Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Of Pranks and Pride and Malicious Mischief (11 Dec. 2012)

             I want to look at a line in the Associated Press's coverage of the December 2012 telephone prank by Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian, a prank that seems to be at least the occasion of the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who received and forwarded the call: "Whatever pride there had been over" the success of "the hoax was obliterated by worldwide public outrage […]."

            In that sentence, Kristen Gelineau, the author of the AP story, hints at something important.

            In the prank, Greig and Christian impersonated — probably badly — the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip and successfully sought information about the condition of the royal granddaughter-in-law, the pregnant Kate Middleton Windsor (so to speak), Duchess of Cambridge, who was hospitalized for acute morning sickness.

            The prank has been called "sophomoric"; Gelineau is more instructive in her use of "pride."

            I'll object to "sophomoric" because college students as well as US high school students go through a sophomore year, and "College is for grownups," or should be, and some maturity should be expected of at least college sophomores.

            "Pride" is more like it because pranks are at the relatively harmless end of practical jokes, and practical jokes pushed far enough get to what's called, significantly, "malicious mischief."

            Shakespeare's tragedy Othello — SPOILER coming up … — ends in a bloodbath (although a restrained one as Jacobean tragedies go), and Greig and Christian, much to the contrary, intended no serious harm. Still, why prank someone at all? Why do people pull practical jokes or go further and do malicious mischief.

            The villain of Othello, the treacherous Iago, speaks about slander, his major method of operation for doing evil in this play. " Good name in man and woman, dear my lord," Iago says to Othello,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;But he that filches from me my good nameRobs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed. (3.3.155-61)
Why would someone slander someone else? Why would any do that "which not enriches him" but "makes me poor indeed"?

            Revenge might be one intelligible reason, and Shakespeare's villainous Shylock is easier to understand than Iago: Shylock bears a grudge and tries to exact bloody, as we say, repayment.

            A revenge explanation doesn't work well for Iago: he's third in command under Othello, probably the greatest general in Europe, and he's reached this position at age twenty-eight. Iago may've hit a pewter ceiling, but for a guy who can't do the math required in the (Early) Modern military, he's doing very well, a hell of a lot better than, say, I was doing at age twenty-eight, and probably a whole lot better than you did or will do. However much Iago may feel slighted now and again, he owes Othello, big.

            Now Iago says he thinks Othello has cuckolded him, but that is really, really unlikely to have happened, and Iago doesn't dwell on that accusation. As the great Shakespearean critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it — he wrote some poems, also — as Coleridge put it, Iago's bringing up the idea seems like "the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity."

            Iago, I think, and have taught, is ticked off at subordination — which we good democrats should sympathize with — and has, let's say, issues with love and with ideals that don't fit into his anti-romantic views of the world (with which we should also sympathize). As dramatic characters go, Shakespeare's included, Iago is one twisted puppy and a complicated guy.

            Relevant here, though, is that he's a trickster, or Trickster-figure, with a capital "T": a prankster with a sense of humor who goes way, way, too far. He's an instructive case at the extreme end of a continuum that's starts near those two unlucky, dumb-ass Aussie DJs.

            Iago's mischief is truly malicious: it stems from malice, which in the old Christian psychology is precisely doing evil without any obvious gain.

            So if you want to seriously condemn the call from the merry Australian pranksters, don't call it sophomoric or immature but say that it begins to border on malice.

            And if you follow through on an analysis of malice, you can at least reach to something basic that we can understand, and that Kristen Gelineau points us at: pride.

            Pride may not be the worst of all sins or the source of all evils (Radix malorum Superbia est), but neither is it the virtue we've made it into today.

            We pull pranks to show how clever we are, to have that moment of trivial glory over other people.

            And sometimes the other people feel serious hurt.

            It may be that Jacintha Saldanha death can't, finally, be attributed to the prank phone call. OK, then we could go back to the suicide of Tyler Clementi and note that in addition to whatever hatred of gays was involved — and that could be minimal — there was much glorying in the embarrassing of another human being.

            Iago sings, ironically, "'Tis pride that pulls the country down" (2.3.90), and that, too, is an exaggeration. But pride is a problem when it moves us to mess over other people for kicks; it is a worse problem when we get into the habit of doing so. A habit of mischief is a serious problem when it overcomes empathy and moves us to find serious joy in embarrassing — thereby hurting — others.

            It's rare that practical jokes lead to tragedy; but far too often they lead to more pain than cheap laughs and tackier thrills can justify.

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