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Opinion | How ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Presses Up Against the Limits of Empathy

As Mr. Scorsese seems to have learned through decades of exploring the darkest and most violent aspects of human nature, encountering the pain and weakness of Mollie Burkhart may not generate the empathy and reckoning with colonialism that Mr. Scorsese seeks to provoke with the film. Pain and weakness may only make the wolves more hungry, more determined.

Mr. Scorsese takes a different tack. Rather than aim for moral development of the audience through empathy for Osage suffering, he focuses on Ernest Burkhart. Ernest is the paradigmatic wolf, just as Mr. DiCaprio has played other wolves throughout his career, on Wall Street and elsewhere. Mr. Burkhart acts on simple, underdeveloped moral principles — and often not exactly out of malice, but self-interest. Even in the intimate context of his own family, he is unable to see the “other” in his wife and her people. He is unable to move from wolf to human because he drowns in self-interest and delusion. Mr. Burkhart is driven by base desires — financial gain and other perquisites of power — toward horrific acts against his own family. “Killers” is a painful film to watch.

Mr. Scorsese’s approach might feel counterintuitive, even discomforting, because it is in tension with the prevailing scholarly wisdom about empathy — Hobbes and Machiavelli notwithstanding. The fields of political and moral philosophy often presume that humans are inherently predisposed toward empathy. Hannah Arendt wrote of the necessity of a public sphere in which citizens could meet one another face to face because that face-to-face meeting was fundamental and necessary to developing the shared dignity and equality of democracy. Emmanuel Levinas envisioned human morality as developed in full only when an individual sees and relates to the “other.” It is in this moment of encounter with those wholly different from us in worldview that we experience empathy and reach the full capacity of our moral potential. It is empathy that moves us from animal, or wolf, to human.

Scholars of Native American history and law, myself included, have often attempted to provoke a public reckoning with American colonialism by highlighting the pain and suffering of Native people at the hands of the United States government and its citizens. We assumed that simply forcing the public, the legal academy and lawmakers to face Native and other colonized peoples, to see their humanity and feel their suffering, would be enough to begin the moral reckoning envisioned by Arendt and Levinas.

But this approach has not been successful. In U.S. constitutional law and history, the place of colonized peoples, like Mollie Burkhart and the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, still flickers in and out of focus. Important at select moments, Indians and islanders from colonized nations like Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa make “cameo” appearances, as the Native political theorist Vine Deloria, Jr. (Dakota) once put it. They appear episodically, if at all, and are largely pushed aside to preserve our simple myths of individual liberty, rights and freedom without any real sense of what colonization has done under the cover of those myths and ideals, and ultimately to the larger American society.

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