I am writing these words in my attic in the suburbs of Boston. Every time the wind howls, the apartment shakes a little. Enough to make your heart be surprised with each gust, but not enough to lose faith that the center will not hold.
I crawled out of bed this morning with the intention to continue reading for my dissertation on the politics of victimhood and the hierarchies of suffering that emerge in transitions from armed conflict. I have, instead, spent the morning browsing the news about Paris and Beirut and Baghdad, trolling social media for that one post that will help everything make sense or that will at least dislodge my heart from its place of numbness, even though I know better than that. I am consuming news almost mindlessly. The reports are on loop, reproducing narratives I have already heard while the authorities seek to unearth new information, and yet I cannot help but be glued to them, as though that is an act of meaning and use.
At a time like this, writing a dissertation–however eerily timely its topic may be–feels like an utterly useless endeavor in making sense of the ills of the world. This may sound like nihilism, but it is not. In the past seven years, I have also spent time as a humanitarian practitioner in conflict and post-conflict areas, feeling a similar helplessness. I have researched patterns of violence in armed conflicts: the paralysis was still there. Whether on the ground in a conflict-affected area or in a university, whether as a humanitarian practitioner or a researcher, if I have learned one thing from having to process acts of violence and the enormity of grief they invite into life, it is that for many of us, violence numbs a sense of usefulness in this world, replacing it with helplessness or powerlessness.
When that happens, I turn to Cynthia Enloe and her writing on feminist curiosity. We need to be curious about power, Enloe reminds us. And, she cautions, somehow all the explanations that feel useful, that ‘make sense’, often distance themselves from the lives of humans and how they experience violence. In The Curious Feminist (page 22, for those who, like me, are running to their bookshelves), she writes: “for an explanation to be useful, a great deal of human dignity has to be left on the cutting room floor.” So as I process the news and tweets and posts I scroll through, two thoughts emerge in my mind about power and human dignity. They exist alongside each other, though, like many truths in life, they may appear to clash.
A lot of my community, and I alongside them, is angry at the inequalities of care. Why do we notice Paris, but not Beirut, they ask? Their sentiment echoes the statements I have heard during my work in conflict areas and which provided the impetus for my dissertation on the politics of victimhood: Not all suffering is seen as such; not all victims are seen as equal. As Judith Butler would remind us, we need to ask: When is life grievable? And when are lives, losses, and bodies not considered as grievable as others? What are the politics at work that make us notice certain losses, but render others less visible?
At the same time, it feels like the response to this ought not be to invalidate grief for Paris or its many forms and displays. In that sense “do not pray for Paris – pray for ____” feels incongruent. Grief is not prescribed. Exposing how violence-related grief is political is a legitimate project. I am not sure how we expand our own spectrum of empathy, how we broaden our notion of grievable lives and make ourselves aware of the politics that render some losses marginalized or invisible, and I hope to dedicate my life to thinking about that question. But as someone who has experienced a multitude of other griefs and losses, my instinct is that the answer is not to dispute the truth of the pain for the grief we do feel.
My second thought relates to an implicit judgment of how people express solidarity, kinship, or sadness during these times, particularly in an era in which the private sadness one feels in her attic can become publicly conveyed through a series of interactions on the internet. In critical advocacy discourse, we often speak about the harmful illusion of the satisfaction of ‘having done something’ while actually having done nothing meaningful. We have a series of catchy names for this: ‘slacktivism’, ‘badvocacy’, ‘clicktivism’. And yet today, I hesitate to be too critical. Will changing one’s profile picture to the French flag for one day cause a cosmic shift in foreign policy? No. Will sharing the Eiffel tower-peace sign image defeat violent extremism? No. But if this is how people, in that moment, experience empathy or show care for fellow humans, let’s let them do that without policing the sentiment. Grief is paralyzing. An army of tricolor profile pictures may not be a policy response, but if it is a way to get through the day and signal kinship, let it be that. It feels like the world is in too much pain for us to patrol each other’s sadness.