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We must work to resist the culture of cruelty

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Section 113-291.1 of the North Carolina General Statutes declares that no state or local laws relating to the capture, captivity, or treatment of wildlife applies to opossums between Dec. 29 and Jan. 2.  One might imagine that this is one of those odd relics from centuries past that nobody ever got around to repealing. In fact, North Carolina’s legislature enacted it just four years ago. The reason tells us something disheartening about the country we have become.

This statute grants legal immunity to a western North Carolina practice of dropping a live possum from a rooftop to celebrate the New Year.

The terrified possum is confined in a small plexiglas box for hours before the drop, subjected to loud music, a boisterous crowd, and fireworks. 

Public criticism mounted after an injured possum used in the drop had to have her leg amputated. This caused some local officials to equivocate about whether the practice would continue. On the other hand, one community that had backed off reinstated the practice, and a business in Georgia began advertising its own possum drop with sponsorship from the local Ford dealer.

One has to ask what possible advantage people see in dropping a live animal rather than an inanimate object like the famous ball at Times Square?

The depressing answer seems to be that people derive pleasure from demonstrating that they are more powerful than a small animal.

This is strange: The ability of humans — especially ones equipped with traps and guns — to impose their will on small animals is hardly remarkable. Who would put “larger, stronger and smarter than a possum” on his resume? In another time, showing off the ability to dominate a defenseless being would have been seen as cowardly.

Alas, the desire to exert power over obviously weaker beings has become a defining feature of our times.

As public figures from the First Lady to Oprah Winfrey to Lady Gaga have argued, bullying has reached epidemic proportions in schools and online, causing countless tragedies and a grinding loss of human potential.

Our immigration policy revolves around incarcerating innocent children, often in appalling conditions, and rejecting desperate asylum applicants fleeing the most extreme danger.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration published regulations stripping food assistance from hundreds of thousands of low-income people who are willing to work but unable to find jobs — saving relatively little money but causing great hardship to vulnerable people.

The possum drop is particularly striking because it comes less than a week after Christmas. Clay County, North Carolina, where the possum drop apparently originated, is one of the most religious in the country, with 94 percent of its residents affiliated with local churches. Behind its commercialism, Christmas remains fundamentally a celebration of the coming of Jesus and His message. Empathy is one of the most consistent themes in the Christian Bible. This message seems hard to reconcile with such a celebration of cruelty. And the cowardice of terrorizing a small, defenseless animal contrasts starkly with the unstinting courage Christians revere in Jesus.

The temptation to wield whatever power one has to humiliate perceived inferiors sadly knows no political bounds. 

My policy disagreements with President George W. Bush were numerous, yet I still cringed at progressives’ incessant mockery of his malapropisms. They should instead have been trying to discredit his policies: Bad policies and values were the problem, not bad turns of phrase. Worse, when well-educated liberals tried to humiliate President Bush (who was also well-educated) for speaking like someone with less education they wrongly implied that limited education was somehow shameful. Those who actually did have limited educations — and who sometimes felt judged for their imperfect diction or grammar — did not deserve to be shamed. And they were surely more likely to identify with President Bush than with his critics.

President Bush — then the most powerful person in the world — was obviously very different from a frightened small animal suffering state-sanctioned abuse in a New Year’s celebration, a caged immigrant child, or a low-income family struggling to put food on the table. Yet the desire to assert superiority over another being remains an undesirable tendency.

President Donald Trump has made humiliating those he regards as inferiors his trademark — both in entertainment and in politics. Numerous accounts describe his treatment of women over the years in similar terms. If anyone has lost the moral authority to complain about being mocked, it is he. Nonetheless, we should resist the temptation — if not out of concern for him, then out of concern for the brutalizing effect upon ourselves.

Empathy is among the noblest of human emotions. We should cherish and foster our natural impulses to feel vicarious pain at the suffering of other sentient beings and to relieve that pain where we can.

Enacting laws to license cruelty to defenseless animals, and promoting those events for children, helps harden us and suppress our empathy. That impoverishes us all.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1 

Tags 2020 election Bullying Cyber-bullying Donald Trump Empathy family separation policy Human behavior Lady Gaga Oprah Winfrey possum drop SNAP benefits

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