Our Passive Acceptance of Evil

I’ve been subjecting my unlucky, long-suffering wife to a string of intense foreign flicks. Most recently, In a Better World, which won the Oscar for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film. One reviewer explains that “the film examines the different ways people react to injustice, and looks at how what counts as ‘revenge’, as opposed to ‘justice’, is a matter of perception.” Watch it and let me know what you think.

How do you react to injustice? What, if anything, do you do when you see an adult hit a child in public? What, if anything, do you do when you learn someone is a victim of domestic abuse? What, if anything do you when your tax dollars make it possible for drones to kill bad guys and innocent civilians anonymously from the sky?

I know what you do when an evil person, family, or cadre in Zimbabwe or North Korea hits, impoverishes, and imprisons on a national scale. Nothing. Most people cope with the atrocities of those regimes by not paying attention to them. If we don’t even know where Zimbabwe and North Korea are, who Kim Jong-un and Robert Mugabe are, or what Zimbabweans’ and North Koreans’ lives are like, it’s so much easier to just make fun of how backward the countries are.

On the other hand, if we’re better than our popular culture, and press pause long enough to learn what life is like for fellow humans who were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s impossible to watch the North Korean succession without getting sick to your stomach.

The North Korean tragedy is nearly impossible to grasp, but here’s an imperfect analogy. If your politics are anything like mine, after John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, you had a few “Oh shit, there’s a possibility of an ill-informed, right wing dilettante becoming president” moments. Forget President Sarah Palin. Instead imagine if the vote was canceled and Jenna Bush was appointed President. Jenna, not Barbara because she revealed a greater capacity for cruelty. One of Jong-un’s alleged childhood pastimes was torturing small animals.

I miss Christopher Hitchens’ writing. This incredibly vacuous New Yorker essay on North Korea’s Kim Jong-il’s funeral ceremony/performance begs a question—who will fill his shoes? Without Hitchens’ passionate, populist voice the Kim Jong-un succession has even more of a feel of inevitability.

I get it, the immediacy of the evil in North Korea pales in comparison to the violence in our own neighborhoods and communities, but the scale of human suffering deserves more of our attention. We can and should be committed to a more peaceful and just 2012 both in our own communities and on the Korean Peninsula.

4 thoughts on “Our Passive Acceptance of Evil

  1. I’m teaching an on line course on the politics of developing countries now, and North Korea is getting a lot of student interest. I guess at this point I’m hopeful. This is a change, a break in what was a very resilient status quo. I’m hopeful China uses this moment to exert pressure on the North Korean military to break from their leader and take another path. Teaching international relations, where we talk about dictators, third world famines, wars, child soldiers, etc., I guess my response to evil is simply to try to get people to understand what goes on in the world. What I tell students who get really upset by all this and feel like they should do something is that they need to find ways they can make a small difference – join amnesty international, contribute to a fund to help rehabilitate child soldiers, etc. The thing is that if we hold the big evil in our heads — how horrible the North Korean government is — then we feel impotent because there is no way anything we can do can have an impact. But if we see evil as a condition that permeates humanity, it’s easier to see that the solution is not one person standing heroically against it, but a large mass of people doing small things that over time together chip away at its strength.

    Joining AI, being part of a human rights NGO or contributing a little to an organization (or doing some kind of campus fund raising) may seem a drop in the bucket, but enough drops fill a bucket, and we don’t know the long term impact of what we do. The best way to combat evil is to do little things that spread kindness and to assist even in small ways those doing something practical against it. We just have to have faith that in time these things add up, and the long term consequences of our acts (the butterfly effect) may be powerful, even if we never know the causal chain. That may be comfortable first world rationalizations that make it easier to deal with the headlines, but it seems to me to be the best we can do.

    • Thanks for the substantive thoughts Scott. My philosophy is the same. Of course the limit of the butterfly approach is the very slow pace of change. I’m curious about what environmental historians will write about GreenPeace. What has their more radical approach to change accomplished? The downside to radical approaches is groups like the Earth Liberation Front’s “ends justifies the means” use of violence. And civil disobedience only works with constitutional protections and a national conscience.

  2. I’ll vote for the polititian who pushes to fund armies of courageous journalists who investigate and write about the aforementioned evils in the the world. Issues of social justice need to be in the mainstream media so conversations at the dinner table about how we can make a difference in the world are the norm.

    • Thanks Kris! As you know, our government’s limited support for NPR and PBS are increasingly under attack. And private newspapers have all but eliminated their foreign bureaus so it’s not easy to stay informed. Especially when it comes to the black hole that is NK. Then again, the internet provides access to national papers and there are good special interest or country-specific blogs. Then again again, figuring out which are most credible is not easy. Last night at the Curry Corner, our new favorite Indian restaurant, we talked mostly about how good the food was. :)

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