Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Good," "Evil," "Heroic," and "Unbelievable": The 4 Adjectives of the Apocalypse

Sunday morning, April 20, 2014
So already, here I am sitting in more than one hundred miles from the Boston Marathon starting line, let alone the Boston Marathon finish line, where all eyes will be focused tomorrow afternoon. It's Easter Sunday in Berlin, New York and many other places, too. And here they are--"good," "evil," "heroic," and "unbelievable"--the four adjectives of the apocalypse.  

I'm calling these words the four adjectives of the apocalypse because they inevitably surface to characterize people, events, and actions associated with calamitous moments terrible and transformative enough to suggest apocalypse, at least temporarily. Moments that end lives, alter lives, and alter the ways we see and understand. Moments that we don't choose and that define us, always through tremendous pain.  

Given the reality of these moments, perhaps I should say that if we're lucky, they alter the ways we see and understand in some constructive ways. Because if we understand more fully why, where, when, and how humans and nature create such calamitous moments, we stand a chance of preventing at least a few of them, of nipping at least a few of them in the bud.

These four adjectives have been omnipresent in recent weeks and months because of the anniversaries of several of such moments: the first anniversary of the Marathon bombings, the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and various events leading up to it, and the fiftieth anniversary of JFK's assassination. Even more recently, they've been attached to three terrible events involving teenagers: the abduction of more than one hundred Nigerian schoolgirls, the California bus accident that claimed the lives of a number of teenagers optimistically en route to a college visit, and the South Korean ferry accident that has claimed the lives of so many young people because of the crew's criminal negligence.

Needless to say, there's much to feel about all of these events, and much to wonder. How might they have been prevented? Who would have cared enough to prevent them? Which could have been predicted? Which surprised few people--or no one? What thinking underlay each of them? What circumstances surrounded them? For so many of us our experiences of these events are shaped by what we learn of them from television, radio, the internet, newspapers, and magazines.  

Sometimes when we're busily assimilating the particulars and circumstances of these events, it's hard to know exactly what we're doing.  Are we simply curious and learning all we can about something spectacularly sad or horrible? Are we bearing witness out of respect for those affected and/or in preparation for responding effectively? Or are we watching as voyeurs who will readily exercise our abilities to step away or press the "off" button when the gruesome and tragic threaten to unhinge us, even momentarily? Some of us actively wonder what we would have done had we been present, hoping we would have been our best, bravest, most resourceful selves but knowing we might not have been. Yet others of us pay little or no attention to these or any events divorced form our personal worlds, dismissing them quickly from our consciousnesses when they do penetrate--sometimes even by using one of the four adjectives mentioned above to describe them and then discard them.

That's the real problem with these adjectives:  they are often used so handily, easily, and ultimately dismissively.  Used to classify people, events, and behaviors, they simultaneously pump us up with self-congratulatory emotion and analysis--and end the conversation. They make life experience manageable, predisposing us to a cultivated but rigid certainty that cements the privilege that comes with physical and emotional distance from catastrophe.

We love "good." We're often sure we're capable of it. But we seldom examine our commitment to it when we're asked not simply to help, but actually to empower people who are suffering and who are not like us economically, socially, racially, religiously, ethnically, linguistically, and/or artistically, etc. Confronted with the reality of difference, many of us choose to recognize it rather than to understand it because pursuing an understanding of it would inevitably require questioning our own assumptions about what is and what should be. 

When we judge people as "good" because they have done what we hope and believe we ourselves would have done, that's a sure sign that our definition of "good" needs challenging and examining.  We may end up with the definition with which we started, but we need to go to that place of exploring our commitment to our particular way of seeing, defining, and believing. That exploration can seldom happen authentically without our engaging with others who think differently from us, treat us with respect, and ask us to explain our ideas and attitudes.

The word "evil" raises other challenges. We may argue about how best to label deliberate atrocities and unintended murderous incidents, but heaven help us if our debate derails our efforts to prevent such events in the first place, or to act quickly and effectively in response to them when they do occur. If "good" overly allies us with those we label as "good," "evil" too easily allows us to wash our hands of those we consider to be "evil," thus to minimize or altogether ignore the factors that contributed to their hateful decisions and actions, and even to congratulate ourselves on our difference from them.

Religious texts complicate the issue: even though the story of Saul in I Samuel 16 recounts that God afflicted Saul with "an evil spirit" from God, I do not view evil behavior as emanating from people as a result of something implanted in them by God. I detest what the Tsarnaev brothers did, but I do not view it as an expression of "evil" rooted in either the divine or the satanic. Given the many potential sources of our conceptions of evil, I am grateful that Facing History and Ourselves*, in conjunction with Project Zero, is working to help teachers help students to "confront evil" as intellectual explorers capable of interdisciplinary inquiry; as individual human beings with personal meaning-making systems; and as local, national, and global citizens/community members inclined to informed activism.

"Heroic" is term used in Boston these days for anyone who plays a role in securing the physical and emotional safety of individuals and of our citizenry as a whole. We seem to classify those who risk their own lives either as a matter of course in their line of work and/or in a moment in which the lives of others are at stake as heroic. 

Camus' discussion of the relationship between heroism and common decency in The Plague is worth our considering if we're going to use this word regularly. First, the narrator describes a generous, dependable civil servant as having "nothing of the hero about him," even though his administrative efforts on behalf of the sanitary squads are crucial to their effectiveness. Later on, Dr. Rieux refuses to characterize his own medical efforts to combat plague as heroic: "I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency." "Common decency" and simply doing one's job must not be equated with heroism in Camus' world, though doing one's job under such circumstances is decidedly for the good.**

Recently, I've begun to wonder whether Boston's romance with heroes has more to do with the need to feel safe, protected, and cared for, actually and potentially, than with the need to be inspired during a dark time. On the other hand, perhaps active triumphs over fear are all acts of heroism:  we never really know what's at stake for a person who decides to stand up and tell his/her story or act with deliberate intent when staying home and/or doing nothing at all would feel so much safer on some level.

I have to say that when people describe a difficult situation as "unbelievable"--or "unimaginable"--and then change the subject to something more personally palatable, I get really angry. The enraged part of me wants to say, "Unbelievable? Unbelievable??? You see the bodies lying there. You saw the pictures. You heard the details in the report. What's not to believe?" I wouldn't mind so much if people said instead, "I can't bear to imagine this" or "I'm really overwhelmed by this." I could at least respect their honesty, even if they then went on to say, "And I refuse to imagine this," which would be the most important honest thing they could say.

What better indicator of privilege is there than one's having the choice of whether to imagine, believe, encounter the details of an atrocity, or of anything disagreeable? The point that Northeastern University's Jeffrey Burds made at the Facing History and Ourselves "Confronting Evil" Day of Learning was that if we mean to eradicate inhumanity and atrocity, we all need to overcome the "gag reflex" we experience when we encounter sickening evidence of that inhumanity and atrocity:  those who are committed to understanding evil with the intent of working against it must look closely at and inquire purposefully into whatever evidence they can find of how people--all people--behaved and reacted. 

I know Burds is right; I'm scared that I'm not strong enough to do what he feels is necessary. That's my challenge.

Monday Evening, April 21, 2014
So already, the Boston Marathon has been run. The day proved to be joyous and celebratory, a hyped, ultra-vigilant version of Marathon Mondays prior to April 2013. The news commentators balanced their desires to convey the day's positive, triumphant excitement with their obligations not to declare the "people's victory" before the event concluded without incident.

I spent a good part of my day near but not in front of my television set:  just had to make sure we got beyond 2:49 with nothing more than the happy monotony of more anonymous runners crossing the finish line safely and victoriously. "Feels like a joyous exhale today," I heard the television newscaster say. I concurred.

I haven't given up hope that people can actually talk about difficult topics in ways that deepen everyone's understanding of them. I haven't given up believing that we can use powerfully expressive language--the four adjectives of the apocalypse--in helpful, responsible ways. 

While I worry about my ability to follow Burds' advice, especially on my own, there is something I am strong enough to do:  to help those difficult and important conversations, when they begin to happen, to take hold and develop enough to enlarge the thinking and perspectives of those who engage in them.  This will mean challenging the norms of social conversation which aim for pleasantness and agreeableness rather than authentic, respectful intellectual exchange. But I think I'm up to that.  "Unbelievable? Unimaginable? Really? I don't think so."

Screen shot of <http://pulitzercenter.org/event/facing-history-day-of-learning-jon-sawyer> page.
**p. 66 from uploaded Stuart Gilbert translation of The Plague by Albert Camus: http://evankozierachi.com/uploads/The_Plague_by_Albert_Camus.pdf


  1. Today's Boston Globe is such a curious combination of Marathon gratitude and celebration and deeply disturbing stories of unhinging events: mass killing in South Sudan based on ethnic differences; reports that 234, not 100, schoolgirls are missing in Nigeria; 33 more deaths in Iraq due to suicide bombings; more information to suggest that the South Korean death toll did not need to be nearly so high.

    One thing about retirement: so much more time to pay attention to such stories as they unfold, without any sense that paying attention is any more than just that: paying attention.

    The beautiful bright spot besides the Boston Marathon news: the Jewish-Cape Verdean Passover Seder in Roxbury.

  2. The former head of the Soviet biowarfare industry (Ken Alibek) wrote a book "Biohazard" describing his role and ultimate defection to the US. He was led to believe that he advanced a patriotic cause (good) because of the US (offensive) biowarfare industry (bad). After an exchange tour to the US where he learned the US lacked the animal facilities necessary for offensive biowarfare, he defected to the US (unbelievable) because the pay differential was enormous. I find nothing heroic about that...Where the 60,000 employees of the Soviet biowarfare industry relocated...nobody knows (20 countries?). Moral choice followed information, but maybe it was more about the Benjamins.

  3. Ron, I looked up Ken Alibek after I read your comment because I knew nothing about him. So many of the summaries of "Biohazard" laud his choices to defect and to write; Wikipedia, however, describes it as a "semi-romanticized auto-biography," so they share some of your skepticism about his moral and heroic stature.

  4. Joan,

    Your examples are different in kind.

    The genocide and terrorism seem to have things in common, but the ferry disaster (greed and callousness) I would put in a different category. The bus accident a different category still.

    The trick about evil ideology is that it is usually suffused with self-righteousness, and it is the appeal to self-righteousness that gives it its power of appeal.

    When you are blowing people up at a finish line, you cannot feel noble about it if you are blowing up people. It has to mean something different from what it "really" is.

    It has to be in service of some notion of glory.

    In the name of patriotism. In the name of God. Something abstract.

    For many years, I have had contempt for glory, and I have believed that it is the duty of a friend to show people their options in specific, mundane terms.

    It is one reason that I have a lingering antagonism to all religions, even though I know that many religious people have accomplished good things, and sometimes in part because of their religious belief.

    All people want to feel good about themselves, justified. Especially people in crisis, who are desperate to avoid humiliation and fear. If they are angry too (usually are), it is not that hard to mobilize people with self-righteous slogans. Not that hard to demonize "them." Makes the atrocities seem like the next logical step, and a matter of self-defense and righteousness.

  5. Hi, Jim --

    Your comments about the "different categories" of some terrible events parallel some of the sorting challenges those of us on the "evil integration" team have been facing. All sorts of questions about intention, degree, etc. And different academic disciplines seem more and less interested in various examples of terrible things.

    What we hadn't talked about yet was the "glory" dimension of self-righteousness, several notches up from smugness and self-satisfaction aspects of self-righteousness, to say the least. We need to talk about self-perception and other-perception in regards to this. Will share with the team.