Suffering, distance, and compassion

We live in a world in which atrocities are a near-daily phenomenon and in which it is easier than ever – if one choses – to learn about those atrocities. I do not say this in order to moderate our sense of horror at the terrorist attacks in Paris. The events in Paris (if it needs to be said) are intrinsically appalling and harrowing. But it does raise questions about compassion and its journey over distance.

Intimate suffering and universal norms

It is obvious that people in Britain and other parts of Europe should lament the personal pains and loss generated by the recent bombings and shootings with especial intensity because Paris is culturally very close. There is a familiarity with this place borne out of travel, culture, and language. The linguistic quip about franglais is actually a fairly accurate representation of our national language’s origins: you cannot write a sentence without it containing a soupçon of French. With some license, one could say that the British and French are divided by a common language.

So, if it is obvious that the atrocities in Paris will be felt strongly in Britain, one might ask: is it right? The liberal universalist starts by stating that everyone everywhere has equal value and therefore any death and suffering demands – at the level of principle at least – equal concern. The implication of this starting point is that, even if it is understandable that we have a media full of harrowing stories about Paris this should, at the appropriate moment, lead us to ask why these political emotions do not extend to everyone, or perhaps very far at all.

Within a liberal universalist approach, this line of inquiry has (especially since the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001) taken two salient forms: analogy and hypocrisy. The analogy argument takes an atrocity event and makes comparisons to reveal the differential valuing we give from one to another. Shortly after the suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, I remember a student doing this in regards to the massacres in Sabra and Shatila in late September 1982. And I also remember some development campaigners arguing that poverty and disease ‘were like many nine-elevens every day’ in terms of mortality.

Connected to this point, the hypocrisy argument is concerned that people hold double standards when they lament the deaths of some and not others. Goodness knows that I am constantly struck by how little coverage mass atrocities in Africa get in the West; and it is difficult not to think that part of the reason for this is that the value of life is racially filtered in much of the mass media and popular culture. The argument here is that we like to think we are believers in human rights and universal norms and standards but we habitually ignore a great deal of suffering and death.


Habits of lamentation

These points deserve serious consideration, but they don’t add up to a clear account of how we should think about the relationship between atrocity and distance: that is, how we constantly differentiate between the suffering of some over others according to some rough measure of proximity. There is an implication is the arguments above that we should be universal and non-discriminatory in our compassion, but this is difficult to sustain for at least two reasons.

Firstly, for an individual, there is too much suffering in the world and too great an intensity of knowledge about the atrocities that create suffering. To appraise oneself of these atrocities every day and to consider them as all equal is to move towards a condition of anxiety and emotional turmoil, or to a position in which human life in general is cheapened (in the way that some misanthropic ecologists do). Secondly, the nature and degree of our capacity to ‘suffer with’ is obviously culturally constructed. This not just in ‘the West’ but everywhere, as so many anthropologies of death, funeral, and lamentation tell us.

We need ways to understand the varying degrees of emotional ‘thickness’ with which we witness remote atrocity events. A sense of how conversations about this difficult interaction between proximity and a humane approach to compassion would allow some recognition that we will take some atrocities more seriously than others.


Listening to the sorrowful stories of others

My suggestion is that we pay more attention to voice. All atrocities are represented to us, wrapped in narratives of horror, lamentation, sympathy, anger. Powerful emotions pulse through atrocity reportage. Atrocities are not Stalin’s ‘statistics’ of a million dying, they are events that come with accounts of life just before and after a massacre. Atrocities are related by a narrator. Voice is, in this sense, about who is speaking and the emotional register that they use.

It is obvious that a series of terrorist attacks in Paris will generate both richer and more proximate atrocity narratives, ones that resonate with us more powerfully. Paris – or London and Madrid – are places many of us know directly, with features and lifestyles we have seen repeatedly in various media. There is a European cultural repertoire that most of us broadly share. If these are the voices that tell us of the atrocity and the emotional torment that such terrorism does to our humanity then this will be a powerful message indeed.

It is interesting then that some European interlocutors can – with the best of intentions – ask us to consider the atrocities of more distant others. After Paris, this narrative focussed most obviously on the mass suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of ISIS. This is a voice located here ‘speaking for’ them, not a voice over there ‘speaking to’ us. This voice discusses atrocities that are largely unfamiliar (beyond their basic horror) to make a point about analogy or hypocrisy. The authors are as removed from the civil wars or instability of Syria as their readers are. The emotional kernel of atrocity reportage that I argued is intrinsic to it is weakened by its relative lack of connection, its cultural distance. Opinion-makers who research an atrocity are no match for those who share community, live nearby, have the language and values of those in the midst of suffering.

We can breach any heavily-guarded ‘us and them’ focus which reinforces a kind of emotional imagined community of the nation or region by paying more attention to the voices that come from atrocities further afield. Not all zones of turmoil – as I have said this can create a sense of being overwhelmed – but more of them.

These narratives will be just as much representations as any others – not ‘genuine’ in some unalloyed sense. They will be as ‘dirty’ as any post-traumatic communication. They will be different but emanating from a shared human condition, one we all hope will never be visited upon us or perhaps more so our loved ones. They will allow possibly us to become less ‘vernacular’ in our emotional commitments. This kind of prolix and polyglot voice emerged from above the soupy non-news of the corporate media for a moment during early stages of the ‘refugee crisis’ and it was remarkable how powerfully ordinary people throughout Europe understood, empathised, and took some form of political action.

The ‘people’s history’ of the long War on Terrorism will be written one day, and it will likely show how the war brought many peoples together in a horrific oil-slick of globalised violence, prosecuted by states and terrorist insurgencies. In the here and now, listening to remote voices and well as proximate ones might be a tiny resistance to this vicious circle of war and the foundation for a step towards its end.

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