Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Embarrasment of Being...

Sometimes you read about, hear about, or see something that makes you think about being human. Over my fifty years plus of life I have read about, heard about, and seen a lot about what it means to be human and most of it has saddened and disturbed me.

To some extent I am a Shoah baby. I don’t recall exactly when I first learned about the reality of the Holocaust, probably some time in my teens and filled out when I went to university, but it, along with my asthma, how I was treated in junior high school by the pettiest and nastiest of humans, school boys and school girls, how I was treated at home by parents (the sins of the parents are always visited upon the children), my disappointment that the hope for a more humane United states and world that the Sixties seemed to promise was being smacked down by reality and being co-opted by the captains of consumerism, the most narcissistic form of capitalism, and my realisation, thanks to Vietnam, that the American government and American politicians (and governments and politicians in general) routinely lie and propagandise, have had an immense impact on who I am for good and, I am sure most of those who know me would say, for bad.

As I learned about the Holocaust, as I learned about what the Nazis did during the Holocaust, and as I learned about those Germans, Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, and on and on, who stood by and watched or actively participated in the Holocaust the optimism and activism that was once a part of my life, a part of my life that made me work for civil rights and which led me to protest the war in Vietnam faded into the oblivion of past memory. I came to see humanity for what I believed and continue to believe it really was and is, intolerant, hateful, brutal, murderous, selfish, narcissistic. The Holocaust, by the way, also cured me of the foolishness that there was a personal god out there somewhere in the universe who cared about me, his supposed chosen people, or humanity in general.

What I learned later in college only confirmed what I already believed about humankind. As an undergraduate I became aware of Stanley Milgram and his 1961 experiments attempts to understand why so many ordinary Germans participated in the Holocaust or Shoah against Jews, Gypsies, intellectuals, and other “decadents” during World War II. Milgram decided that the only way he could answer this question experimentally was if volunteers in his experiment weren’t aware of the real nature of the experiment. So Milgram told his volunteers that the experiment they were participating in concerned memorization. Milgram divided the volunteers into two groups, “teachers” and “learners”. The “Learners”, it turns out, were actually assistants of Milgram who were aware of what the real nature of the experiment was. “Teachers”, who weren’t in on the secret, were instructed to read a pair of words from a list to the “learner”. If the “learner” made a mistake the teacher was told by the scientist leader to give the “learner”, who sat behind a screen and who the “teacher” had seen wired up to a voltage machine, an electric shock by flipping a switch on a board that had labels of “15 volts”, “slight shock”, to “450 volts”, “severe shock”. With each mistake made by the “learner” the voltage level was increased. As the experiment progressed “learners” began to scream in pain and asked “teachers” to stop shocking them. Those “teachers” who tried to stop were urged by the scientist leader to continue administering shocks to “learners” even when the “learners” claimed to have heart problems. Over half of the subjects administered shocks until they reached maximum voltage and “learners” were silent. As a result Milgram concluded that most people will follow orders when told to do so by a “proper authority”. And this we followed the orders of those in authority, he concluded, was the explanation for why so many Germans took part in the Nazi genocide against the Jews.

Also in college I became aware of Solomon Asch’s experiments. In 1952 Asch asked subjects to decide which of three lines most closely matched the length of a fourth line. The match was obvious and most of the subjects were able to answer correctly with no problem. Then Asch changed the experiment. He now asked subjects which of the lines matched but this time in a group setting where Asch placed associates of his masquerading as test subjects. Asch then had his associates match two clearly unequal lines. One-third of those subjects who weren’t associates of Asch, though they sometimes stammered and fidgeted before they gave their answer, discounted their own perceptions half of the time and gave the answer the faux subjects gave. Humans, in other words, often cave into peer pressure. In terms of an explanation for the Holocaust Asch’s research suggests that peer pressure was the reason so many Germans were personally involved in the genocidal war against the Jews.

Today in the Guardian I read an article by seven photographers who were asked to respond to the question of why instead of intervening in what were sometimes life and death situations they took photographs. Their responses are fascinating. Greg Marinovich blamed cowardice for his not intervening to save a man chased and killed by a mob in South Africa because he was a member of a different tribe than his pursuers and killers. Donna Ferrato who saw domestic violence first hand while following and photographing the everyday life of a couple in their home, said she was a photographer not a social worker. Ferrato did intervene the second time the husband attempted to hit his wife. Graeme Robertson saw, during pro-hunting protests he was covering, police brutalise one of the protestors who was not following orders. When the protestor asked Robertson for help he, as he says, “took a picture” while the protestor was dragged off”. Robertson writes about how mixed up he was the first time he covered a conflict but that over time he became immune to the brutality of the conflicts he covered. He goes on to say that his photographs actually aided the victims of such conflicts by documenting and publicizing them. Ian Berry saw a man stoned in the Congo as a result of tribe on tribe violence. Like Robertson, Berry talks about the disassociation between photographer and what is being photographed and says photographers are there to cover the facts. Ironically the man being chased and attacked escaped thanks to actions of another photographer Berry was travelling around Africa with, Tom Hopkinson. Oli Scarff who photographed a man trying to escape the scene of the stabbing crime he had just committed at the Notting Hill Carnival, wonders whether he would have had the courage to try to stop the man and talks about his conditioning as a photographer to document what was happening rather than intervening. Hampus Lundgren writes about the adrenaline rush that took over and which turned him into a photographer and not a person when he took a photograph of a man lying on the ground injured by the bomb blast that shook central Oslo in 2011 thanks to Anders Behring Breivik. Karem Okten talks about how the aggressiveness of rioters in the London riots of last year forced him to back off photographing them and of the fear that inhibited him from telling the rioters to stop. Radhika Chalasani talks about the need of documenting reality when she took a photograph of a young boy turned into near skeleton by the war and genocide in Sudan and about how she now not taking the children she saw to the Red Cross.

So what do the responses of these photographers tell us about being human? They tell us that there is a lot of the obey authority Milgram found among his human test subjects and the peer pressure Asch found in his human test subjects in the comments of most of these photographers. Photographers, almost all of our seven photographers claim, have a duty as professionals who are part of a guild to document what is happening, even when what is happening involves violence, murder, and genocide. They tell us that humans can readily and easily rationalise not intervening in a violent situation in the name of professionalism (there is something to be said for the historical documentation claim at least in the long term though initially most of the photographs will be fitted into the pre-existing cultural frames of their viewers) or bodily harm. A few of our photographers claim that they did nothing because of the physical or moral cowardice they felt. I felt something similarly, by the way, when I was living in Moscow and saw police, for no valid reason that I could tell, harass two young men who looked like they had been painting on the Moscow Metro. I did nothing though I was appalled by the actions of the police and thought and almost did say something about what was happening to my great shame. I was truly afraid of what might happen to me if I did say something to the militsia.

While some would attribute the “cowardice” of the photographers and me to the evolutionary impulse to save one’s own skin, I am not so sure that is all there is to it. I think that one of the important things that our photographers tell us about the violence they saw is that human violence is related to issues of identity and to ethnocentrism. Marinovich and Berry witnessed tribe on tribe violence. Us versus them violence. Ferrato witnessed the violence that comes out of the otherness of gender. Humpus witnessed the violence that comes out of the otherness of ideology and politics. Chalasani witnessed the violence that comes out of religious, ethnic, and national otherness. And the Holocaust, of course, was the product of religious, ethnic, political, artistic, sexual, and national otherness. Humans, in other words, have all sorts of ethnocentrism deep in their cultural “DNA”. It is this human cultural DNA that is one of the reasons why I, in part, am so utterly pessimistic about the species to which I belong, humankind. I certainly don’t expect a species that by and large brutalizes, puts down, tortures, hates, humiliates, and annihilates its own to respect other species they share the planet with or the very planet on which they live and which gave and gives them life. Welcome to the end of the world. Colour me very humanophobic.

“'I was gutted that I'd been such a coward': Photographers Who Didn't Step in to Help”

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