Abstraction is the Root of all Evil

In the course Children and War we showed a movie today called “The Invisible Children,” documenting a 2003 journey of some young Americans first to Sudan and then Uganda to find out what is going on in that part of the world.   The film was powerful; not only do we see how three apparently average young adults (early 20s, I’d guess) suddenly decide to head to Africa to learn about the violence and unrest there, but it’s recorded on their camcorder, not an official documentary.

In it we meet the children affected by the war in Uganda.  That war has been going on for over 20 years, with tens of thousands of children abducted in order to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a group that claims to be “inspired by the Holy Spirit” but in reality is a hyper violent rebel force in northern Uganda.   The film documents the hundreds of children who, without adult assistance, walk miles every night to sleep in relatively safety in the bigger towns, taking shelter so that they are not kidnapped by the rebels.   Many are former child soldiers who have committed atrocities but are now trying to build a new life, others simply want to survive.  They have little, they live in squalor, and there are no schools or long term hope.

The film was graphic and moving.   We got to know the children by name as the film makers conducted in depth interviews.  They also showed numerous scenes of children dancing, praying, singing praises to God (they are mostly Christian) for having survived another day, and playing.  Somehow, despite the horror, the children do experience a lot of joy in their lives.

Yet the most riveting parts of the film were the points where children talked about their experiences, their dead siblings or family members, and their fears.   When the film was over, we were going to have class discussion.   As I looked at the class I saw that everyone was in tears, even five minutes after the film was over the faces of the students looked traumatized, as they were unable to talk.   Even the other instructor was unable to say anything.   A couple of students who had seen it before were less affected, as was a student from Nigeria.  But the rest simply stared out and continued to grab for tissues.

I then asked the class a question.  I note that I’ve talked about the conflict in Uganda to other classes.  I’ve given the number of child soldiers, talked about the war in southern Sudan (not to be confused with Darfur) for years, and even mentioned the children who have to commute to safety every night.  But never has any class reacted like this.  Why?   One woman, who would remain after class still in tears, finally said “we didn’t know them.”

In my classes I often use films and novels to go along with facts about a conflict or intense poverty.   When you get to know the names of children and see what their lives are like, it is much more gripping than being handed statistics.

I tried for awhile to get discussion going.  I related these emotions back to the Chris Hedges book we read earlier in the semester, War is a Force That Gives us Meaning, where he gives a graphic account of his years as a Pulitzer prize winning war reporter, showing how the myth of war and its enticing and addictive character hides the utter horror of its reality.  In the end he argues that love is the only force that can truly give us meaning that matters.   (I had a blog entry based on Hedges’ book last month.)

The students were saddened and sickened by the film because they saw other humans like themselves, children like their siblings or themselves a few years ago, living lives that should not be wished upon anyone.   They connected with the experience; even in a brief one hour film, these kids were real.  I pointed out that one cannot love a statistic or an abstraction.  Saying “there are 25,000 child soldiers in Uganada” is meaningless.  You can make a note of it, or think, “gee, that sucks,” but there is no emotional connection.  The same goes for war.   You can say “over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the last five years,” but that won’t get near the emotional reaction as having a young man or woman from ones’ hometown become a casualty of war.  One you know; the others are abstractions.

Abstraction is the root of all evil.  It allows one to see others are objects, irrelevant and disconnected from oneself.  This happens unconsciously, one doesn’t overtly say “I don’t think Ugandan children matter,” one simply doesn’t notice their humanity.  It is only a number.    We often hear rationalizations for that lack of concern.  You can’t compare Africa to America.  They don’t value their lives as much as we value ours.  They are savage or primitive.   Their culture is just different.

Those rationalizations only work when you remain disconnected.  In all cultures and societies, once you start learning about the people themselves and their conditions, you quickly understand that we humans are, indeed, all the same species.  We share a common core of psychological and physical needs; the continuities across cultures are far more powerful than the variances between cultures at basic human levels.   One cannot watch three 12 year olds trying to study in the darkness while they are barely surviving poverty in a war zone and dismiss them as primitive or not valuing life.  One can’t hear their stories (we also read Ishmael Beah’s book Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier) and learn their perspectives while holding on to a notion that we really are fundamentally different or more valuable.

We live our lives in a world of abstractions.  Other humans are labels, objects to be competed against, or villains trying to rob us of our freedom and happiness.  Thus it is easy to lay blame, avoid responsibility, and rationalize our wants, desires, and acts that do harm.   We all do it.   Sometimes we imagine traits to others that are caricatures (‘that car that just cut me off is being driven by some arrogant asshole who showed total disrespect for me by nudging in front, damn it, I’ll pass him now!), other times we simply look away.  We become very adept at living in and as abstractions.  Reason and rational thought are powerful tools, and are quite at home with an abstraction based view of reality.

But in those moments where we are confronted with the reality of other peoples’ pain, suffering, and humanness, the abstractions fall apart.  We cry.   We hurt.   We look at our own lives and realize how pathetically petty we are in fretting about trivialities while others fight to survive and endure hardship after hardship.   Emotion connects us with our humanity.   But not just any emotion; as noted a few days ago, fascism relies on emotion for its appeal and ability to manipulate the public.  Advertisers know emotion sells far more than making an argument on why one needs a product.   No, emotion that connects us with humanity is that which breaks through the abstractions and causes us to honestly empathize with the perspective and experience of another, without judgment or distance.  That emotion is love, not a romantic love, not even an agape selfless giving love.  Rather, it is feeling that others are truly as important as oneself, with the same inherent value and life.   It transcends reason and rational discourse.

Today as I saw the looks on those faces, I realized that the class had experienced that strength of emotion — of love for others — through a one hour film put together by three young men who traveled to Africa with a camcorder to just try to learn what was going on.   That, combined with the scenes they had of African children dancing, praying and singing gives me a strong sense of hope.   Books and films can changes ones’ whole perspective on life and the world through evoking the emotion of love, even if it doesn’t feel like one expects love to feel.   In a world afflicted with problems that, if taken as a whole, seem horribly depressing and brutally unsolvable, hope matters.   Small steps matter.   Acts of kindness matter, even if one doesn’t see the results right away.

And, when the rational voice speaks up saying, “look, those problems are everywhere, don’t worry about it, you can’t change the world anyway, your actions don’t matter, donate a little to an organization and forget about the problem so you can focus on your day to day world,” recognize the rationality of that statement.  And then smash those abstractions away.   Saving the world may not be possible and isn’t necessary.   But to ignore the humanity of others and deny any connection is to deny ourselves of real love.  And that hurts everybody.

  1. #1 by mike lovell on December 4, 2008 - 20:41

    A very interesting post, Scott. Very well written, in the fact that through even this writing of others’ experiences, you communicate the raw emotion of humanity to us readers, at least me.

    When I was little, I was a kid with no name of my own (in my own mind) but the name which was given to me by those who chose to pick on me. It created a duality within my personality. There was me, confronted by the reality of these people, that eventually just went with it, and even used self-depracation as a tool to justify their opinions, while attempting outwardly to take the sting out of it all, or usurp the power of their presence. Then there was the other side of me, enamored with the thought of the military, steeped deeply into the reading about war with adult level books at a single digit age. I used to shock my mom when people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my response was sniper (at the age of 7). I learned to survive somewhat within the loner state, yet craving the ultimate power of fear over others by eliminating personal emotion and objectifying them as nothing more than targets.
    I joined the Army when I was 17. I made brotherly connections with some of my fellow soldiers, yet maintained a certain disconnect, full well knowing they could die in the midst of battle, and that I could not let myself be affected emotionally or mentally. My sole purpose was to become that merchant of death, the cold blooded killer who went forth to do his duty, and then bed down to sleep with a clear conscience. Afterall, inside I had already died, which according my thought process meant I would be the most effective soldier out there. Kill or be killed, all while performing under pressure to save lives of my brothers. I once had the martyr mindset. that if in battle, I would be the one to take a bullet, or lay on a grenade to save one of my brothers in arms, that maybe, after I left my physical life, some part of me might be recovered that I had lost long ago, that someone would remember me as a genuine hero. Posthumously of course, as I didn’t put much stock in those medals they hand out. These were, deeply ingrained, the ultimate goals I had in life.
    My now wife, gave birth to our first son a week after I turned 20. I just knew I wasnt ready to be a father. We had set up the adoption process, which had almost gone through. While in the hospital, they asked me if I wanted to hold my son, Joshua. I truly became afraid I was going to break the baby, as he was so tiny. But I sat down and they laid him into my arms. I can’t really describe the feeling. But it was as if some long-frozen ice had begun to melt, as I realized he was mine. It took a bit, but I began to realize that he really was MY son, not this unknown couple, and that suddenly the helpless little infant was my new responsibility in life. That maybe this love and new life was the true purpose of my life, which I had so long ago rejected. HE was no longer a mere IT.

  2. #2 by Eve on December 6, 2008 - 00:34

    Put another way, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” We can’t hate until we separate ourselves somehow, can we?

    The daughter of a family friend is one of the directors for this film project. I agree, it’s a moving and inspiring look into life on the other side of the world.

  3. #3 by Juliano on September 21, 2010 - 15:30

    Really beautiful insightful article. I completely agree. Same goes for ‘the homeless’—that label or phrease creates the idea of this group who are ‘other’—–it can create this image.
    A member of Youtube is making videos where he goes round and makes videos of people awho are ‘homeless’ and asks if they will share with the viewers about thier life, and just as you say this takes them out of that category’ ‘the homeless’ and there is a human being, just like me, just like you.

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