Principles: Imagining People Complexly

Firstly, this is my 100th post! Thank you to all of you who have dropped by this blog, read, linked, and subscribed. Your support is hugely appreciated.

“Oppression does not teach people empathy, it only teaches us how to manifest oppression on others.” -D’Anna Hines

A few days ago I attended a performance of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. (If you’ve never seen Merchant I highly recommend it. You can check out the Wiki synopsis here.) It’s one of my favorite plays (though difficult to watch) because of the moral vices complexifying each character. The Antisemitic themes were particularly overt in the modern adaptation I watched most recently at the Walla Walla Powerhouse Theatre. The play opens with an unscripted silent ‘getting ready’ scene as Shylock changes from his more overtly Jewish garb, into business clothing, including a sports jacket which covers his prayer shawl, and a black, flat brimmed hat that covers his yarmulke. He prays, kisses his daughter, walks out the door, and begins to walk across the stage in slow-motion. To one side a vested ivy grad sneers “Jew!” It is the first word the audience hears. One by one immaculately dressed yuppies (whom we later discover compose half the cast) trickle onstage, each adding their own insults to the din (“Big Nose!” “Bible-Shortener!” “Kike!”) until a tight throng is formed, whooping, hooting, and snorting like pigs. Only when he reaches the other side does Shylock look back. The crowd is immediately silenced, then disperses, snapping the play back into real time.

Shylock—the Jewish antagonist and money-lender—is neither completely sympathetic, nor completely villainous. On one hand he is mistreated by the Christian majority, specifically Antonio, a man to whom he lends money. One of Shakespeare’s best monologues is nestled in a speech delivered by Shylock as he pleads with those around him to acknowledge his humanity:

Act 3, Scene 1. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?

This speech is met only with more prejudice and mockery. As the play’s antagonist, comedic format requires that Shylock be thwarted and receive retribution (the execution of which entirely dismisses the undeserved mockery and scorn he faced throughout the play).

On the other hand, Shylock has his own prejudices. The justness of Shylock’s complaints is shadowed by his belief that he is superior to Antonio, and every Christian. His experience with prejudice and oppression do not lead him to empathy and compassion. They do not drive him toward moral high ground. Instead he responds to his persecutors in kind, explaining that he learned to treasure vengeance from those who gave him cause to seek it:

Act 3, Scene 1 “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

When he finds that Antonio must forfeit on his loan, Shylock refuses three times the compensation offered by Antonio’s friends, demanding instead a literal pound of flesh. He is not interested in mere justice. He is not magnanimous in victory and has no use for mercy. He wants to cut the still beating heart from the breast of his enemy and has the legal right to do so. ‘Merciless’ is usually a pejorative in Western culture, and the harshness of Shylock’s demands are often projected onto his whole character so that he is regarded by some modern audiences as villainous or sadistic.

There is a comforting simplicity to assigning people to discrete moral spheres: victimizer and victim; villain and hero; black hat and white hat. In doing so, however, we forget that the experience of victimization may actually lead an individual to victimize others. Furthermore, we forget that few of us would turn down the legal opportunity to make sure our enemies “got theirs.” This is the brilliance of Shakepeare’s Merchant: it does not allow the viewer to feel at ease with binary moral categorizations. It disquiets us by highlighting the complexity of each character, forcing us to acknowledge the flaws in the intended heroes, and the humanity of the supposed villains.


It is intuitive to assume that members of traditionally oppressed groups (racial minorities, gays, the physically disabled, etc.) will be more “liberal,” permissive of difference, or at least generally more tolerant of others. When this isn’t the case people are often surprised or point a finger at the apparent contradiction as grounds for invalidating the oppression experienced by marginalized communities. We deride an advocate of the gay community because of his chauvinism. We dismiss the complaints of black Americans because some meet oppression with bitterness and racism. But it’s unrealistic to expect that those who have been bitten will not have acquired a tolerance for venom. Empathy is not the natural human response to injustice, vengeance is. Vengeance is why we execute killers before the families of their victims (in the United States), and why we’re satisfied by the villain’s death in nearly every Disney Princess film. As we mature, however, Disney characters appear more and more contrived.

Shylock resembles a real, living person because his character is complex; and like a real, living person, much of Shylock’s complexity must be imagined. A director imagines how Shylock looks and moves, an actor imagines his inflections and mannerisms, and the audience imagines that he loved his late wife, desires respect, has an ego to bruise, and a heart to break. Shylock’s humanity is created in our minds. That Shylock is merciless at the end of Merchant doesn’t cancel out the antisemitism he faced, nor does the antisemitism soften his lack of mercy. Imagining Shylock complexly means transcending binary sensibilities that are offended only by the offenses against him, or his subsequent ethical hardness, and instead acknowledges the relationship between both while considering the unknown third causes.

The same is true of the people we interact with each day. We don’t necessarily have personal relationships with our barista, store clerk, or the receptionist at the office. We don’t know why they’re having a good or bad day, that they enjoy small-talk, have a sister in the hospital, or a brother at university. Without personal context we must imagine the depth of their humanity, and how we imagine them will color our interactions. Do we see people as two-dimensional characters in our personal Disney western, or do we imagine that they—like us—are sincere individuals who are influenced by their environment and experience?

Imagining complexly those with whom we disagree is one of our greatest tools for engineering meaningful debate and affecting social development. It’s also how we maintain meaningful relationships with family and friends; we approach our loved ones graciously, cognizant of the context surrounding their actions. (“Don’t mind Aunt Lou, she’s never liked Christmas much since Uncle Manny got sick.”) When the context eludes us we give them the benefit of the doubt.  (“Oh that’s just Grandma, don’t mind her.”) It is less natural, but equally logical to imagine complexly those with whom we have lesser connections. When we embrace humanity across dinner tables, aisles, church walls, and borders—when we give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and observe them with empathetic eyes, we will find we are not battling against positions, but conversing with people.


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