In one of my classes, we had to watch a French movie called “The Intouchables.” Viscerally, it was a feel-good story about two men, one paralyzed named Phillipe, and another, an immigrant named Driss, who were able to form a bond of friendship amongst a sea of differences. Of course, as all university classes prove, no enjoyable movie is complete without an intersectional analysis of the interplay of immutable characteristics between the two main characters. Both men were certainly vulnerable by means of their inherited circumstances. Driss was an immigrant scraping by in an unforgiving urban complex, and Phillipe was disabled in a world set up for the able bodied.
The common reactionary theme expressed in class was one that fit predictably into the paradigm of Western self-suspicion that is unable to see human relationships outside of the realm of identity politics. We attempted to assuage our collective guilt over the sins of our ancestors by chiding that the relationship between Philippe and Driss could never have been “equally beneficial” — many analyses given in class seemed to acknowledge that the “vulnerability” of being of an immigrant person of color was immutably more difficult than the vulnerability of being paralyzed from the neck down. Apparently, despite getting excrement shoveled out of a stomach tube, and being utterly unable to care for himself, somehow Philippe’s appreciation for classical music or abstract art was evidence enough that he was a paragon of privilege.
If we desire to get into the calculus of a sort of victimhood Olympics to calculate the relative vulnerability of these two men, an arena I typically find petty and diminutive, I posit that we ought to consider the situation of Driss. Driss’ existence was undeniably difficult, an existence significantly more difficult than my own, and consisted of fiscally scraping by and the many daily stresses of urban life. The first point of contention to the promulgated image of Driss as an inheritor of great misfortune would be this: Driss’ life, even before Philippe, with indoor plumbing, electronic kitchen accessories and a residency in a functioning apartment complex would likely have been an upgrade over the conditions in the place from which he came.
The collective, trendy reaction to the film then has been to tacitly rebuke Philippe for his wealth, therein implying that, despite his inability to feed, clothe, or toilet himself, Philippe cannot fathom the plight of Driss, and hence we, as an enlightened audience, cannot take solace in saying their relationship was “equally beneficial.”
If this Marxist worldview of the “haves” and “have nots” is our standard for virtue, I wonder, what should we collectively make of Driss? Driss, even prior to his occupational elopement with Philippe, owned a pair of wireless Beats headphones. Wireless Beats headphones cost, conservatively, $200. By the time Driss’ head hit the pillow at night, even before his time with Philippe, a few thousand children would have died in economically developing nations from emaciation due to food shortages. A few dollars can provide enough rice to feed a village for a day thanks, ironically, to the marvel of free trade economics.
How can our hero, who we consider to be essentially a vagabond caught in a “bigoted” system of Westernized markets, who we assume is on “our side” in the fight against injustice propagated by white men? If Driss had donated the money used to buy those wireless headphones to economically developing nations, a village could have been fed for a month. Is Driss a thief, implicitly responsible for the plight of economically developing nations? If the answer is no, to what standards are we ascribing our collective disdain for Phillipe’s material abundance?
Moreover, Philipe’s taste for classical music and lack of exposure to 80’s R&B was dragged out as yet another example of the dogmatic scramble to implicate him in a web of snobbery and privilege. Driss assumedly hasn’t heard the vocal art of inhabitants of economically developing nations, over which he exerts “privilege power.” Should we force him to listen to tribal tones, or other music sources from developing nations? The question was raised in class about why the classical compositions of Bach and Mozart ought to be considered superior to Earth, Wind and Fire. What about music made in Ghana? What about the Hoboken High School Marching Band? Should Driss, to acquiesce for himself the elusive trait of tolerance, listen to Haitian Vodou drumming or, because he’s not a white male, is he allowed to like the type of music that he likes? These questions are largely unanswerable, because once the floodgates are opened on the road to cultural relativism, it’s very difficult to stop.
The beauty I found in the movie was the refusal of either man, as was mentioned ad nauseam in class, to view themselves as victims. The grievance politics and hierarchal victimhood were adjudicated extraneously in class, with neither man in the movie lecturing the other about his myriad struggles. The two men coexisted with each other, refusing to view one another as merely a coagulation of immutable characteristics to which special status or recognition ought to be granted. The real challenges each faced — immigration and paralysis — were met head on when addressing them became necessary (e.g. the police stop of Driss and the daily care of Phillipe), but the larger context of their relationship was not a daily glance through the annals of the lecturing of Peggy McIntosh. Neither felt morally superior to the other — they clearly perceived themselves as equals. More than their immutable personal characteristics, they carved a relationship primarily as two people. The hesitancy to praise that on its merits is a scary instinct.