Sylvain Helaine, 35, has, as you can see above, gone to great lengths to cover nearly every centimeter of his body with tattoos, including the whites of his eyes. He is, believe it or not, a kindergarten teacher, and Helaine is complaining that he has been told he cannot teach young children because some of them find his appearance nightmare-inducing. This, he feels, is discrimination. Nonetheless, he is still teaching older children.
He says that he hopes his tattoos will teach his students about acceptance so that “maybe when they are adults they will be less racist and less homophobic and more open-minded.”
I’m sorry this issue is emerging in France and not in the U.S. It’s an excellent Ethics Incompleteness Principle case. When an individual deliberately mutilates himself like this, a school rejecting him as a teacher of young children, and indeed older children as well, is fair, reasonable and responsible. His “disability” is self-inflicted, his appearance teaches that narcissism and lack of respect for others is admirable, and he is quite possibly mentally ill.
Yet the ethics conflict posed by Sylvain Helaine’s obsession put me in mind of “Moby-Dick,” and thus weakened my resolve on this point. When Melville’s narrator Ishmael is forces to sahe a room and a bed at the Spouter Inn, is terrified by the appearance of his South Seas cannibal roommate who has been peddling a shrunken head on the streets of New Bedford. Then the ever-philosophical whaler muses: “For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal … a human being just as I am. … Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
When Ishmael awakes in the morning to find Queequeg’s arm “thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner,’ almost as if “I had been his wife,” he is no longer alarmed. “The truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy,” Ishmael writes. “It is marvelous how essentially polite they are. … So much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness.” Regarding Queequeg’s tattoos, which are alamost as extreme as the kindergarten teacher’s, he concludes: “Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face — at least to my taste — his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. … Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”
The two become instant friends, yet when they try to sign up for a whaling voyage, Queequeg is rejected, not for being tattooed, but for not being Christian. Ishmael successfully argues that Queequeg, like “all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us,” belongs to “the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshiping world. … In that we all join hands.” His eloquence and ethical aspirations carry the day, and both become members of the doomed crew of the Pequod.
In an essay about Melville’s exhortation to diversity and acceptance, Carl Safina writes,
Nearly two centuries ago, Melville showed us how easy it is to welcome as our own the touches of others, their equivalent colors, customs and beliefs; their journeys, their transitions. And to remember those who, unwelcomed, suffered. How much could have been avoided, and embraced, had we heeded.
This demands the poll question…