Poor Professor Higgins

One of my favorite musicals is My Fair Lady. Toward the end of the story, Professor Higgins is in the midst of enjoying his triumph, having taken Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle from the street and after an excruciating program of tutoring passed her off at a Society event as a cultured Lady. Eliza then proceeds to stand up to him for his ill-treatment of her, and leaves distraught and in tears. Higgins is beside himself in disbelief at what he thinks is ingratitude, and expresses this in a song, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” 

Of course, Higgins’ problem is he can’t look at himself critically. It’s a miracle he won his bet with Captain Pickering, since he is generally unable to present himself as a genteel person in any situation.  The reason Eliza succeeded is probably due as much to Pickering’s sympathetic influence as it is to Higgins’ linguistic retraining, and Pickering chose to help her learn the manners necessary even though it meant undermining his wager. But Higgins can’t understand Eliza, because he thinks he’s normal and can’t understand why anyone would think differently than he does.

Prof. Higgins’ misunderstanding is a logical fallacy known as the Typical Mind Fallacy. We believe we are normal and anyone who thinks differently isn’t. Without introspection, without empathy, without compassion, we reduce people we don’t understand to objects, second-class citizens who deserve their status and unworthy of our charity. We assume we know how life ought to be lived and project our personal standards as universal truths. Those who don’t live us to our standards are stupid, irrelevant, foolish, beyond belief.

I’m not going to pretend I am great at staying away from this, I tend to get stuck in my preconceptions as much as anyone does. Without saying that everything in Life is relative and there are no universal standards, it’s better for me to remember that when I look at someone I never see the complete picture or understand completely where other people’s motivations come from or what the full nature of their situation. Eliza submitted to Prof. Higgins out of hope her life would become better by her standards without realizing the price she’d have to pay. Her sorrow was when she realized there was no return to what she knew before, a result Prof. Higgins would never contemplate to be a problem.

It’s always good to try to help people, including teaching them skills that will help them in life. It’s also good to remember we don’t necessarily help people by making them more like us. Pope Francis spoke about ministry with the Poor as a two way street, where working together we can learn from one another while respecting each others’ differences. In many ways, Prof. Higgins would’ve become a better person if he could’ve been more like Eliza.

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