“I am not an animal! I am a human being!”
– John Merrick, The Elephant Man
I believe it was for an Intro to Film college course that I saw The Elephant Man. It tells the story of John Merrick, which is loosely based on the real-life story of Joseph Merrick. The man was deformed in a pronounced way, and he did not have a very easy life as a result. In the movie, he had to prove his intelligence, but there were those who judged him entirely by his appearance. He was a freak, and there were very few, besides other freaks, who cared about him at all.
Then came a scene, at the climax, where he was just walking along at a train station…
(I think… it’s been a number of years since I saw the movie, but I’m fairly certain it was a train station)
So, he’s walking along at a train station, not moving normally, face covered, and some young hooligan boys start following him. He just keeps moving, trying to stay ahead, get away, but the surrounding crowd starts noticing, and like a building current, the tension, and the rejection of this strange thing which does not conform to them, rises slowly higher and higher. Grown men start following, muttering, crowding in with anger. Then, in his haste and fear, he accidentally knocks over a little girl (without hurting her) as she screams in alarm. And the horde is unleashed, the entire pack of a crowded station pursuing, cornering him, closing in… and that is when he says these words, screaming a declaration which stops the encroaching mob cold.
He survives that day because he learned to speak, despite his deformity, and he learned to fight for himself with the only thing he had to work with, his voice. It is his very self which protects him, and the rightful shame which comes upon those “normal” people who were about to hurt him.
It is a moment that has stayed with me ever since. A loud, simple declaration of something so obvious, so true, and so very important… and so easily and quickly forgotten.
I see it being forgotten today, in so many ways, and the results are always terrible.
Whether we forget it because of race, or religion, or politics, or age, or even legitimate grievances, the result is always the same.
When we forget that “the other person,” the person who doesn’t conform to us, the person who disagrees with us, the person we blame for what’s gone wrong, the person we hate… when we forget that they, too, are human, we lose our own humanity.
That is a recipe for horror and tragedy.
So I intend to remember it, always.
The “other guy” is a human being too, not an animal.
And I am a human being, not an animal. So I will behave as a human being.