Near the end of her book on war photography, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag examines a common criticism of the media’s portrayal of conflict: namely, that the saturation of graphic images in news outlets “desensitizes” the viewer to violence. On its face, this idea seems simple enough, but as Sontag points out, there is a troubling side to it.
If we observe violence without experiencing it ourselves, do we have any right to become desensitized?
An analogous argument often gets leveled against activist groups — on this campus and elsewhere — who speak a language that can startle or unsettle those unfamiliar with it. If you use words like “trauma,” “rape” or “violence” with such frequency (the reasoning goes), don’t you rob them of their meaning? Don’t you distract from the “real” instances of trauma, rape or violence by putting them on the same level as (allegedly) “minor” harms, or infringements on dignity?
There is a sense in which this argument, or a version of it, is extremely important. It is entirely possible for navel-gazing actors to appropriate the language of marginalization, in an attempt to divert attention and resources from those who need them most — for example, protesting the conviction of Peter Liang (the Asian-American police officer who fatally shot Akai Gurley) on the grounds that a white officer would have gotten off scot-free.
But there is another possible dimension to this argument that is more disconcerting. The phrase “This word has lost its meaning” can sometimes translate to “This word doesn’t mean much to me, because I can’t really believe that what you’re describing is as bad as you say.” This kind of argument presumes that it is the speaker’s responsibility to couch her/his pain in terms that are acceptable, to maintain the listener’s attention by conforming to that listener’s preconceived notions of the pain’s degree, frequency or validity.
The problem, of course, is that the truth has a nasty habit of straying outside our comfort zones. Violence isn’t always as graphic as a person getting shot or beaten (and even when it is, we notice it selectively); rape and sexual assault are much more common and often more insidious than movies or TV shows would have us believe; trauma encompasses a whole spectrum of pain, much of it invisible.
When such language is used, it often comes from personal experience, and sheds light on aspects of our society we might rather not acknowledge. As listeners, such words may sound alien to us, and that is precisely the point. Racism, sexism, classism and other kinds of identity-based marginalization create different categories of experience. There is no default state of being in which safety is the norm and danger the exception. There are many, some in which violence is so prevalent that “violence” is often the only word that fits.
To listen well requires that we realize this. Empathy has real and tight limits, and insisting on mutual understanding as a prerequisite for believing someone else can be extremely destructive. It may be difficult to wrap one’s head around the idea that violence or trauma could be so woven into the fabric of someone else’s existence. However, much more often than not, the appropriate response is concern, rather than skepticism; action, rather than indifference.
There is, of course, a meaningful difference between experience and the ideology derived from it, and the latter can be (mindfully) argued and criticized. But when someone recounts what they have been through, the burden falls on the listener to be attentive and open-minded; to be aware of what she/he cannot know; and to commit to reducing harm.
Henry Robinson is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at email@example.com .