Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite pop culture characters.
It’s a weird experience to watch Jordan Peele’s new movie, Get Out, as a white man who grew up in an upper-middle-class liberal family. Typically when watching horror movies, the villain is so different from me – an invincible giant in a hockey mask, a ghost that lives in a haircut, some kind of sexy Cthulhu – and I am asked to place myself in the hapless shoes of victims who all look and talk like me. With Get Out, the paradigm is sadly and realistically reversed, pitting society’s most powerful members against some of its most vulnerable, while stacking the deck in the villains’ favor. Beyond the clever scares, excellent plotting, and timely message, watching Get Out was, for me and, I imagine, most of its audience, a lesson in seeing clearly.
Beyond the clever scares, excellent plotting, and timely message, watching ‘Get Out’ was, for me and, I imagine, most of its audience, a lesson in seeing clearly.
It takes compassion to see other people and react to their problems in a similar way you would react to your own. On the most basic level, expressing sympathetic pain or worry over things that don’t effect you is a waste of resources. Why feel bad for other people’s problems? Essentially, compassion is the ability and willingness to relate to others as we relate to ourselves. When, for whatever reason, our vision is clouded and we are unable to see the shared humanity of other people, then we see them as objects, and our natural instinct toward compassion is blocked or distorted. When this occurs, when we cannot understand others to be just as human and alive as we understand ourselves to be, then our compassion changes into something else, something darker and more self-serving.
The 8th-century Buddhist scholar Shantideva writes about this process, identifying compassion as one of the four Brahma Viharas (‘highest abodes’) of the Human spirit, and warning that each Brahma Vihara has two distortions, their near and far enemies. For compassion, he identifies the near enemy to be pity and the far enemy to be cruelty. In each case, the cause of the distortion is a misunderstanding that other people are just as valid as we are – not in the erasing sense that all experiences are the same, but in the humbling sense that others’ lives are just as meaningful and worthy of our curiosity as our own.
This kind of well-meaning distortion, the way that stunted compassion leads to self-obsession, is shown so clearly by Get Out that it’s almost overwhelming. It’s everywhere in the film, so picking specific moments is almost impossible, but one especially sticks out. When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) meets the blind photo gallery owner Jim Hudson (Stephen Root). They bump into each other at the tail end of a miserable parade of well-meaning racism, and Jim presents himself as an island of clarity amidst a sea of ignorance. Chris attaches to him immediately, and they have the only real conversation of the afternoon. Chris asks Jim how he can own a photo gallery as a blind man, and Jim tells his story, culminating in his proclamation that life just isn’t fair, with Chris solemnly nodding his head before taking off.
Maybe Jim would describe himself as color blind, but to me, he just sounds tone deaf.
At first glance, this seems like a moment of kindness and clarity. But look carefully and you see that, actually, Jim is using Chris for his own benefit here. Jim is a man of tremendous privilege: white, rich enough to go into the arts, rich enough to get out of them lucratively. And yet here he is complaining to Chris, a black man in America who has been on his own since he was a child, about how unfair life has been to him. Maybe Jim would describe himself as color blind, but to me, he just sounds tone deaf. There’s a sort of pleading going on here on Jim’s part, a desire to have Chris evaluate his struggles and deem them worthy of complaint.
Part of the tragedy of this exchange is that in so using Chris as a way to legitimize his own struggles, Jim erases him. Jim is able to acknowledge the vision of Chris’ work, but cannot bring himself to acknowledge how it came to be. Jim describes Chris’ photography as brilliant, cruel and unflinching, but simply chalks this up to Chris having “the eye”. As if it’s just some genetic twist of fate, and not lived experience, that informs Chris’ artistic choices. And of course, it’s this bizarre and nonsensical obsession with Chris’ eye that takes Jim down his homicidal turn.
This becomes most clear when Jim is monologuing to Chris about why he wants to kill him. He claims it is all for Chris’ ‘eye’, all to try and steal Chris’ artistic talent. He does this without acknowledging their separate lives, possibly even holding them equal in his mind, and going so far as to say he’s not a racist, but an ambitious murderer who just so happens to be killing a black man. It’s an absurd moment of imagining that he can steal a person’s point of view without acknowledging the life that created it.
And the sad part is, it almost works. It wasn’t till I sat down to write this that it hit me just how Jim was wrong – how he was, in fact, specifically racist and not just a sociopathic murderer who snagged a black man for his crime. Jim is charming, funny, says the right things, and he’s white. As a white male viewer, I identified with him. During the cringeworthy garden party scene, I was watching in total discomfort, wishing someone besides Rose would acknowledge how awful it was for Chris, and when Jim showed up it was like a breath of fresh air. Finally, a white guy who demonstrated that there are a few good ones out there.
But Jim turns heel, and his excuse that Chris just so happens to be black doesn’t hold up. You could never do this sort of thing to a prominent white artist because our society has no narrative for a prominent white artist simply disappearing. But black people disappear all the time, and the ‘understanding’ reached by white liberals who do nothing to change this is that black people live in a more dangerous world and there’s nothing really to be done about it except looking down on southerners. Racism is institutional, top-down, and enforces white supremacy at every level of society; racism creates the conditions that allow the world, and myself, to see Jim but not Chris.
Which is ultimately a failure of seeing with compassion. That Jim feels entitled to Chris’ life on account of a shared sense of unfairness is an act of pity. Jim pities Chris – he ranks the experience of being black as equivalent to his experience of being blind and talentless, an experience that robbed him of the life he feels entitled to. He pities Chris, and hates Chris, as a stand-in for the ways that he pities and hates himself but is unable to see. This is why movies like this – movies that tell stories we don’t often see – are so important because they teach us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and to see the world that they see. And beyond this, they teach us to look again at the experience of being in our own shoes and invite us to see the ways in which we are blind.
James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.