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Columns

December 3, 2010

Lamenting the death of compassion

There are moments when I feel that I have awakened on the wrong planet. Some of these moments came this past week.

A Tennessee volunteer fire department watches a man's house burn down with his pets inside. They don't put out his fire because he hasn't paid the $75 fee for the service. What would they do if a human were burning to death?

A college student discovers his roommate in the midst of a homosexual tryst in the next room. He secretly films the incident and streams it live onto the Internet. His roommate kills himself two days later. These two happenings have something in common _ there is no compassion in them. First, a volunteer fire brigade that demands a fee is not "volunteer."

The second incident is an expression of something much more insidious _ the phenomenon of what I call the "contemptible image."

I worked in front of cameras for 45 years in New York. Depending upon how it is used, the image in the viewfinder can be turned into a saint or a mere thing -- something devoid of dignity and deserving of contempt. It's a technique that is used all the time in the heat of political campaigns with the photos of opposing candidates. This is the unfortunate age of "Humiliation Equals Humor." There are misguided writers among us who feel that there is nothing more screamingly funny than emotionally undressing someone and then sneering at him or her. They have reduced persons with hopes and fears and feelings to simple images -- with whom they have no human connection. This has moved into our TV entertainment as well. Years ago, while watching "24," I realized I was watching a torture scene and was expected to be entertained by it. I turned the show off, and never watched it again. Currently, if I wish to, I can be "entertained" by watching a show, "Dexter," about a serial killer who kills criminals on camera and dismembers them. I choose not to, because I will not debauch my spirit by doing so.

We cannot rationally hold all Tennesseeans accountable for the actions of a few mouth-breathing troglodytes. Nor can we imagine that others of us might indulge in the savage invasiveness that the college student engaged in. Happily, I think the rest of us still outnumber these room-temperature IQs. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is worthwhile remembering; and when we're about to execute a decision, we might ask ourselves: "Does this come from compassion?"

John Randolph Jones is a semiretired actor who sings with the Catskill Choral Society.

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