All In

Jay in Oregon linked to a story yesterday in comments that is truly one of the worst things I've ever read. It happened in Hartlepool, England—but it could have happened on just about any street in just about any town in the UK, or the US, which is part of what makes it so terrible.

Christine Lakinski, a 50-year-old physically and mentally disabled woman, was returning home with some parcels when she fell ill and stumbled into her doorway, losing consciousness. One of her neighbors, 27-year-old Anthony Anderson, and two of his mates, noticed her lying there; Anderson first kicked her feet to try to rouse her, then dumped a bucket of water on her. When she still failed to respond, he urinated on her and covered her in shaving foam—all of which was captured on a mobile phone. On the video, Anderson is heard to shout "This is YouTube material!" as he degrades Lakinski while she slowly dies of pancreatic failure. This bit of vile revelry attracts a crowd, all of whom "were said to have laughed at his actions."

Anderson, who has pleaded guilty to "outraging public decency," will be sentenced next month. Prosecutor Lynne Dalton, who recommended an enhanced sentence at yesterday's hearing, explained: "Although his actions did not contribute to her death it was appalling behaviour that robbed her of any dignity in the last hours of her life."

Lakinski's brother Mark said: "We will await the outcome and just hope he gets what he deserves." And what does Anderson deserve? A fate no civilized society would ever give him. There are laws designed to preserve his dignity, if he yet retains any, and to spare him from cruel and unusual treatment, though he did not extend his victim the same courtesy.

At least he will go to prison. He will be punished for his brutally callous victimization of Christine Lakinski. That is certain. Even if it is unthinkably inadequate, it is certain.

But what of those who stopped and stared and laughed and cheered, or who did nothing at all, as Anderson kicked and doused his unconscious victim slumped in her own front doorway, announced "I'm just going to go and piss on her" and did, casually walked back to his house to collect a tin of shaving foam which he used to cover her "from head to foot" before finally abandoning her to the July afternoon? What of them? What do they deserve?

And what of Anderson's parents, who maybe didn't care enough for him or didn't teach him to care about others or knocked him around and made him hard? Or peers who bulled him? Teachers who ignored him, bosses who humiliated him, girlfriends who hurt him, friends who betrayed him? What of the people who contributed in big and small ways to making Anderson who he was on that day, a soulless beast with no regard for decency, devoid of the faintest hint of humanity? What of them? What do they deserve?

And what of the people who conveyed to Anderson his privilege, those same parents, peers, teachers, lovers, friends, who honored and rewarded his maleness, his abledness? What of the people who write the stories and create the images and shoot the films and sing the songs and make the laws and design the world in every conceivable way to privilege male over female and able-bodied over disabled, who endowed Anderson with the profoundly tragic sense of entitlement that gave him claim over another person in so many ways that he felt no compunction to use her as a toy and a toilet? What of them? What do they deserve?

And what of the people who consume those images and messages, and internalize their own privilege, their own maleness or abledness, their own whiteness or straightness or cisgenderedness or thinness or wealth, who shell out dollar after dollar in pursuit of the things, the beautiful things, that reassure them how wonderful and superior and privileged they are? Who feed the machine that necessarily dehumanizes some people in the process of turning mere mortals into superheroes? What of them? What do they deserve?

And what of the people who take advantage of the intrinsically or comparatively oppressed, the marginalized, the cast-aside and overlooked and unappreciated, who subject them to minor incidents of indignity—a passing cruelty, a lingering if insignificant neglect, an embarrassment or mockery or exposure—who compare their iniquities against grievous offenses like Anderson's and see not an uncomfortable proximity, but a reassuring distance? What of them? What do they deserve?

And what of the people who bear witness to these random acts of unkindness, who know the right thing to do but are simply not brave enough to do it? What of the people who keep quiet, even as their conscience groans and their cheeks burn with the shame of their steadfast silence, who don't speak up who don't say stop who don't step in who don't move a muscle unless it's to turn away? What of the people who just don't want to get involved, who maybe even feel a sick and desperate relief that it's someone else, it isn't them, it isn't me oh thank god it isn't me who's being picked on pissed off put down? What of them? What of me? Oh dear god, what do I deserve for the moments I have failed, for the times my pathetic, spineless silence has conveyed a tacit approval of the actions of a bully, for letting my weakness become his strength?

I make a difference in this world, for good or ill. There is no neutral. There is no Switzerland. There is only saying no to the indignities one human visits upon another—prejudice, hatred, humiliation and pain—or saying yes. And silence, the craven averting of one's gaze so the offense may take place out of view, is not a no. It is not ambiguous. It is a yes. Yes, go ahead, just don't do it to me. It is a permission, and a plea. I'll sacrifice her if you'll let me on my merry way. We routinely cede our expectations of goodness for guarantees of safety, but only our own, and we can no longer fool ourselves that men like Anthony Anderson are aberrations; they are, in the void of unyielding solidarity our self-interest has left, inevitabilities.

There is no neutral. You're in or you're fucking out.

I'm all in.

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