To open the discussion on the ways atrocity gets hashed out in popular culture, I’d like to briefly discuss my own confrontation with public discourse, namely through the popular responses I’ve received when I answer the following:
“So what are you studying for your PhD?”
I always hesitate when I’m asked this question. Granted, the ability to frame my dissertation in 10 seconds is a requisite skill, my short answer — atrocity literature — has proven to be somewhat of a conversation stopper. Strike that…it’s actually more like the ultimate party buzz kill.
The responses I’ve received from such a topic have surely ranged from the antagonistic to the flippant, but most follow one of the following three conversations:
Them: “Ew…that’s depressing…”
Me: Ah yes, depression. That is but one response to the suffering of others.
Them: “How morbid! Why would you ever want to study that?”
Me: Well, when considering what would be an important topic to devote years of study, it was a toss-up between kittens and killing and, silly me, I chose the latter!
Them: “So what’s your favorite genocide?” (Actually a question I’ve been asked multiple times, usually by boys trying to be witty and flirtatious.)
Me: Oh baby. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.
I’ve experimented with relevant come backs, attempts to educate, attempts to sympathize, sarcastic attempts to alleviate my own annoyance, but mostly I’ve begun to psychoanalyze these responses to atrocity. Besides being the initial impetus for this blog, I feel they provide a window into the most common coping mechanisms employed in popular culture for dealing with anything we find uncomfortable. And boy, there’s nothing that seems to bring out the awkward more than atrocity. One woman, for example, started listing all the aid organizations she was contributing to, as if my choice of study designated me as her personal human rights confessor.
On the whole, I’ve come to realize that these reactions are primarily covers for the same emotion: shame. We feel shame when confronted with the disparity between our relative privilege in the midst of the ongoing occurrence of atrocity. By privilege, I mean the ability one has to influence the course of one’s life. Another word for privilege is agency: The ability to make choices for oneself…to move. It is the possibility of social movement that has become so engrained in the ethos of the American middle class. This is the American Dream.
My students in a World Literature course were particularly irked to learn that the popular sentiment, “Honey, you can become anything when you grow up,” is not a universally available maxim for the world’s children. They were reading about the Guatemalan genocide through the autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, written by the famous (and famously controversial) Guatemalan activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Rigoberta Menchú.
I feel I have a license, nay, a responsibility, in this pop culture-meets-atrocity blog to rip the most famous line from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” True? Yes. But I believe that the truth of this trope depends greatly on how it is applied. Adopted willy-nilly and we simply become overwhelmed and paralyzed by the woes of the world. Or worse, we attempt to take them on by transforming into imperialist white saviors, wrecking geopolitical havoc with our good intentions. Note: If you haven’t seen The Whistleblower, I recommend it in terms of content (and yes, I still believe in the UN, just not in the ability of some of us to keep it in our pants).
Instead, I think becoming aware of one’s power or agency in the world means learning how to use agency wisely and that responsibility starts close to home. It begins within our individual spheres of influence. Determining how to best contribute within our individual spheres of influence? The most effective way I’ve found is choosing to live the intentional and examined life.
So, like concentric circles, perhaps overcoming the world’s greatest villains begins with solving what we consider monstrous in our communities, which in turn emanates from an examination of what is monstrous within ourselves.