Questions of Perspective
From a distance, a mountain range can appear as an undifferentiated mass””a sheer wall in which the foothills and the peaks cannot be distinguished. For the mountaineer, standing in the middle of the range, the contours of the summits and valleys, the differences in height and gradient from one peak to the next, are far more salient.
So it is with human suffering and atrocity. From a faraway vantage point, the distinctions between different kinds of war and violation are merely the legal scaffolding for assaulting the heights of evil. From this distance, any attempt to make moral or practical distinctions between intense war, and low-intensity conflict, or between mass starvation unto death and heightened death rates due to increased malnutrition, is irrelevant or immoral.
But for those who have seen these peaks and slopes close up, the specific contours of depravity take on far more importance. Soldiers, human rights fieldworkers, and experienced relief practitioners, make judgements about the nature and scale of human disaster that would seem morally repugnant to those who don’t share their experience. There is a danger that over-exposure to the extremes of inhumanity can dull one’s moral sensibilities, and it always salutary to be reminded of how these disasters look to those with fresh sensitivities. But there is a difference between a landscape painter and a mountain climber, and it is clear who we want to guide us down from the highest passes.
At high elevations, some truths can be seen with utter clarity, even while others are obscured. Degrees in the calibration of human atrociousness become apparent””even self-evident””which might otherwise escape our notice or be dismissed as distasteful or unethical. For some who had witnessed the Holocaust, or narrowly escaped, it was a defining singularity in world history””the sole case in which every individual member of a nationality was to be eliminated. It may be morally problematic, to distinguish between the attempted absolute eradication of a people and the “˜mere’ attempt to kill enough people to destroy its social or political significance. But for those whose minds were forged in the intolerable extreme of the Nazi Final Solution, these are no mere gradations in depravity. They define the event itself.
What appear to be summits can turn out to be blind summits. Fifteen years ago, when at least half a million Rwandese were murdered in April 1994 alone, those who were present believed they had ascended to the peak of human depravity, only to find that beyond it lay higher reaches of cruelty that surpassed their imagination.
Those who have lived through, or closely studied, the Eritrean and Ethiopian wars of liberation (and seen the town of Hausien, where the Ethiopian airforce killed 1,800 marketgoers in a single day in 1988), or the Somali wars (where the city of Hargaisa was left without a single roof or habitable building), or Uganda’s Luwero Triangle (where the villagers made small pyramids of skulls by the roadside), or the massacres perpetrated by Hissene Habre in the weeks before he was driven from power, or indeed the Ethio-Eritrean front line (where perhaps 80,000 young people died) and earlier episodes in the Sudanese civil war, think differently about Darfur. It is not that we are dulled to the horror or fatalistic about its inevitability. Darfur is as good a place as any to mobilize the outrage to start stopping such atrocities. But, we more readily make assumptions about what will work and what will not, and more ready to accept imperfect endings as a way station to lasting solutions. We are more acutely aware of the limits of capability of foreign actors, of the likelihood that ethical agendas will be misinterpreted and will play out in complex ways, and more likely to advocate approaches based on the craft of diplomacy rather than the immutable principles of rights.
The debate on this site about Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors has touched on the question of knowledge and ignorance, with charged comments being made on both sides. There is a danger that each side will fail to appreciate the experiential basis of the other’s knowledge.
Many people (archetypically, “˜activists’) can be highly knowledgeable about faraway places that they have visited briefly if at all. Theirs is not a factual ignorance, it is a difficulty of choosing which patterns are salient, and therefore the related difficulties of translating their empirical knowledge into political judgement about what is possible. It is also often a problem of failing to recognize incomplete success–including their own success in helping mitigate the worst. A question of perspective, in short. The fact that we might have descended from the altiplano to the foothills is, for some distant observers, not worthy of any commendation””we still have some way to descend. A reduction in killing by nine-tenths is not a cause for celebration but a cause for outrage that it is not a reduction by ten tenths.
For the Sherpa, by contrast, what matters are the peaks we have skirted, or climbed down from, and those that still may lie ahead.
Those of us who have spent our careers on the comparative ethnography of disaster and the design of (imperfect) solutions, consider that our craft is more akin to mountaineering than to jurisprudence or theology. But we have not done a good job of communicating this. Our language is deficient, our explanatory capacities too limited. Besides, we have other climbers to talk with.
It is common for war veterans to find they can only properly communicate with their former comrades in arms, the unspeakable experiences they shared giving a meaning to their conversation, hidden to others. Something similar can happen with mediators.
The two leading Americans who have visited Sudan this month””Special Envoy Scott Gratian and Senator John Kerry””are practitioners of the art of the possible (not to mention war veterans), with a sound appreciation of the progress achieved in Sudan over the last four years. So far, activist criticism has been muted””they are, after all, representatives of the Obama Administration, and will be given the benefit of the doubt for a short while at least. But more important than any partisan politics is the fact that the change of administration means that today, the activists and the policymakers are often close friends and colleagues””and need to explain things to one another.
The lack of public outrage among the advocacy groups over Gratian’s and Kerry’s trips may be a sign that the “˜Save Darfur’ movement (in its wider sense) is maturing. I hope so. I have always found that many in its middle ranks (chiefly undergraduate students) are reflective and distrustful of any attempts at moral oversimplification. Those qualities are particularly needed now.
The new Administration with its refreshing approach to international relations gives the activist movement and its cheerleaders a great chance to prove their critics wrong.