not be surprised or offended that I take a stick and beat them when they deliberately injure someone. After all, I’m just following their example.

    I don’t think this one is really defensible. In the first place, why would you be following the example of a child abuser? I think those are probably the worst examples to follow. In the second place, we’re not talking about whether or not a child abuser would be offended by you hating them, it’s about whether or not attempting to be compassionate towards him is a morally justifiable act.

  18. braak says:

    @dagocutey: Okay, sorry it took me so long to get around to this. First of all, some of your positions about “empathy” are not supported by your definition. The definition that you gave suggests understanding without explicit explanation — not necessarily that something goes through your gut (that is, that the sensation is not explicit to you, the person doing the sensing) but that it comes as a product of awareness as opposed a product of explicit explanation.

    Likewise, there’s nothing about any of these definitions that demands that the magnitude match up, or that imaginary hypotheticals don’t count.

    As for compassion, I don’t think strict etymology is actually a relevant tool for governing usage, but assuming that it is, there’s still a problem that “compassion” as requiring action doesn’t semantically line up. You don’t do compassion, which is how we’d have to use it if compassion necessitated action; you have compassion, which suggests it’s a state of being. Now, philosophically, it’s kind of interesting that maybe compassion, rightly understood, is something that we’d have to DO, rather than have, and okay–though it does raise some serious questions. “Some action, however small” does include blog posts, doesn’t it? I mean, does “however small” mean “however small”? What, exactly, constitutes an action? Who is the arbiter of what distinguishes “consideration” from action? Is philosophizing an action? Analysis?

    Not only that, but using the word “sympathy” for the psychological condition that is present both in a person who is doing compassion and a person who is (for the sake of argument) presently in no position to do compassion, is somewhat confusing–since we also use “sympathetic” according to its etymological origins, meaning “to feel the same as.” Saying I have “sympathy” for a pedophile isn’t a hundred percent clear — am I sympathetic to their desire to have sex with children? If I say I’m sympathetic to their feeling universally reviled, does that mean that I understand what it might mean to feel that way, or does it mean that I actually feel that way?

    However, assuming that these things are true, and my disagreements are flawed, then the argument is purely semantic–as my using “empathy” and “compassion” are necessarily precluded by their definitions, obviously I can’t mean that. The discussion, then, can’t be whether or not I think those things should, for moral reasons, be extended to pedophiles–because, as you’ve suggested, neither of them, by strictest definition apply here.

    So, assuming that there can be a meaning of “sympathy” that is, “able to come to a hypothetical understanding of a stranger’s suffering and be possessed of a desire to relieve it,” you can just substitute “sympathy” in for everything I’ve said and the arguments all ought to be the same: that particular kind of sympathy ought to be extended to everyone; our cultural unwillingness to extend it to vile criminals in general, and the vilest of criminals in particular, is central to the creation of the socio-political environments that sometimes sustain it.

    And, given all that, it actually may be valuable from a personal moral perspective to extend that sympathy especially under circumstances in which we naturally resist it.

  19. dagocutey says:

    @braak:
    “our cultural unwillingness to extend it to vile criminals in general, and the vilest of criminals in particular, is central to the creation of the socio-political environments that sometimes sustain it.”

    I’m certain that it’s all semantics, because I agree with you.

    “‘Some action, however small” does include blog posts, doesn’t it?”
    I would think that it does.

    @wench: Although violent, you’re response is really unpolished compassion for the victims. I’m not saying I’d go the same route, but I’d bet there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t want you on our side if we were being violated in this way.

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