The pain of others

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag questions whether we really feel the pain of the people we see in photographs of violence, particularly if we can’t do anything for them.  In fact, she would only let people who can lessen the horror look at such pictures.  “The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”  The mixed emotions of voyeurism go back to ancient depictions of ‘hard-to-look-at’ cruelties.”  We get “the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching.  … [and] the pleasure of flinching.”  (Sontag [2003] 41-42)

Most of the photos that Sontag discusses depict the aftermath of violence.  Dead, maimed bodies.  She also considers Goya’s etchings of atrocities during the Napoleonic wars in Spain.  Many of these etchings depict acts of violence in progress.   While “each image … stands independently of the others,”  the series “is fashioned as an assault on the sensibility of the viewer.”  (Sontag [2003] 44-45)

In addition to pictures from the Holocaust and the lynchings of African-Americans that so disturbed Sontag, we have famous war pictures like the Chinese baby crying on the platform amidst the wreckage of the Shanghai train station after a Japanese bombing, Capa’s soldier from the Spanish civil war falling to the street as a bullet strikes, the Vietcong’s head snapping as the general’s bullet goes through during the Tet offensive, or the naked little Vietnamese girl running towards the camera as she screams with napalm burns.  To the extent that we’re not just voyeurs, what are we imagining as we look at such photos?

With repeated exposure these photos can lose their shock value and become “just pictures.”  We are flooded now with media images of atrocities.  Last week it was videos of the bodies of those massacred in Bentiu, South Sudan, strewn and piled along the road on which the camera drives by.  The telecasters warn of disturbing scenes to come.  Some networks fuzz the images.  Some viewers have to look away because of feeling helpless, afraid, revolted.

Against those who say that people need to see such images in order to become more sensitive, Sontag argues: “Compassion is an unstable emotion.  It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”  In the face of images like Bentiu, if we feel that we can’t do anything about it, then we start “to get bored, cynical, apathetic.” (101)   Looking at pictures of the suffering of others often helps us appreciate our own comfort, more than it motivates us to do something about their suffering, especially when there is nothing we can do about it.

When there is something we can do, especially within our comfort zone, we will, e.g., sign a petition, send money, vote.  I don’t mean to belittle the long term effects of such responses.  It is estimated that more than 136 million people saw the picture of the Chinese baby in LIfe magazine and that the photo did much to turn the American public against the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s.  The photos from the Vietnamese war contributed to an anti-war movement that eventually helped end that war.  In that case, dissatisfaction with the lack of impact of multiple “little” responses led many people to get off their armchairs and into the streets in large demonstrations and other political action, including civil disobedience.

These photos, however, do not exploit the suffering of others as much as what Laura called “grief porn.”  These are the TV “news” stories in which victims or those close to the victims of a disaster are questioned as to the details of how they felt at the worst moments of what happened to them, or in some particularly obscene cases, what they are feeling as disaster is happening with interviewers sticking microphones in their faces.  The media companies think they know that this is what we want to see.  Is it because they know that we take pleasure in hearing the pain of others?  The pleasure of being voyeurs and saying “not me”?

It is ironic that technology makes representations of the effects of painful incidents on others more widely and more readily available.  Ironic in that this technology helps us live more and more complacently, albeit frenetically.  Pain interrupts that complacency.  We don’t have to do something about pleasure.  We don’t even have to pay attention to pleasure.  But pain … pain grabs our attention; pain tells us to do something to make it stop.  Pain doesn’t just irritate; it hurts.

So, how can we say that we can feel the pain of others if we are not hurting?   One part of the answer to that question lies in the way that advances in technology have changed how we imagine pain.   We tend more and more to view pain as a technical issue and the “problem of pain” as a task of finding the right technical means to get rid of the pain.  Buytendijk and Soelle both question the technical goal of a living without pain, not because of the limits of technology but because this goal fails to see pain as a key part of the larger complex of activities that we call living.  We will return to this question when we consider how pain both fits within and challenges different moral orders and different moral imaginations.

Presently we are exploring one such view, the “aphasia of pain,” which is my term for what seems to be Elaine Scarry’s idea that we cannot imagine the physical pain of others.  By her definition Scarry would find Clinton’s statement “I feel your pain” hard to believe.  She argues that we cannot feel another’s pain because the person in pain cannot communicate that pain, i.e., the aphasia of pain.  On both sides of this divide lies the inability to imagine pain.  Here I’m wrestling with one of the grounds for that view—the position that we cannot imagine the pain of another, and maybe not even our own pain.

Within this context, therefore, these recent posts have been emphasizing the role of imagining in how we hurt.  I would argue that because we imagine our pain as part of processes that include bodily disturbances, so we can imagine the pain of others.  As Buytendijk points out, a key feature of pain is that the body becomes “other” with respect to the self.  What I am adding, with help from Aristotle and Aquinas, is that that split between body and self hurts insofar as it’s imagined.  We can feel pain when we imagine the hurt of others because we are also imagining a split between ourselves and their body-selves.  Where we become exploitive, bored, cycnical or apathetic is when we stop imagining, stop attending to both sides of that split, and focus only on our side as if it’s all about us.

(Note.  I have not forgotten what I’ve said about dichotomies and “I.”  Buytendijk is not positing a mind-body dualism, but is talking about how imagining one can hurt.  While the Buddhist concept of anattā is commonly translated as “no self,” in the posts under “Whoever you are, I love you,” we will explore how we are constantly making a self. Imagining and hurting go into how we do that. We just can never assume that this making has been completed such that our self will continue to exist on its own if we stop working on it.  Of course, the ontological interpretation of such concepts is irrelevant. The point is that we need to pay attention to the self we’re making as we make it.)

People following the story of the sinking of the South Korean ferry heard or read words last week that were at least as painful as the videos of the Bentiu massacre.  We heard or read the news that 40 of the girls wearing their life jackets had been found by divers crammed into a room sized for 30.  In the last post I described some of the reasons why verbal images of what these girls suffered did not work to make me feel their pain.  Subsequently, this simple statement of what the divers found upset me more than all the words I had heard or all the links I tried to make between them and my life.  I finally “got it.” I don’t know what it was about these few words but they hit harder almost than any other detail about the sinking of the ferry.  I could imagine their pain, finally.  With words. How did I know that I was really imagining their pain?  Because these words hurt so much I had to do something to stop the imagining.  I had to look away even though there was no picture.  (A picture actually would have been too horrible.  As Buytendijk says some pain can cause such turmoil that it overwhelms the pain.)


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