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The desire to scream is a manifestation that I have not become numb regarding those who suffer.
There are times when I want to scream out: “F*** this entire indifferent, hypocritical and violent world!”
My desire to scream comes from a place of deep outrage, sickness, anger and frustration as I tarry with the suffering to which I try to bear witness. To bear witness means to carry the weight, the load, of a truth. And there are times when the weight of certain truths feels so heavy that my outrage succumbs to despair, a place where I feel disempowered, incapable of doing anything because the social injustices are just too pervasive, too vast, too intractable and too complex to address with any substantial results. So, we must face the weight of such social evils and be prepared to also face the ways in which we are complicit with them, especially when we are often indifferent.
As scholar of theology Elisabeth T. Vasko writes, “We are not very good at sitting with pain. We tend to engage in a politics of distraction, to shy away from making the really hard decisions (after all, isn’t there an app for that?).” It is hard to sit with pain, to tarry with what is really being asked of us by those who suffer.
How in the hell do we go on when we face such horrid realities, such as the lynching of Black bodies, the killing of George Floyd, the killing of Breonna Taylor, the death of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, the killing of innocent Palestinian children, the brutal murder of Black transgender women, the killing of civilians in Yemen, and the inhumane treatment of those imprisoned?
The fact that I get to write about these things is not lost on me. This relates to the relative privilege that I possess because I can sit and write. I must write, as this is a form of protest for me, of speaking some truth to forms of injustice. However, the aporia, the internal contradiction, is still jarring.
In the face of so much suffering, perhaps the privilege of writing ought to be forfeited. Think about it this way: At a demonstration against the Vietnam War, Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked by a journalist why he came to protest. Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, relates that her father said he was there because he could not pray. One can only imagine the confused look on the face of the journalist who asked for clarification.
“Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm,” Heschel replied.
This is what it means to tarry with the suffering of others. It means to hear their cries, to listen to their lament, and to be driven outside of our sites of comfort (temples, churches, mosques, synagogues, homes, classrooms, universities, colleges, boardrooms, ourselves) and refuse to take refuge until the last one of us is free from the pain, hurt and violence of injustice.This is what it means to tarry with the suffering of others. It means to hear their cries, to listen to their lament, and to be driven outside of our sites of comfort.
Martin Luther King Jr. was correct when he said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Capturing the entwinement of our human existence, Judith Butler writes, “It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am.”
When one dares to look at the world in this way, one is called upon to do something more than pray, something more than donate money, something more than remain abreast of the latest breaking news with its accompanying images of human suffering. Perhaps “the more” doesn’t have a grammar yet to express it, perhaps we are still too attached to how we feel concern about them, even if that feeling of concern is truly about them. There is distance, after all, in the relation of “feeling concern for or about.”
Perhaps the goal is to abandon our safety altogether vis-a-vis those who suffer. We will need to think critically, though, about how the process of abandoning our safety — who does it, when and where — can be distributed in ways that doesn’t require more from those who are always already in situations of structural violence.
I also want to bring attention to those moments of feeling concern where one might come to the difficult realization regarding the extent to which one’s kindness, concern and sympathy can obfuscate the degree of one’s own complicity.
For example, I said to my partner as she and I watched images on the news, “We get to watch the news of these horrible images coming out of Ukraine in our home as over 4 million Ukrainians are forced to leave their homes.” We imagined what it would be like for the two of us, along with our youngest sons, to flee our house, seeing it blown-up, torn to bits, and our precious memories of home overshadowed by the violence of war, military invasion, totalitarian chaos.
Yet, looking at those images, as writer and philosopher Susan Sontag powerfully reminds us, “is one more mystification of our real relations to power.” Sontag continues, “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.”
So many in this country, and around the world, I would argue, miss (or even willfully ignore) this connection, and thereby fail to interrogate their own complicity. Sontag wants us to see not just how our wealth is linked to “the destitution of others,” but how what we do and don’t do within our own situation of relative privilege is “linked to their suffering.” Being aware of this keeps me honest, angry and haunted.
Daily, I agonize (and must do so) over my own children’s lives when faced with the hard reality that over 100 children have been killed and more wounded since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But you see, it isn’t just about my children; it is about all children and how so many of their precious lives are not deemed precious and grievable.The desire to scream is a manifestation that I have not become numb regarding those who suffer.
According to reports, an estimated 1,000 civilians have died in Ukraine. Of course, these numbers will no doubt rise as the rubble is literally cleared. The extent of the horror is yet to be told. And as the trauma holds captive the psyche and the body, the personal horrors will continue to unfold. There are reports of Russian soldiers raping Ukrainian women and then murdering them. At such moments as these, the words pour out of me: “F*** this entire indifferent, hypocritical and violent world.”
When I heard and read that Vladimir Putin had put Russian nuclear forces on high alert, I found it hard to sleep because I thought about the possibility of nuclear weapons being dropped on the Ukrainian people or dropped over U.S. cities. And we mustn’t forget about those bombs that would be dropped over Russian cities which would instantly kill tens of thousands of innocent people.
There was the flood of terrifying realities that came to mind, such as the blinding flash of light of a nuclear explosion, the peeling of human skin, thermal burns, severe bloody diarrhea, the death of tens of thousands of people instantaneously, and the loss of my children, and your children — those who are innocent and just want to live. And this also includes exposure to eventual radioactive fallout, and the violent devastation of our planet’s ecosystems.
After hearing about the news of the high alert, I didn’t get the sense that anything had changed. People were going about their daily routines as if there had not been a threat of ending the world as we know it. I’m not saying that there should have been mass panic, but what the hell? I’m not an alarmist, but rather I am someone who, as Rabbi Heschel says, “feels fiercely.” He also says that “what we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.” Well, I’m restless when I think about the monstrosity of nuclear annihilation.
Around our “dinner table,” which is certainly a perk of class privilege, I could tell that my sons had a sense of fear that was repressed and covered over by lightly joking about “WWIII.”
How else can children face and talk about such a global nightmare? I am outraged by the fact that we exist within a world where such destructive weapons exist, where a small miscalculation — because of ideological differences, mistrust, hatred, the breaching of “sacred” geopolitical boundaries and manufactured airspaces — could mean the end of us all.
Within this context, talk of nuclear war games is absurd. How do you calculate the risk of losing millions of lives and saving others? In a nuclear war, zero-sum scenarios are useless. We all lose. We’re talking mutually assured destruction. Even if some survive, we lose.
Bear in mind that Donald Trump, when asked directly in 2016, refused to take the use of nuclear weapons off the table. Who thinks and talks like this? Well, those who have fantasies of complete mastery.
According to Julietta Singh, mastery “also turns inward to become a form of self-maiming, one that involves the denial of the master’s own dependency on other bodies.” That is partly the trick and yet the tragedy of mastery — to deny one’s own sense of being interdependent. In this way, one is “untouchable,” living a life filled with pretentiousness and self-deception, where one believes in their historical destiny, their inherent “genius,” to lead the world into a “new age,” one where dissenters are murdered, where truths are lies and lies are truths, and where those most loyal must be prepared to sacrifice their friends, their families and their ethical compasses for a mess of pottage. We’ve seen this before where the obdurate desire for maintaining mastery has led to forms of enslavement, colonial domination and the death of millions.
As we are now 100 seconds to midnight, where “midnight” is that moment where humanity ends as we know it because of some catastrophic moment due to a nuclear war or a devasting climate event, the danger of that form of mastery should give us pause. Think about it: just 100 seconds.
It is at times like these that I watch my sons with greater loving care. I allow myself to feel the air within my lungs. I remain mindful of the trees and nonhuman animal life around me. During such moments, I feel a sudden response of outrage, teetering on despair. Again, the images resurface, and I cannot get them out of my head: the skin peels off, tens of thousands dying within an instant. The smell of burned and burning flesh, death and dying are in the air.
I imagine the devastating nuclear winter caused by the firestorms that would lead to the sunlight being blocked. I hear the voices screaming in my head, and the heaviness of dread and gloom. I imagine witnessing the burned flesh of others. This is the stuff of science fiction only, yes? Read the words of witnesses within Nagasaki, Japan, after “we” dropped a weapon of mass destruction:
There were no air raid alarms on the morning of August 9, 1945. We had been hiding out in the local bomb shelter for several days, but one by one, people started to head home. My siblings and I played in front of the bomb shelter entrance, waiting to be picked up by our grandfather.
Then, at 11:02 am, the sky turned bright white. My siblings and I were knocked off our feet and violently slammed back into the bomb shelter. We had no idea what had happened.
As we sat there shell-shocked and confused, heavily injured burn victims came stumbling into the bomb shelter en masse. Their skin had peeled off their bodies and faces and hung limply down on the ground, in ribbons. Their hair was burnt down to a few measly centimeters from the scalp. Many of the victims collapsed as soon as they reached the bomb shelter entrance, forming a massive pile of contorted bodies. The stench and heat were unbearable.
Have we not learned from this great horror? For some (many?), there seems to be no limit to their tolerance for existential devastation, unethical ineptitude and imperial lust. Once Putin (yet again) invaded Ukraine, my outrage for the cowardice of totalitarians was reanimated with a fierceness. You see, I absolutely despise bullies and their underlings. As Putin’s “special military operation” was revealed as a military invasion, and war was being waged, Trump loyalist Sean Hannity suggested that Putin should be assassinated. What, for Hannity, should we do with aspiring authoritarians within the U.S.? One senses the contradiction and problematic slippery slope implications of Hannity’s reasoning.My desire to scream is insurgent, an act of refusal, reminding me that there are new ways of knowing and new ways of being.
And then there was Tucker Carlson (a junior partner of Trump’s white nationalist worldview) who made light of Putin’s intentions and despotic character by saying, among other things, that Putin never called him a racist, that he never threatened to get him fired for disagreeing with him or attempted to teach his children to embrace racial discrimination.
Unabashedly ridiculous and feeding the echo chamber of conversative white reactionary grievances, Carlson would have white Americans believe that because I teach about white privilege, white supremacy, anti-Blackness and the systemic racist structure of the U.S., I am to be feared, loathed and hated more than a murderous tyrant who silences (some for good) his rivals.
Other right-wing conservatives who supported Trump lambasted Putin’s lies about “denazification.” Come on? Talk about the putrid smell of mendacity. To castigate Putin as a vicious totalitarian who lies to his people, and yet to embrace Trump, the aspirant dictator of the Republican Party, smacks of muddled thinking and hypocrisy. Trump lied and continues to lie about voter fraud regarding the 2020 election. In fact, it has been said that Trump, over the four years of his presidency, made 30,573 false and misleading claims.
Putin’s “denazification” justification is equivalent to Trump’s “Big Lie” and there are gullible followers who accept the lies of both men out of fear. And the lies of both have led to the death of human beings, though thus far, Putin’s lies have apparently taken a greater existential toll.
The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was a direct attack on the legitimate exercise of democratic voting rights, was the manifestation of Trump’s lie and those who helped to perpetuate it. That lie led to neofascist and white supremacist violence, disinformation and the pitiful collapse of critical thought. Unable to distinguish truth from lies, those (predominantly white) individuals attacked “our” fragile democracy with threats, violence, urine and feces. The attempted coup led to the death of five people and resulted in the injury of more than 140 police officers.And let’s not forget the pipe bombs that were found near the Capitol or those who came armed.
What I find so extraordinary is the fact that so many white people, in this case, were furious based upon a lie. Their anger and fury were predicated on vacuous claims. Storming the Capitol wasn’t a show of strength or courage; it was a show of fanaticism driven by a sense of white entitlement, and the fear that they, white people, will lose their “sacred” place of hegemony within the U.S. polity. All of that also sickens me. Those individuals are not just a threat to democracy, but I see them as a personal existential threat to me.
It is not hard for me to imagine that Trump, who may become the 47th president of the U.S., is more than able and willing to unleash so much divisiveness, so many lies, and to encourage so much white nationalist loyalty, that we might find ourselves armed in the streets of this nation fighting, like those in Ukrainian cities, to secure our freedoms and rights (even as they are tenuous for so many already).
The distressing and frightening part of this is that I can imagine this without feeling delusional, without laughing — no tongue in cheek. The questions that we may one day face are: Do I take up arms against my neighbors because of their political party affiliation? Do I turn them over to the thought police because I overheard one of them say something about systemic racism or critical race theory? Do I help ban (and perhaps burn) “dangerous” historical books on the reality of white supremacy? Do I call the department of heteronormative homeland security because someone said “gay”? Do I follow (in lockstep) the orders of a pathological liar, and subordinate my freedom and my conscience to his will?
Does this sound dystopic or perhaps apocalyptic? If there is any doubt, keep in mind that Trump basks in messianic grandeur. After all, he has referred to himself as “the chosen one” and adopted the moniker “King of Israel.” We should keep in mind that Adolf Hitler was apparently a staunch “Christian.” Needless to say (or perhaps not), this is notChristian theology, but a form of anti-theology turned into a weapon of white supremacist hatred.
I began this article with the desire to scream. It is a desire to lament. But it is not just about me; it can’t be. Vasko argues, “Through lamentation, voice is given to pain.” It is a foregrounding and rendering explicit “the anguish and passionate protest of those who have suffered injustice.”
The desire to scream is a manifestation that I have not become numbregarding those who suffer. As philosopher Alison Bailey writes, “Anesthesia is part of the master’s tool kit.” To forget, like political and historical anesthesia, helps to maintain the status quo, helps to “assure” us that there is nothing to see, nothing to witness, nothing to bear — no suffering and no injustice. As philosopher Alexis Shotwell reminds us, “Political forgetting names an epistemology — a way of knowing — and an ontology — a way of being.” Hence, my desire to scream is insurgent, an act of refusal, reminding me that there are new ways of knowing and new ways of being.
And yet, the despair continues to haunt. Rabbi Heschel writes, “We have relinquished our role as educators. We surrender, we abandon, we forget.” I have not forgotten and will fight to my last breath not to forget. So, let’s scream together: F*** this entire indifferent, hypocritical and violent world!
First published in Truthout. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.
Copyright 2022 George Yancy
George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery fellow at Dartmouth College. He is also the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural fellow in the Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Program (2019-2020 academic year). He is the author, editor and co-editor of over 20 books, including Black Bodies, White Gazes; Look, A White; Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America; and Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020.