The Problem with Following Mass Atrocities: Motivations and their implications

21 Jan

I’m probably biased, but when I think about the worst suffering humans can endure, it’s hard to think any farther than mass atrocities.  Not only does it connote terrible hardship on the part of the victims, it also demonstrates a capacity for human brutality we really wish did not exist.  This extreme quality of mass atrocities makes the act of learning about the topic a potentially emotionally traumatic experience.  However many people, myself included, do choose to think about mass atrocities regularly.  The vast majority of individuals in the atrocity prevention community are neither devoid of emotion or driven solely by moral revulsion.  What motivations remain are too rarely discussed.  It is true that some carry uncomfortable connotations, but because I firmly believe the study of mass atrocities and other terrible phenomena are worthwhile endeavors, laying the driving motivations out for participating in the atrocity prevention community can help us better critically evaluate the way in which we conduct our advocacy and analysis.

I, like many others, initially became involved in mass atrocity issues because of outrage that blossomed as part of my adolescent maturation.  I had heard stories of my family’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis since I was about five, but when I became aware that seemingly similar instances of oppression and violence occurred around the world, I felt like I should be doing something about it.  Outrage can be a powerful tool, but as @Robtheidealist notes, the discourse of outrage can also fall short:

“In this context of shareability and hair-trigger publishing, outrage is one of the most reliable ways to draw attention to a story. In social justice circles, like many other places on the web, the outrage machine often operates at a fever pitch…Though cultural representation certainly matters, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re simply posturing, moving from outrage to outrage without ever building any committed practices to intervene and dismantle the systems that we claim to oppose…Outrage isn’t bad. Outrage is a weapon. When I went to Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, I was plenty outraged. For years, social justice organizers mobilized our outrage and channeled it into political movements. Yet, it seems that many social justice circles have traded mass movements for massive traffic.  Media outlets are manipulating our good intentions in order to boost their web traffic, and the aimless outrage has many social justice circles spinning their wheels and going nowhere. We can’t build transformative change that way.”

While there’s certainly an argument to be made that outrage is more powerful than he suggests, in my mind, the author is unequivocally right that outrage is not enough alone to create long-term, large-scale structural change for near-intractable problems.

Outrage is the default discourse of human rights advocacy, and accordingly, when we realize outrage’s limitations and move beyond moral impulses, we get into murky territory.  Not too long ago, I was at a conference with a friend who was similarly interested in mass atrocities.  We were in between sessions, so he flipped through his phone reading the news before commenting, “Man, it’s a slow news day.  I just want a coup, [or] something!”  Of course he wasn’t really wishing for a coup because he understood its destructive impact, but ‘wanting a coup’ is a good example of how interest in a subject is synonymous with obtaining some pleasure.  For mass atrocities, instances of political instability and/or violence are the data points that those interested in mass atrocities derive enjoyment from.  There is a certain perversity here, but it is neither possible to eliminate or uncommon in other circumstances.

First off, pure outrage does not produce measured analysis.  Value judgments do not have to be completely suspended, but stressing the moral failings of mass atrocities and ignoring their dynamics does not tell us much.  Second, when attempting to understand mass atrocities, it is not possible to comprehend each individual tragedy that comprises the whole.  Humans have inherent limited to capacity to understand what a hundred deaths each mean, let alone hundreds of thousands.  Attempting to do so impedes analysis.  Third, thinking of mass atrocities as a “horrific” topic that deserves our moral attention rather than our intellectual interest more than others places mass atrocities out of context when it comes to human suffering.  Doctors, for example, are not criticized for the their cold analysis of what causes disease.  We accept that even if their works leave out the structural facilitators of disease, many of which are worthy of condemnation, there is value in understanding the way in which diseases function.  

Enjoyment, or even humor, is not unique to mass atrocities. Like intellectual interest, humor provides an opportunity for engagement with the topic while dealing with the emotional consequences.  To illustrate, I’ll use the experience of another friend who worked briefly in a coroner’s office.  As a college student, he was disturbed by the callousness of some of the medical examiners towards the individuals they autopsied.  However, they explained to him that it can be difficult to see so many corpses with tragic stories, and humor becomes a coping mechanism.  While the personal trauma I endure from studying mass atrocities at a distance is significantly less than coroners, the theme remains the same.  Difficult topics require an amount of distancing, which humor can provide.  Though troublesome and often over-the-top, “gallows humor” does serve a purpose.

When I came up with the idea for this blog post, I mentioned it to my mom.  She is a public interest lawyer and deals with elderly clients, nursing homes, and elder abuse cases.  While she understood my own method of engagement with mass atrocities, what keeps her going is her personal relationships with her clients.  She said that while she enjoys the policy side of the issue, it’s not enough.  My mom is totally right that personal relationships are the second way to make interest in a traumatic topic sustainable.  Relationships allow for that initial outrage to be focused and personalized.  And for my mom’s type of work, personal relationships make a lot more sense.  The issue is physically close to home and real, immediate change can be made on individual cases.  For mass atrocities, the events tend to be physically distant, access to individual victims is limited, and immediate change is frustratingly rare.  Though my engagement in atrocity prevention via personal relationships is limited, my interest in the field, like many others, did initially blossom because of a personal influence.  Stories of my grandfather’s experience as a Holocaust survivor prompted me to become interested in human rights, even if this history alone was not enough to keep me involved.

Neither approach, enjoyment derived through interest or personal relationships, is perfect.  A purely analytic approach can veer away from thinking about the experiences of real people and become overly callous, while only engaging through personal relationships or personal accounts can obscure the deep, structural causes of mass atrocities and other horrors.  In essence, the best approach probably tries to see both the trees and the forest.  The balance can differ depending on the issue, but both are important and can contribute something.  Finally, understanding that the struggles of outside observers on tough issues are real, even if they don’t come close to the trauma of victims, is important to facilitate future work on the issues.

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6 Responses to “The Problem with Following Mass Atrocities: Motivations and their implications”

  1. Sam January 22, 2014 at 1:10 am #

    What do you think about a strong sense of national pride as a motivating force? As an American (of course, also as a human), I feel tremendous pride in US efforts to prevent mass atrocities in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. In the Syrian debate, I felt a great portion of what was at stake in the American policy reaction was whether we would act as a nation with a strong belief in the long-term value of international law and emerging R2P norms, or whether we would dismiss the possibility of multilateral intervention with lazy analogies to the Iraq War (not that there were not good arguments against intervention; there clearly were). So, while under the ’emotional/personal relationship’ category, I agree that it is virtually impossible to build strong relationships with the victims of mass atrocities (unlike, say, activism around education which might put you in touch with children directly effected), I do think you can have a strong emotional stake in mass atrocity policy based on a variety of identities, of which nationalism, or, for that matter, also internationalism, may qualify. What do you think, Danny?

    • dhirsch1 January 22, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      That’s a good point. When I was writing the article, I was trying to come up with reasons for staying involved that weren’t particular to me, but couldn’t. I think patriotism would certainly be one.

      But to push pack a bit, I can see patriotism/belief in the US as a moral nation as a way to drive one’s own participation in atrocity prevention, but I think it becomes more difficult when, say, the US’ interests contradict atrocity prevention policies. Do you think the tension there is as real as I think it is?

  2. painspeaks January 22, 2014 at 1:48 am #

    Reblogged this on The Daily Advocate By Painspeaks.

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