Issue #75, 1/25/2007
Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby
Family Court Philosopher
Of the many folk stories and fairy tales that were told to me during my childhood, there is one that I have regurgitated again and again to help explain the strangeness of adult behavior. It is the story of "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby." It is a folk tale from the Deep South, and as best I remember, it goes like this...
Among the many animals living in the woods were Brer (Brother) Rabbit and Brer Fox. For the longest time, Brer Fox had deeply desired to catch Brer Rabbit and eat him, but Brer Rabbit was just too fast. One day, Brer Fox hit upon a plan to outwit Brer Rabbit and have him for dinner. Brer Rabbit was fast, no doubt about it, but he had also grown cocky and arrogant after outrunning Brer Fox so many times, so the fox decided to use this trait against him.
From a pot of gooey tar (like road tar, I imagine), Brer Fox fashioned a "tar baby." This was a little figure with arms, legs, body and head that looked like a person. There were pebbles for the eyes, an acorn for the nose and a twig for the mouth. Brer Fox propped the tar baby up against a fence post along the side of the road. Knowing that Brer Rabbit would be passing this way sooner or later, Brer Fox then went away, letting the tar baby do his work for him.
Sure enough, a short time later, Brer Rabbit comes bouncing along the road, and he passes the tar baby.
"Good morning, sir!" says Brer Rabbit, in a good-natured way.
The tar baby don't say nothin'.
Brer Rabbit screeches to a halt. "That's not right," he says to himself. When a body has the goodwill and generosity to greet someone in the morning, the least the other fellow can do is return the favor.
"I say, Good Morning," the rabbit repeats. "Fine weather we're having today."
Again, the tar baby don't say nothin'.
Brer Rabbit is miffed at this point. He feels like he is being deliberately snubbed. The tar baby must be laughing at him behind those beady eyes, and the bunny isn't going to tolerate it.
Brer Rabbit goes up to the tar baby, gets in his face and says: "Listen, sir, when a body says 'Good Morning' to another body on a beautiful day like this, it is only proper for the other body to respond. If you're not going to acknowledge the greeting, then I take it that you are mocking me."
Indeed, the tar baby continues to just sit there and mock the bunny. In spite of being given ample opportunity to respond, the tar baby don't say nothin'.
Brer Rabbit is pissed now. He thinks the tar baby needs a lesson in manners, so with his right paw, Brer Rabbit hauls back and punches the tar baby squarely in the jaw.
And that's where his paw sticks, right in the chin of the tar baby. Brer Rabbit tries to pull his paw away, but it's stuck to the tar and the more he struggles, the deeper the paw gets embedded in the tar.
Brer Rabbit is beyond angry, so he strikes the tar baby with his other paw, which also sticks. Soon all four of his limbs are embedded in the tar baby, and the rabbit is totally immobilized.
There is no way he can outrun the fox now.
That's the end of Part I of the story, wherein Brer Rabbit gets himself into this unnecessary mess. Part II is where he tries to get out of it, but that will come a little later. Right now, I want to recap what we have learned so far.
Brer Rabbit has got himself into a bit of trouble that is entirely of his own making. If you could interview Rabbit on the evening news or on the witness stand, he is going to claim that the tar baby provoked him. Sure he hit the tar baby, but only after plenty of warning and after continued arrogance and "aggressive passivity" by the tar baby. At the least, says rabbit, this was a mutual conflict where the tar baby must accept half of the blame.
But that's not quite honest, is it? The tar baby just sat there because that's all a tar baby can do. Any "evil intent" of the tar baby existed only within the mind of the rabbit, and any aggression that ensued was initiated wholly by him.
In psychological terms, the rabbit "projected" onto the tar baby feelings that were entirely his own. Real people also do this. They come into an ambiguous situation and interpret it according to their preexisting fears and delusions, not what they actually encounter. They can also become involved in unnecessary conflicts fueled only by their own inner fears.
In real life, this is sometimes called paranoia.
The paranoiac actively creates new threats where none had previously existed. Just by seeing an imaginary threat in the tar baby—mockery and discourtesy—Brer Rabbit eventually created a real threat—his physical entanglement. The Brer Rabbit case is a simplistic example, because obviously a tar baby has no inner intentions and can't be expect to respond. In real life, you have to also consider the reactions of the other party against whom the paranoia is directly. The defensive reaction of the other party to the paranoiac's own aggression is then used to justify that aggression—e.g. Rabbit points to all the tar all over him and says, "Look at what the tar baby has done to me. I was right to attack him!"
If you enter a new situation expecting bad things, then you are going to see those threats in whatever ambiguous evidence is presented to you. You'll react aggressively to this perceived danger, which will turn people away from you and set the stage for a real threat. In their hyper-vigilance and overreaction to slim evidence, paranoiacs tend to poison whatever social environment they get involved with. When they first step on the boat, they have only imaginary enemies, but by the time they leave it, they have plenty of real ones. From their point of view, all of their initial fears have been justified.
In a milder sense, the tar baby episode is also an illustration of personality. Whether or not we see a threat in a new situation, we are going to come into it with a preexisting personal style and an established way of processing the world. To a certain extent, this "creates" the reality that we find.
In any new social situation, there are a million things happening, but our personality is equipped to process only a few of them. Thus, we can come into a totally new situation—like a new school or workplace—and quickly find ourselves involved in the same problems we left behind. An alcoholic in one city is probably going to end up being an alcoholic in another because he brings his processing system with him.
While it is clear that 2 + 2 = 4 in every environment, when we come into a new social situation, there are always plenty of observations that are open to interpretation—like the silence of the tar baby. Within this area of discretion, we are likely to mold reality into what we expect it to be. If we expect abuse, then we will probably find it. If we go to a party expecting to have a good time, we will probably make it happen. Reality, in this sense, isn't always something solid but something we create as we go along.
In another sense, reality is very solid and non-negotiable. A tar baby is a tar baby, no matter what Brer Rabbit thinks it is when he hops by. Evidently, a tar baby can be dangerous to a rabbit, so he has a responsibility to process the evidence on its on merits, independent of his own paranoia or personality. When you greet a pedestrian and get no reply, you need to consider all the other possible explanations, not just the impulsive one that first comes to mind.
To best use the opportunities of the world and avoid its dangers, you need to separate yourself from your own preconceptions and become a more disciplined investigator. We learn in court that there are certain ways you ought to process evidence. You don't just believe the first story you hear; you also have to consider all of the reasonable alternate hypotheses.
So what happened to Brer Rabbit after he got tangled up with the tar baby? This is what I remember....
Brer Fox comes along and finds Brer Rabbit tangled in his trap. He is extremely pleased with himself, so he doesn't just eat the rabbit right away but has to gloat about it for a while.
"After all this time, I finally have you!" sneers Brer Fox, hovering menacingly over the immobilized bunny.
"Do you expect me to talk?" asks the bunny.
The fox replies: "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."
Wait! I am getting this mixed up with a James Bond movie—Dr. No, I think. The fatal flaw of nearly all the Bond villains is that that don't just kill 007 when they get the chance. Ego demands that they strap him down to some fiendish torture device then reveal to him their whole diabolical plan—which is just about the stupidest thing they could do.
In Brer Fox's case, he can't just eat the bunny. He feels the need to torture him first by announcing that he is going to eat him and telling him in explicit detail exactly how he will go about it. Then he gives the rabbit a chance to plead for his life.
"Sure, eat me, no problem," says Brer Rabbit.
"Huh?" goes the fox.
"Yeah, I was planning to turn myself over to you later this week," says Rabbit. "You're higher in the food chain. You've got more cunning. You're going to win sooner or later, so I've decided to accept it. Would you like my right foot first or my left one?"
Fox is flummuxed. "Aren't you going to plead for you life. I could let you go, you know."
"But you're not going to, so why should I bother? All I ask is that you make my death quick. I don't handle suffering well. Eat me if you must, but whatever you do, don't throw me into the briar patch."
"Why not?" asks the fox.
"Because the briar patch is filled with sharp thorns that are going to kill me too slowly. I don't want to have to die that way."
"So now I know exactly how to kill you," says the fox, with an evil gleam in his eye. "There is no reason I can't both throw you in the briar patch and eat you afterwards. It's two shows for the price of one!"
"No, no, Mr. Fox, please don't!" cries the rabbit, giving an Academy Award performance.
Then the fox tosses the rabbit and the attached tar baby into the briar patch, whereupon the rabbit quickly uses the thicket to pull himself free of the tar baby. Rabbit scampers off, and Fox is left with a stunned look on his face.
Briar patch: bad idea.
What this illustrates about Brer Fox—and the rest of us—is that ego is often more important than anything else, even food. Fox couldn't just capture the bunny and eat him; he had to be openly seen as defeating his opponent. He had to stretch the whole process out and make the rabbit plead for his life just to serve some internal need.
For all of us, life isn't just about eating and surviving but about making some sort of impression on the world. We don't just want to exist, we want there to be witnesses to our existence. We want to say that we did something special and got recognized for it and that we didn't just pass through life in an ordinary way.
That's why the Bond villains feel compelled to reveal their fiendish plans to a captive audience and why the rest of us can hardly do anything without a theatrical flourish. It seems that for everything we do, there has to be a press release, a public ceremony or a private gloating, even if this means that the true prize gets away in the end.
“i loike it” —... 1/9/09 (rating=4)
“The fox should have known. It's his own fault.” — 3/27/09 (rating=5)
“Exceptional insights into human behaviour” — 3/10/11 (rating=4)
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Page Started: 1/25/07
Minor revisions: 9/21/07