February 1, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Why Marjorie Taylor Greene could look a Parkland massacre survivor in the eye and call him ‘a coward’
What suffering and empathy tell us about politics.
Indulge me please while I dwell another day on Marjorie Taylor Greene, the House Republican and subject of Friday’s Editorial Board. I want to discuss her hostile confrontation of David Hogg, the teenager who saw friends and classmates being murdered in the 2018 Parkland massacre. A year later, Greene stalked Hogg while he was walking down a Washington street. She demanded he defend his gun-reform advocacy. She later called him “a coward” in the pay of George Soros. She said the “radical gun control agenda David Hogg was pushing” made him a “little Hitler.”
Consider what it takes for someone to do this. Consider what a grown woman has to do psychologically to look into the eyes of a teenager who witnessed unimaginable suffering, and call him “a coward.” Most of us possess a sense of empathy. Most of us, even if we’re champions of the Second Amendment, could not tolerate knowing that we’ve compounded a young man’s pain. Most of us would recoil instantly. “Oh my God!” most of us would say. “I’m so sorry! Go ahead and say whatever you want!”
What if suffering does not arouse empathy? What if, for a lot of people, it isn’t something to ease. It’s something to punish. It’s something, on recognizing it, that enrages them more.
Not so for Marjorie Taylor Greene. Unlike most people who cannot tolerate knowing that they’ve compounded a young man’s pain, Greene was capable of maligning Hogg even after looking him in the eye. She was capable of recognizing his pain, then of adding to it. “Coward,” she said. “Little Hitler,” she said. Hogg’s suffering wasn’t something to recoil from, as it would be for most people with a sense of empathy. It was something arousing such animosity it turned a teenaged boy into Greene’s enemy.
This is not to say Greene does not have empathy. This is to say she’s capable of overriding it. This matters greatly to our national politics. You hear it said frequently there’s so much hate in the world because there’s so little empathy. (This tends to be a liberal view of a problematic, unpredictable, often violent world.) But what if suffering does not arouse empathy? What if, for a lot of Americans, it isn’t something to ease. It’s something to punish. It’s something, on recognizing it, that enrages them more.
To understand how this is possible, consider the American tradition of parenting in which violence, neglect, and trauma are ordinary, tolerable, even encouraged. In a bestselling book on “Biblical” child-rearing, Larry Christenson wrote in 1970’s The Christian Family that, “God holds you accountable for the discipline of your children (his italics). If you discipline and bring up your children according to His Word, you will have His approval and blessing. If you fail to do so, you will incur His wrath.”
In 1979, Roy Lessen said in Spanking: Why, Where, How? that hitting your kids was God’s idea. He “commanded parents to spank their children as an expression of love. Spanking is not an option. It is an issue love cannot compromise. The question we face as parents is this: do we love God enough to obey Him, and do we love our children enough to bring into their lives the correction of spanking when it is needed?”
For conservative Christians in America, there has been a consensus around cruelty-as-love for the last four hundred years. “Fear is as essential to Christian parenting as love,” wrote the historian Philip Greven in 1990’s Spare the Child, a history of the religious roots of corporal punishment. “Without fear, they insist, there can be no true love.”
This isn’t isolated to conservative Christians. A 2014 poll found 81 percent of parents thought hitting children was sometimes appropriate. Two thirds had hit their kids at least once. One third never did. Among conservative Christians, the sort who’d vote for Marjorie Taylor Greene, cruelty-as-love is an incontrovertible fact. These people are capable of looking at a sobbing child and offering even more violence. These people are capable of looking at a sobbing child and feeling no emotion but rage. “Quit your crying,” I heard sometimes as a child, “or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
It is a choice that became a tradition that became so ordinary as to be invisible. It is, moreover, the cultural context from which Marjorie Taylor Greene arose. Though she does not believe the Parkland massacre was faked, she nonetheless maintains the lie, because she is exquisitely sensitive to people who believe a sobbing child will manipulate emotions to get what she wants, which is to say, people who believe a traumatized Hogg is trying to manipulate emotions to get what he wants. Both are undeserving of sympathy. Both, as a matter of fact, are deserving of punishment.
From that comes pleasure. For you and me, justice would come in the form of commonsense gun laws preventing the kind of death and dying we saw at Parkland, Sandy Hook and other gun massacres. For Greene and her supporters, that’s injustice. Justice is seeing people like David Hogg suffering more, even if you have to lie about it, even if you have to say Parkland and Sandy Hook were faked. And in knowing the truth, but choosing to lie anyway, she’s elevating mere cruelty to the level of sadism.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.