Defining Our Humanity

Illustration by Tanya Fredman. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Kathryn Dodgson

One of the more disconcerting headlines to appear after the December 14 shooting of twenty small children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, is the title of Canadian writer Stephen Marche’s column: “The Newtown Massacre Is Not a Tragedy.” Marche seemed not inclined to mince words, and his harsh bluntness certainly got my attention.

He writes (after chastising President Obama for the tears he wiped away during his press conference): “The children of Newtown are not our children, not yours or mine or President Obama’s. My children and your children and Obama’s children are alive right now. The children who are dead were the children of real parents, and their suffering is not ours. It belongs entirely to them and it is unimaginable.”

I’m discomfited by Marche’s words—because they touched a nerve, because I wept at the news, at seeing photographs posted all over the media of those children, then full of new life, now dead. How can we not weep for their loss? Yet I understand what he is driving at. It is not ours, not our right, to shed the countless tears that will never, ever fill that awful empty silent void left by their death; that is for the parents and families of that community, not for us. If we are honest about our own emotions, we are likely weeping the tears of Aristotle’s catharsis, which, while helping to cleanse our own tattered souls through the compassion and fear that tragedy stirs up, are worth next to nothing if, through their shedding, they—and we—effect no change.

Marche says: “Calling the massacre a tragedy makes everybody feel better. It purges the emotions. It lets out the rage that this horror causes deep in our souls. But it solves nothing.” Newtown wasn’t a tragedy, he says, it was a “policy decision.”

Just one week and a day before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I was in the audience listening intently to Toni Morrison speaking slowly, softly of yet another school shooting—the 2006 killing of five young Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania—as she described the way in which that community went about its very private and personal bereavement, not speaking out in anger or hatred toward the killer, indeed not speaking out at all, and even going so far as to enfold the shooter’s widow and family within its communal grieving and caring.

Morrison opened her Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination,” with a recounting of that Amish community’s unexpected response to the shooting, which, she said, “seemed characteristic of genuine goodness.”

How do we make sense of the senseless? How do we effect the change that is needed if we as a culture are to be cured of a lunatic love affair with semi-automatic weapons, and more importantly, how do we do so without reducing the deaths of children to that of a sacrifice? What are we saying about the very real suffering of those children and their families, if we say, as many of us are, “Finally, perhaps this one will be the catalyst, the tipping point, to get us and our policy makers to face up to the need for real gun control”? How do we “tell an unspeakable story”?

Both Marche and Morrison raise questions that contributors to this issue of the Bulletin also consider: How do we tell or illustrate narratives of disaster or tragedy, and what do our ways of depicting tragedies and suffering do to those who are at the heart of the catastrophe? And, how do we, in community and as a community, approach disasters and suffering?

Julia Watts Belser turns to a Talmudic tale of disaster to illustrate the ethical dilemmas we face in our telling of stories of human tragedy. Too often, she says, our “stories of disaster can do collateral damage.” She writes: “Tragic tales of suffering often intensify the vulnerability of people who are already on the margins, showcasing their pain in a way that generates pity, stripping their agency and playing into negative stereotypes of difference.” Those most aware, and sensitive to, the “ethics of representing disaster,” Belser writes, are journalists and aid workers, who are burdened with “striving to raise funds for people affected by disaster while still preserving their dignity, hoping to balance a desire for drama or the appeal of a pithy sound bite with the need to tell a complex story that underscores the broader social and political causes of catastrophe.”

Both Chris Herlinger and Susie Linfield, the author of the book he reviews, grapple with the conundrum of how to photograph suffering in order to help, and not harm—especially when vulnerable children are the subject: “precisely by appealing to our noblest—our most altruistic and protective—selves, such images are perfect conduits for manipulation, vulgar simplification, and propaganda.” Will Joyner, in his review of Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror, a memoir of surviving, and treating survivors of, the trauma endured in Croatian concentration camps in the early 1990s, notes that the authors “have found graceful ways to allow a reader to contemplate the very private emotional effects of brutal events without becoming an uneasy voyeur.”

While these writers struggle with how to avoid turning victims into symbols of sacrifice or “overburdening” them by turning them into metaphors for larger, systemic social ills, other writers consider the ways shared suffering, shared violence, shared rituals of experience contribute to forming community—communities that can bring out the best, or the worst, in us. Kate DeConinck, Paul Stoller, Michael Lambek, and Sébastien Tutenges1 look at the “betwixt and between” liminal realms, where facing life, and death, in the extreme create strong communal bonds that can only come from encountering the “depth of human resilience” (Stoller). Finally, David Hempton reminds us: “How one works to maintain human values in the midst of inhumane acts is a constant struggle to define one’s humanity. Part of that involves serious evaluation and criticism of one’s own community and traditions, perhaps even of one’s own family’s traditions.”


  1. These four articles also have a distinctly anthropological bent, thanks to the Bulletin‘s faculty advisor, anthropologist Michael D. Jackson, who solicited them from his colleagues. We, the editors, wish to express our gratitude to Jackson for his help in shaping this issue.

Kathryn Dodgson is director of communications at Harvard Divinity School.

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