It is hard to believe that a decade has passed since “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the first installment of director Peter Jackson’s treatment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, premiered in theatres. One of the more iconic performances in the series was that of Andy Serkis, who brought an interesting interpretation to the character of Gollum. And Gollum, or rather his split personality, is something that I would like the reader to consider when reflecting on our culture, and also on how we behave within that culture.
The reader will recall that in one of the “schizophrenia” dialogues from the trilogy, Gollum plots with Smeagol – i.e. his alter ego – to take the hobbits Frodo and Sam to their deaths at the chelicera of the giant spider, Shelob, in order to reclaim “the precious”, the great One Ring of Tolkien’s mythology. He reasons that Shelob will not turn down the opportunity to feast on some hobbits, because normally she has to eat orc:
Gollum: She’s always hungry. She always needs to feed. She must eat. All she gets is nasty Orcses.
Smeagol: And they doesn’t taste very nice, does they, Precious?
Gollum: No. Not very nice at all, my love.
Putting aside the question of how one actually tastes (or indeed how Gollum knows what an orc tastes like), there is something to be said for broadening the application of Gollum’s assessment, and examining just how nice we really are.
When it comes to seeing just how foul and awful we can be, there is nothing like social media. It is the ideal medium for injuring a total stranger in public, and getting away with it. Much as I love Twitter, for example, it is a medium whose instantaneous nature of exchange combined with the anonymity and protection of the internet leads to the typing equivalent of not thinking before speaking. This is not to say one should refrain from engaging in discussion and debate, for sometimes the truth needs to be said. However, under the circumstances that social media provides us, learning to refrain from stating something regrettable is incredibly difficult to do.
Another way to negatively interact with others is the practice of panhandling, to the point where I suspect most of us have become completely desensitized to beggars, avoiding them in the streets as our great-grandparents would have certain road deposits in the days before automobiles. And when walking down the street, if a beggar starts shouting obscenities at you for not giving them money, it is difficult to suppress the urge to shout back. Yesterday for example, I saw a woman who tried to stop and panhandle an older man who was passing her. He said something to the effect of, “Sorry, can’t help you,” and did not slow down to talk to her. She then turned and called him a rather vicious, derogatory term; he shouted back, “And you’re fat,” and kept going.
The main factor behind this is the fact that human nature is fallen, flawed, and imperfect. We are capable of performing great acts of heroism and creating beautiful works of art, and yet most of the time we do not do these things. If such things as heroism and art were not so rarely exhibited by our species, I doubt we would celebrate them as we do, when we find true examples of them. Up until comparatively recently, however, our fallen nature was something we tried to rise above whenever possible, rather than wallow in.
Not unlike Gollum and his self-obsession, we seem more and more to celebrate meanness in our culture: not only in the sense of being unpleasant toward others, but also in the sense of taking pleasure in the low and the base. When there is no virtue other than the indulgence of the self, then it is not surprising that a society composed largely of people seeking to justify their individual indulgences is going to rather quickly lead to the erosion of just about everything, including generosity. And being generous is more than simply donating money to a celebrity cause-du-jour: it means taking the time to do things that you may not feel like doing, because someone has asked you to, and because you are in a position to provide assistance.
So as it happens no, we are not very nice, and it is, frankly, impossible for us to be nice all of the time. However, that does not mean that we are to give up trying, ourselves, or for that matter holding others to account when they fail. I would suggest that, rather than get down and roll around on the ground with a Gollum-like creature intent on justifying its own selfish needs – thereby running the risk of getting one of your fingers bitten off – that one take the line that such behavior is simply unacceptable, and leave it to those who care to indulge in it.