Monthly Archives: July 2018

Bearing Witness

I never could get the hang of slapstick humor — the kind with pratfalls, where one character is always getting hit in the face with a door and we’re expected to laugh at their “clumsiness.” It always felt cruel; it was painful to watch, and it made me angry.

Several times this week, well-meaning people have told me that I shouldn’t be “so upset” about what the people in U.S. concentration camps are going through. That it’s not my place to feel pain for them. That they can understand why I’m thinking about it, but not why I’d feel it, since it’s not happening to me. That I’m not helping anyone by feeling horrified, by losing sleep over it, or whatever else may be going on with me.

Counterpoint: they’re fucking wrong. Being able to emotionally experience horror, or pain, or fear that is unrelated to one’s personal, physical situation is called empathy, and it is a feature, not a flaw. It is the foundation of compassion. Not becoming numb even after being exposed to a great deal of pain is a strength. Having an emotional response to someone else’s terror serves a purpose, both for me and for the people enduring hardship.

It keeps me human. It keeps me from being able to accept atrocities, from becoming inured to injustice. And that serves a purpose in society. Societies are made up of individual humans, and the moral compass of a society is built on its individual members’ compassion or lack of it.

Watching someone else get hurt should not be funny, or even acceptable. It should feel bad, and wrong. It should make us angry, or sad, or horrified, or all of these.

I feel a certain responsibility to read the hard reports, to watch the hard video, to listen to the hard audio. It’s only recently that I’ve understood why.

Part of our responsibility as resistors to oppression is to bear witness. That doesn’t just mean observing bad things; it also means feeling the weight of them, the emotional truth of what they are.

To make sense of atrocities, we have to feel what they mean, and that is what’s going on with me when I read the affidavits of people who have been separated from their families by the government of my own country, people who have been starved, and held prisoner in overcrowded conditions with tinfoil for blankets, and denied medical care, and denied even the ability to wash their bodies. People whose young children have been taken away — often far away — to be caged alone with other children, underfed, unbathed, uncared for.

I can’t begin to explain how upsetting this is, and I shouldn’t have to. You should know. We all should know. We all should feel it.

PS. Being very upset is not necessarily a sign of inadequate self-care. I take breaks from the twitter horrorstream, I ride my bike daily, I eat well, et al. It is simply a sign of still having a human heart, and that is a crucial tool for resisting cruelty and oppression.