Just two weeks ago, Disclose, an investigative journalism NGO, released ‘Made in France’, an exposé including leaked documents from the French Ministry of Defence detailing the use of French-made tanks and missile systems on the frontlines of war in Yemen. The news was not surprising: the global manufacture and trade in conventional and small arms is vibrant and growing, generating billions of dollars each year for the world’s wealthiest economies, fuelling the continuation of violence on a global scale despite international regulatory efforts to increase transparency and reduce abuse.
What surprised me was the total lack of public outcry that followed.
In the silence of the non-response, I recalled the work of Stanley Cohen, of his quest to understand how individuals can know about the perpetration of terrible injustice and horrific violence, and yet do nothing about it. In States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Cohen reveals the troubling human capacity to render invisible that which is morally compromising, from the Holocaust to apartheid to the Rwandan genocide to all the everyday violences in between. This individual cognitive capacity to deny violence is socialized and normalized, thus diffusing the collective outrage required to redress such violence.
The situation in Yemen today is just one manifestation of our collective capacities for denial. On reading the Disclose file, I wrote to my courageous Yemeni friend, Yasser Alemad, to ask him what he thought. A humanitarian medical worker toiling on the live-and-die frontlines of the international war being fought in Yemen, he replied: ‘These are the Absent Truths, the realities that have destroyed every beautiful thing in this country. Four years of war have changed everything: Yemen’s nature, our history, our motivations and our dreams. We were a country of coffee and pure honey and now we are country of cholera, malnutrition, starving, and siege… The suffering has no limit.’ Yasser, so full of goodness and once so full of faith in humanity, sees no end to the suffering. And yet he continues to risk his life each day, to try to save any lives he can while the war continues to wage all around him.
I used to think that senseless human suffering continued because people just didn’t know enough about it. Based on this belief, I threw myself into years of work investigating and documenting grave human rights violations in zones of active conflict. I was led by a faith that in uncovering and then denouncing injustice, those who could make the required changes would.
Now, many tired years later, I accept that it is not a lack of knowledge that allows such unconscionable human suffering to continue. We know exactly enough about human suffering to take the required actions to end it. Yet contemporary expressions of denial are articulated with a heavy-hearted sense of hopelessness: ‘But what can we possibly do? It is all just too complex/political/big/far away for me to ever be able to do anything to change it.’
Denial justifies defeat and inaction. Silence takes hold.
The shame of such silence is resounding, while the excuses of overwhelm among otherwise good-hearted individuals are unconvincing (even other primates show more altruism in reacting against injustice). Today I read that the Disclose journalists have been summoned to a hearing, accused of compromising national security. The diffusion of collective outrage seems well on course to continue.
Yet it does not need to be this way. There are infinite possibilities for each of us as individuals to choose to act to redress injustice, to contribute to reducing human suffering. These choices are personal, nearby, and always present.