By Sara Loo
How our lack of action actively fuels conflict and suffering
As I was sorting through piles of notes from past years before returning to Menton, I chanced upon a handout I was given for a Language Arts class a couple of years ago. It was a speech by Eli Wiesel, “The Perils of Indifference”, given on 12 April 1999, as part of the Millennium Lecture series hosted by the White House at the turn of the century. A Holocaust survivor, Wiesel gave a powerful reminder of the consequences of indifference in relation to his own experiences in an extermination camp in Poland.
We are on the threshold of a new century, a new millennium. What will the legacy of this vanishing century be? How will it be remembered in the new millennium? Surely it will be judged, and judged severely, in both moral and metaphysical terms.
Close to twenty years after the turn of the century—myself being born during this period— we can allow for some introspection about how we have judged the previous 100 years and learned from our experiences. On a positive note, it was the conviction of statesmen not to repeat the “failures that have cast a dark shadow over humanity” that gave birth to international institutions which have expanded and are still in place today. It was from the atrocities of the past century that increased international efforts of peacekeeping emerged. It was also from the previous century’s massive death tolls that our threshold for physically violent behaviour decreased; for the most part, any act that violates agreed upon fundamental human rights is unacceptable by the international community.
And together we walk towards the new millennium, carried by profound fear and extraordinary hope.
Indeed (examining the present situation in the examples Wiesel cited) humanity seems to be better off—Pol Pot is no longer in power nor is Vietnam executing a Cambodia invasion 2.0; India and Pakistan are no longer in the phase of full-fledged war nor is Northern Ireland still in the situation of political deadlock after the Good Friday Agreement; Kosovo has gained independence while Eritrea and Ethiopia have finally signed a joint declaration formally ending border conflict on 9 July at the bilateral Summit this year. These courses of events may aptly illustrate Wiesel’s optimistic look to the future.
In fact, for a group of advanced thinkers, we are in the era of Long Peace. Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2012, used global statistics of the number of conflicts and deaths to suggest that violence has been in decline over the course of human history and even more so over the past decades. Responding to criticisms of a reversal in decline since Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Ukraine, Pinker remained convinced, publishing a response piece a year later admitting that battle deaths in conflicts did increase from 2012 to 2013, but remain few in comparison to past decades.
Fig1. The decline of violence in the past decades, according to Pinker
The argument goes that we believe this age is more violent than before only because of recent memory rather than global data. This sentiment is exacerbated by journalists who cherry pick the most violent place in the world, for none would report on non-violence. In the same vein, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer observes that altruism is “an emerging movement” with the potential to fundamentally alter the way humans live. This optimistic outlook seems to suggest that the ultimate legacy of the past century is a more unified and peaceful world, undermining the vices of violence and indifference.
So much violence, so much indifference.
The ending or petering out of conflicts does not preclude the emergence of new ones—this point is acknowledged. Yet these new conflicts, while indeed producing fewer deaths, similarly do not point to a less violent world for the quantifiable and measurable aspect of violence is only limited to the physical. The decreasing number of deaths from conflicts matters less when compared to the sheer number of victims directly or indirectly a product of conflicts. Political philosopher John Gray, in an article for The Guardian, challenges Pinker’s claims and rightly asserts, “there are many kinds of lethal force that do not produce immediate death.” How are we to quantify the emotional burden of forced displacement from Syria? How are we to measure the degree of suffering of children in Vietnam born with handicaps because of the lasting legacy of Agent Orange? Can we conclude that the systematic violence and denial of citizenship of the Rohingyas make them better off than victims of mass executions by the state? The debate today is not so much over numerical deaths, but the moral burden of the world with regards to whatever violence still exists. Johan Galtung’s definition of violence gives us a more holistic view— be it physical, structural or cultural. According to Galtung, “violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realisations are below their potential realisations”. This means that violence is the failure to act to our full potential, thereby creating a gulf between what could have been and what is. As such, if today’s international institutions could have prevented mass displacement but it happened anyway, there is violence. In this sense, statistics can hardly account for violence. This definition, therefore, also suggests that given the significantly superior financial and technological resources as well as more coherent rules-based international institutions than before, the gulf between what could have been avoided and what happened is widening. This points to an increase in violence.
The depressing tale of the St. Louis is a case in point. Sixty years ago, its human cargo—maybe 1,000 Jews—was turned back to Nazi Germany. And that happened after the Kristallnacht, after the first state-sponsored pogrom, with hundreds of Jewish shops destroyed, synagogues burned, thousands of people put in concentration camps. And that ship, which was already on the shores of the United States, was sent back.
Sadly, not only is violence increasing, indifference still plagues the world. We can see an uncanny resemblance between the indifference Wiesel observed of the 20th century and that of today. The depressing tale of the St. Louis does not seem very different from Italy turning away several rescue boats after the rise of the far-right party under the leadership of Matteo Salvini. The most recent instance being just the 20th of September when Salvini commented: “I say it again and again: go wherever you want, but not to Italy.”
What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means “no difference.” A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.
In fact, we have gone a step further than indifference for while indifference suggests passivity and the lack of action, we have become complicit in propagating structural violence and well-intended exploitation. Going back to Galtung’s definition, given interconnectivity and our capacity to make a change from raising awareness to volunteering, our collective potential of tackling and avoiding conflict altogether has increased greatly. Yet, in our indifference, we are actively choosing to make a difference— for the worse. We are actively widening the gap between potential alleviation and reality; we are complicit in propagating violence. To Wiesel, failing to act despite being informed may have been the ultimate vice. This is still a problem, but what is worse today is the rampant phenomenon of voluntourism– for all our good intentions, we perpetuate violence in developing countries through irregular or one-off voluntary work, yet still believe that we have done good. Indifference today is, therefore, also the insufficient care about those we help and not following through with our provision of aid. It is indeed paradoxical that while I am clearly aware of the situation and distinguish myself from voluntourists, I have inevitably been a part of it at some point or another– perhaps I, like others whom I have seen, will never know of the destruction we have created, without being physically present to witness the after-effects. Sadly, the reality holds that as society progresses and as the world has more potential to prevent suffering, if we do not translate this potential into real actions proportionately, violence will only increase. This process of materialising our potential is precisely dependent on indifference or the lack of it.
James Rosenau in his book Turbulence in World Politics draws an analogy between the human heart undergoing fillibration and changes in micro and macro dynamics of the world. While he was referring to the collapse of the interstate system, the duality of change and continuity is equally applicable to global trends of violence and indifference. Just as the individual muscle cells work normally, we believe that we are residing in the time of Long Peace, of statistically declining violence and strengthening of institutions. Yet, just as the heart’s muscle writhes in a chaotic way that it cannot pump blood, our indifference today widens the gap between our increasing collective potential and relatively decreasing willingness to act, fuelling violence that increases exponentially. If we want to curb this pessimistic trend, we will not just have to act when we know about violence, but to act responsibly and thoroughly.