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Jack Weinstein

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What ought we do when we learn the horrors of human history?

In my reading, movie viewing, talking with people, and day-to-day life, I encounter a lot of horror stories — terrible things foisted upon people by nature, politics, and war. When they are presented compellingly — when they move me — I always have the same reaction: “I have to tell my students about this.” This happened today.

I subscribe to a story-telling podcast called “The Moth,” which I enthusiastically recommend; a recent episode focused on a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. (All stories on the Moth are true, by the way, and told without notes.) If you don’t know about this period of history, the Killing Fields, or of Pol Pot, I suggest you take this opportunity to read up on them all. It is yet another chapter of a horrifyingly genocidal twentieth century. They’re important to know about and interesting in their own right.

But even if you don’t seek out more info, I would encourage you to listen to the podcast. It’s horrifying, naturally, but it is also very human and connects you to a person who you would never otherwise meet, an ordeal which, hopefully, you will never approximate. I’m not one for pornographic violence — there’s nothing about the story that is titillating or glorifies suffering. Some may call the end uplifting, but I’m not sure I can use such a word in this context. DON’T listen to it around children:

Click here to listen to The Moth episode, “The Refugees”

You can imagine all of the questions I had because of this episode. Why are people so horrible? Will we ever learn? What does genocide accomplish? What makes such a woman so strong? Would I have the capability to do what she did — or to even survive?  I will, of course, never think of pedicures and manicures the same way again.

But the other question that comes to mind is what my moral responsibility is now that I’ve heard this woman’s story? This is a different question than what should be done in the face of current horrors? All the events of this story took place in the past. They can’t be undone. This story is information,  and asking what to do with knowledge is a different kind of question.

As a teacher, my instinct is always to pass information on to others. I do this in class often, and I did it this season for the IPPL Art & Democracy film festival when I showed War Child. I felt it was a movie everyone should see. Others were less moved than I, others were less compelled to act, but at least people were exposed to and talked about the movie. That, I felt, was my part.

This desire to tell others is, I think, the legacy of post-holocaust prescriptions to “never forget” and to tell the victims’ stories. I believe that such information helps us understand that other people are real, that political strife is real, that the suffering of others matter, even when they are unknown or unconnected to us. It gives name to the nameless, recognition to the unrecognized. (Metaphysicians might ask about the worth of recognizing the dead if it does not impact them in any way, but that’s a separate question.) However, I do not believe that “those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it,” because plenty of people repeat what they know and plenty of others are too good to commit atrocities that hey had never heard of.

Surely, there must be more to my moral obligation than passing on stories. Information can be passed from person to person in perpetuity without changing behavior so telling stories just doesn’t seem to be enough. So, what else is there? Maybe I learn that if I were ever in absolute power, I shouldn’t be like Pol Pot. Maybe I will now avoid electing someone like Pol Pot or assisting in their acquisition of power. But if these are the lessons, they are either useless or trite. I’ll never have absolute power and I already know not to vote for a dictator. So, what else is there?

There are others answers, of course: give money to a related organization, go to Cambodia and offer my services, be grateful for what I do have and for what I or people I know haven’t had to endure. Yet, all of these are options, there is not moral obligation to do any of those things. Thus, the question I pose to all of you is, are there any moral obligations or moral duties that follow from hearing such a story? I don’t have an answer. I’d be curious to see if any of you do.

One comment on “What ought we do when we learn the horrors of human history?

  1. jez says:

    I was thinking of something like this when i visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin this summer. A strange memorial, as one might imagine, yet it takes on a really unsuspecting form for being the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” The strength of the language is really intense when you consider the simple form and playful nature of the memorial itself.

    (see here for info and photos: )

    people walk in and out of the maze of different-sized blocks which rise and fall in gradual waves over the site, and sometimes they climb on top of one to try to get a view into the maze before being called down by security; it really starts to take on the feel of something like a large playground in a way, fun to wander through the maze and unexpectedly run into strangers around the corners, and with little other than the name to denote what the memorial is for. I found that i really enjoyed the experience of the memorial, but was left unsure what it should mean to take pleasure in something that memorialized this horrific event. is there not some aspect of taking pleasure in this sad story which also makes one feel perverse? the pleasure itself seems to undermine the sense of obligation, perhaps because it seems to make it more for self-pleasure rather than doing the right thing for its own sake.

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