Who wants to learn new words today? I do! I do! Three vocabulary words then. So if everyone will find their seats, we’ll begin.
The first word is contrapasso, a literary Italian word, from the Latin for “suffer the opposite,” used to describe the torments Dante cooks up for sinners in his “Inferno.” The damned are not just assigned any random gruesome fate, but one based on their sins in life, a kind of poetic justice, their former joys transformed into eternal woes. Thus, the lustful are buffeted by storms, to show how they let their passions rule their intellect, and the violent are boiled in rivers of the blood they spilled.
We don’t need a fictional hell to see examples of contrapasso. It occurs in real life too. Addicts are punished by being compelled to consume greater and greater quantities of the substances they crave. Those consumed by hatreds become locked in the embrace of the thing they hate.
For instance, the most sordid gay bathhouses exist between the ears of the fanatics who hate the people they imagine frequenting them. Emails minutely cataloging these sexual practices are sent, not by triumphant gays — I don’t believe I’ve received one, ever — but by sputtering religious fanatics supposedly disgusted by the practices they’re chronicling, as if straight sexual acts would look beautiful given similar trip under disgust’s microscope. Their own self-assigned torment, to pass their lives gazing at what revolts them in cathexis — our second word, a psychology term, “the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (esp. to an unhealthy degree).”
I hate stuff too. I just don’t spend my life staring at it.
Which brings up America’s poster girl for freedom of speech, Pamela Geller, whose Prophet Muhammad caricature contest in Texas drew two would-be Islamic terrorists, who attempted to shoot it up Sunday and were themselves killed.
Geller managed to contain her glee.
“This incident shows how much needed our event really was,” she told the New York Times. “Freedom of speech is under violent assault here in our nation. The question now before us is: Will we stand and defend it, or bow to violence, thuggery, and savagery?”
And how do we defend free speech? Oh right, by insulting Islam. An oddly selective defense. If Geller’s show was a general collection of sacrilegious art, I might be tempted to buy her ruse. But it isn’t, it’s a stiletto designed to stab at Muslims. To prove how free we are.
Actually, Muhammad shows up in the “Inferno,” receiving a particularly gruesome punishment, split from chin to anus, his entrails hanging out, as contrapasso for his splitting of his world by forming a new religion. Muslims do not, to my knowledge, attack those reading the 700-year-old work of literature because, unlike Geller’s stunts, the “Inferno” isn’t a hate carnival designed to stigmatize and marginalize a certain group (Well, it is, but that group is Florentines, and they’ve adjusted themselves to it by now).
Extremists of varying stripes pretend to be in opposition, but actually they form a tacit confederacy, and here comes our third word — symbiosis. You might remember the word from high school biology; it means two different organisms interacting for mutual advantage. The classic case is sea anemone whose stalks are poisonous, but not to clownfish, who feed among them and provide benefits.
Islamic terrorists commit their nihilistic violence, their crimes are seized upon by the Gellers of the world who say, “Look, this is what they all are.” And the stock of hate, that both embrace, rises.
It’s easy to get worked up by specific horrors, hard to step back and look at the grand scheme. Muslims are terrorists in the same sense that Jews are rich bankers, or the Irish were loafing drunks and Italians, gangsters. It’s just another slur, and the fact that real examples of the slur can be found in the living world doesn’t change anything. I haven’t done the math, but I guarantee you there are far, far more Jewish bankers, Irish drunks, or Italian mobsters than there are Islamic terrorists.
The story never changes; every generation we get a new cast.