Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Quality of Mercy: How we Resent the Other as we Resent Ourselves

Leonard Nimoy in A Quality of Mercy (1961).
In the third season of The Twilight Zone (1961), Leonard Nimoy played a minor role in a tale of personal transformation penned by Rod Serling and Sam Rolfe. Typical of Serling's Twilight Zone series, the episode deals with social issues of prejudice, hatred, and personal blindness to one's own true motives.

In A Quality of Mercy a young, gungho officer arrives on the Philippine Islands at the scene of an attack. It's the final days of World War II and the American G.I.s are battle worn and weary from years of death, destruction and hatred. The Americans have cornered a platoon of Japanese soldiers in cave, many of whom are worse for the wear than the Americans themselves. Starving, spent, and trapped they pose no real threat to the American soldiers.

The United States' atomic attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have crippled Japan and these are the final days of the war. With nothing left to be lost nor to be gained, the G.I.s hope to avoid killing the cave full of wounded Japanese men. They are resolute to wait out the final days of the war without further slaughter.

Things change when Second Lieutenant Katell arrives. Fresh out of officer's training school and thirsty for Japanese blood, Katell is hankering for his piece of the action before the war ends. Although Sgt. Causarano and his men explain the senselessness of further bloodshed to the Lieutenant, he is unmoved. The officer reminds the soldiers who is in control and how he intends to have his men attack the cave. Leonard Nimoy, playing a private, adds (in a very Spock-like tone) "This one is bloodthirsty". Sgt. Causarano doesn't back down. He tells the Lieutenant,
"We've seen enough dead men to last the rest of our lives. The rest of our lives, lieutenant,  and then some. Now you've got a big yen to do some killing? Okay, we'll do some killing for you. But don't ask us to stand up and cheer."
As the lieutenant is preparing for battle, he chastises the sergeant for being "either battle fatigued or chicken." The sergeant attempts to introduce the lieutenant to himself,

"You're a pea-green, shaved hair, and just fresh from some campus. Afraid you won't bag your limit, or worse all shook-up because somebody might spot you as a "Johnny come lately" instead of a killer of men... You want to prove your manhood, but it's a little late in the day, there aren't many choices left as to how to do it. It all boils down to that cave full of sick, pitiful, half-dead losers and a platoon of dirty, tired men who've had a craw-full of this war."
The lieutenant is livid and barks back,
"You're a lousy soldier, and that goes for the rest of these poor, sick boys that you want me to bottle-feed. When you fight a war, you fight a war, and you kill until you're ordered to stop... No matter who they are or what they are, if they're the enemy they get it! First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it!"
This is where things become interesting. In his rage Lieutenant Katell drops his binoculars. When he reaches down to get them he is suddenly Lieutenant Yamuri, an officer in the Japanese army. He is startled to realize that he is leading an attack against a group of wounded Americans in a cave. He has entered, as Serling tells us, "into The Twilight Zone".

The remainder of the film describes the change of heart that the officer undergoes when he is in the position of the other. No longer trapped in his own malignant narcissism, the lieutenant is able to empathetically identify with the other, and this change of heart necessarily results in a change of his actions. The episode concludes with words from William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice:
"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain of the heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
We all have been Lieutenant Katell at certain times in our lives. While dealing with others on the highway, in the supermarket, or online, we tend to project the worst fears we have of ourselves onto others. Fleshing out assumptions about sex, gender, skin, body shape, ethnicity, wealth, poverty, and much more, we come to resent the other as a generalized amalgamation of all of our resentments.

It is easy to do this from a distance, because from afar we can only see the generalizations of our assumptions. As we get closer to the other, just as Lieutenant Katell becomes closer to Lieutenant Yamuri, we begin to see the other as a person, rather than as a conglomeration of that which we resent in ourselves. This is the entrance into empathy. Sigmund Freud tells us in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego that empathy begins with identification. It is not until Lt. Katell identifies with  the other, literally seeing the world from their eyes, that he develops a sense of himself in relation with the other.  In this way, it is only through empathy, or mercy as Shakespeare puts it, that one can take away the self-hatred that one acts upon others.