How about we do more than just ‘look at pictures’?
In a powerful speech on April 5, 2017, the new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, held up pictures of children who died as the result of chemical weapons being used against civilians in Syria.
When I look at these photos, even in the video, I am outraged. When I look at these photos being shared in my Facebook feed, I am outraged.
So why is using chemical weapons not an institutional outrage (looking at you, UN)? Why can’t someone (anyone?) in a position of power, feel the same outrage, and actually be compelled to act — to ‘fix’ or ‘rectify’ this outrage?
For this answer, I look to the great philosophers: Aristotle and Hannah Arendt (here’s my favorite work of hers).
And before you stop reading the rest of this article dreading imminent looming boredom at the reference to philosophers, please know that their answer is simple. In fact, I’ll sum it up in six words: compassion and fear are passive emotions. They don’t prompt action.
Let’s take it further.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 4th, chemical weapons were used on children, parents (mothers and fathers); chemical weapons were used on civilians — innocent bystanders unable to protect themselves or exhibit any mode of self-determination.
Such unwarranted suffering leads to the question: who makes up humanity (i.e. human kind)? Are they worthy of living? Are we worthy of living? Are they worthy of action to attempt to make sure this won’t happen again? Are we worthy of the same action?
Aristotle and Arendt agree on rather simplistic terms about the bounds of humanity: compassion and fear link each and every one of us as inescapable, unavoidable, shared human emotions (Arendt: 1970, 14). This link is crucial and yet, more importantly, an empty promise when it comes to generating a similar or unilaterally shared political will.
In ‘modern’ times, we have lost sight of the appropriate warning of Aristotle and his contemporaries: that compassion, just like fear, has an affective nature emotionally, but its powers aren’t necessarily prescriptive. Our emotions don’t always will us to action.
When trying to describe fear, Aristotle famously explains -
“When it is advisable that the audience should be frightened, the orator must make them feel that they really are in danger of something, pointing out that it has happened to others who were stronger than they are, and is happening, or has happened, to people like themselves, at the hands of unexpected people, in an unexpected form, and at an unexpected time.” — Aristotle (The Nicomachean Ethics Book 2, Chapter 5 )
The problem with arousing fear (or compassion) is that it leads to pity. Yes, this includes self-pity. So, if we trust Aristotle, we must recognize that we feel pity (either for others or for ourselves) when we feel fear.
Even the Roman philosopher Cicero tells us that Stoics saw compassion and envy in the same terms. Cicero famously asks: “Why pity rather than give assistance if one can? Or, are we unable to be open-handed without pity?”
Arendt agrees with Aristotle, questioning the effectiveness of pitying another person. She concludes: “The ancients regarded the most compassionate as no more entitled to be called the best than the most fearful. Both emotions, because they are purely passive, make action impossible” (Arendt, 1970: 15).
If we accept that compassion and fear are both passive emotions on the same spectrum, they certainly differ in either eliciting pleasure or pain. Experiencing the emotion of compassion is (likely) an enjoyable experience, prompting a positive or uplifting sense of common humanity, whereas experiencing shared fear likely is a more startling experience.
So if pleasure and pain differ on their affect on the individual, what is their true link? Inaction.
Arendt writes, “the decisive factor is that pleasure and pain, like everything instinctual, tend to muteness, and while they may well produce sound, they do not produce speech and certainly not dialogue” (Arendt, 1970: 15–16).
Feeling compassion for children in a photo or in a video is not producing speech or starting a constructive dialogue. This is what we need to be aware of, so we can be consciously willed to action.
Who is making these decisions to use chemical weapons? And who is holding these decision makers accountable for their actions when people die from such decisions?
These are the two questions that concern me. These are the two questions that NO ONE is asking when reporting on the Syrian chemical weapon attack (here, here, here or here). We need to begin to uncover these answers with tangible action at the individual, community, government, and transnational levels.
Yes, it is incredibly sad that children died. Yes, it is incredibly difficult to look at pictures of dying children: but all this does is play into the sensationalized media game which characterizes our present reality. And by media game, I am not implying inaccurate or fake news, but rather merely the removed state of consciousness that we attribute to singled out victims, void of an existence in a greater structure of families, communities, and governments. This is not and will never be an isolated incidence.
We can’t ignore the fact that this chemical weapon attack happened, yet, instead, we’re ignoring the fact that without action it will happen again. Anyone else remember chemical weapons in World War I?
The only way to honor the lives of these children and families — these people that will never get their fair shot at life because of circumstances entirely outside their control — is to take substantial ramifications to change the power structures in which we live. It is not to look at their pictures with compassion and sadness and then simply go back to our daily lives.
Let’s not victimize the victims of the attack or merely feel pity for them. Let’s do something to honor their suffering — to make it mean something.
We must not forget the observations of Aristotle and Arendt: pity (whether stemming from fear or compassion) is a passive emotion. It prompts zero action.
Instead, let’s get angry: angry enough to do something — to act — on our emotions surrounding this tragedy. What legal structures can be put in place to prevent this once and for all? What can be done now to punish the chain of command responsible for this attack? Without privileging a single ‘bad apple’ in this scenario, we need to consider the group of people who carried out this raid: each pilot, each commander, and each government leader (looking at you, Assad).
Of course, you have the opportunity to do nothing at all. Arendt reminds us: “a great fascination upon all those who are so unashamed of the world is that they would like to take refuge in invisibility. An in invisibility, in that obscurity in which a man who is himself hidden no longer see the visible world either” (Arendt, 1970: 16).
I don’t know the answer in what is right or best to do, but I do know that it is important to at least try. We need to do more than merely force ourselves to watch disturbing videos or express sadness to family and friends. That is enjoying in compassion, but that is not an action in of itself towards justice. This is a matter of life or death — of impending, future life and death — and must warrant action.
I encourage you to watch the speech (at the end of this article) by the US’s new Ambassador to the UN: Nikki Haley.
To quote her speech:
“If we are not prepared to act, then this Council will keep meeting, month after month, to express outrage at the continuing use of chemical weapons, and it will not end. We will see more conflict in Syria. We will see more pictures that we can never un-see.
I began my remarks by saying that in the life of the United Nations, there are times when we are compelled to take collective action. I will now add this: When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action. For the sake of the victims, I hope the rest of the Council is finally willing to do the same.”
(To watch her full speech or to view the entire transcript, click here.)
Next steps: For now, the best thing I can think to do to act is to share my support for and solidarity with Ambassador Haley amid Russia’s blockade of the Security Council Resolution that would have led to an investigation of this chemical weapon attack. Without any scheduled investigation, I chose to donate to the people on the ground aiding the victims: https://www.whitehelmets.org/en.
In the other famous words of Aristotle: “Courage is a mean with regard to fear and confidence.” May courage pull us out of fearful inaction and will us to a more just tomorrow.
This article originally appeared on my Medium profile.