Dwelling on our own suffering makes us blind to the pain of others
Family members of victims console each other as they gather to pay their respect at the reflecting pool at Ground Zero during the eighth anniversary commemoration ceremony / Reuters
On Sunday, New York will pause to remember and honor the victims who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center 10 years ago. Not as grandly as we did on the first anniversary of the attacks, of course. But that's as it should be. The wounds were fresh then, so the drama and emotion were both much higher. More than 3,000 people died in a single morning, and the images of people voluntarily jumping to their deaths is seared in our collective memory; a graphic reminder of just how horrific the attacks and their damage were. But the damage of 9/11 went beyond those actually killed. And the challenges facing the survivors are more complex.
Some of the people participating in the anniversary events in New York (and in others commemorating those killed on Flight 93 in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon) will be literal survivors of those attacks. Others will be family members who were, by association, either emotional victims, or survivors, or both, depending on how you look at it. In truth, all Americans are peripheral survivors, in that we were all traumatized by the events of that day and had our lives impacted and changed by their fallout.
And yet, while all that is true, and the honoring and commemoration of our individual and collective loss is both legitimate and appropriate, we should still approach our identification with being victims or survivors with a healthy dose of caution.
At the end of June, I attended an unusual summit conference sponsored by Google Ideas, The Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival. Titled the "Summit Against Violent Extremism," it brought together some 200 people who had been involved in, or had been affected by, violent extremism of one kind or another, from Islamic jihadists to nationalist fighters, to gang members, to neo-Nazi skinheads, to Colombian jungle rebels.
The organizers separated the attendees into two groups: "survivors" and "formers" (formers being former extremists). All of the attendees were now working actively to combat violent extremism. And the stories of loss among the survivors were heart-rending. But their inclusion in the conference implied a bit of moral preaching to the "formers": we, the victims, plead with you, the perpetrators, to feel our pain. And one of the most striking moments of the conference, for me, came near the end, when one of the organizers asked a former Islamist fighter (now a soft-spoken Imam in a London mosque who works actively against violent extremism) if he'd ever had someone with a survivor's perspective speak at his mosque.
"I would like to make a couple of points," the Imam answered quietly. "First of all, I HAVE suffered. My little brother was killed, and I have lost 22 relatives in war. So," he said, gesturing to a survivor on the same panel, "I know about personal suffering in the same way as you have done."
That one, simple interchange conveyed two powerful and cautionary lessons about the hazards of victim and survivor-hood.
When tragedy or violence strikes us, we are victims of it. And if we survive it we are, by definition, survivors. I nearly died at the age of 20 when the car I was in was struck at high speed by an angry, drunk young man who'd just lost his job. The path back from that darkness, physically and emotionally, was painful and long. The good news is, humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient. You go on from tragedies. You just don't go on intact, or the same. And the self that you drag and pull forward from a tragedy feels (and sometimes is) so battered and imperfect that there can be great strength from acknowledging the injustice of what happened (I was a victim) and the difficulty of coming back from that (I am a survivor). It can help a battered soul heal.
But if those labels become part of our longer-term identities instead of just phases of healing, the focus on our own pain and suffering can blind us to the pain and suffering of others. The suffering of a mother whose innocent child was killed in the Twin Towers, while unique, is not more or less than the suffering of a mother whose innocent child was killed by a bullet or bomb, regardless of who fired it, dropped it or set it off, in Iraq, Pakistan or any other place in the world.
The interchange at the conference was also a cautionary reminder about the dark places where a sense of victimhood can lead. Many of the "formers" were also victims, and survivors, of injustice and violence of a different sort. But their righteous sense of their status as victims took them down a road where, at some point, any reaction became, therefore, justified.
Nahum Pachenik, one of the "formers" at the conference who described himself as "born into conflict" as the child of Israeli settlement pioneers near Hebron, even joked a bit about the victimhood rivalry between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"The two sides have very similar thinking," he said. "[They say] 'We are the victim.' 'No, WE are the victim.'No. We are MORE the victim.'"
Victimhood is wonderfully appealing, Pachenik said, because "in the victim position, you don't have to admit anything, because all of the responsibility is on the other."
Nevertheless, Pachenik finally came to the conclusion that if he wanted to move away from the stalemate of violence around him, he had to give up the comfort of victimhood for the tougher and more challenging path of knowledge. He now runs an organization that strives to promote better knowledge and understanding between Palestinians and Israelis... starting with learning each other's language.
"Knowledge," Pachenik said, "is the opposite of the position of the victim. Today, I believe it is more important to promote education. It's important to learn the language of the other. Because if you do that, there is, maybe, a place to meet."
The victims of 9/11 who did not survive will always be victims, and should be honored and remembered as such. But even they wouldn't want to be remembered, or identified, solely by the label of "victim." As for the rest of us... well, we are survivors. But we are -- and need to be -- far more than that if we want to stop the cycle of violence that helps cause attacks like that in the first place. It's a tempering point worth remembering, even as we pause to honor the lives and memory of those who died.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
This is a low-stress way to ease back into the ancient art of blogging. Our leaders, from J.J. Gould to Chris Bodenner, have explained the logic behind this new feature on The Atlantic’s site here. My colleagues, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, have gotten into the swing of things as you will read.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
What it's like to look for romance when "a big smile can be frightening"
The way to Paulette's heart is through her Outlook calendar. “Honestly, if you want to be romantic with me, send an email through Outlook and give me all the possible dates, locations, and times, so that I can prepare,” she said.
The former Miss America system contestant and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music-trained opera singer knew she had a different conception of romance than her previous boyfriends had and, for that matter, everyone else.
“People tend to think of romance as spur of the moment and exciting,” she told me. “I think of romance as things that make sense and are logical.” However, she didn't know why until this year when, at the age of 31, when she was diagnosed with autism.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A taxonomy of how we talk about class and wealth in the United States today
Last week, President Obama went on the road promoting an economic agenda for the middle class. As expected, John Boehner and other Republicans fired back by charging Obama with “squeezing the middle class.” It’s not even an election year, yet “middle class” is hotly contested linguistic real estate. But nobody seems to know what this term means.
“Middle class” remains our favored self-designation, although the percentage of Americans who select it fell from 53 percent in 2008 to 49 most recently, according to Pew Research. As a friend’s high-school teacher loved to say, “The great thing about America is that everyone can be middle class.” Good thing she wasn’t teaching math.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.