Thursday, October 12, 2023

Of Nuance and Moral Horror

"This must be understood in context," we who are educated say.  "Well, actually, there are nuances that must be considered," we who are informed sagely intone.

There is a truth to these statements, particularly when we are considering long standing and intractable conflicts.  This I understand.  

And yet, on the other hand, there's the reality of the moral moment.  Not the abstracted macroanalytics of sociology, political science, or social anthropology.  Not the swirling shifting semiotics of deconstruction.  But a particular action in a particular moment.  A real thing with effects in the real world.

Amidst the horrors of weeping women and shroud-covered bodies that have filled our collective consciousness these last few days, one particular moment lingers.  I saw it once online, and then again on broadcast television, and yet it hangs with me.  I usually would provide a link or an image, but I will not here.  

It was a video, perhaps four seconds long, one recorded by a Hamas member for social media distribution.  Another masked member of Hamas is dragging a young woman to the vehicle that will take her to captivity.  He is armed with an automatic weapon.  She is bound, and from her clothing had clearly been one of the revelers at the festival where hundreds were killed.  The gunman drags her roughly by her arm, then her hair.  As he forces her headfirst into the vehicle, the viewer can see that between her legs, her close-fitting white pants are stained.  She may have been recently raped, and that may be the stain of her blood.  Or perhaps in raw terror she had defecated herself.  Or both.

It is a horror, one of so many.

Where do we find the nuance in such a moment?  What is the moral relevance of putting it into the sociopolitical context of the region? 

There is no moral relevance.

Those tools are ethically worthless in the face of horror. Every particular instantiation of moral horror is itself not nuanced.  It is simply horror, and horror has only itself as context.  Each moral moment stands on its own, and must be judged for what it is.

Context might suggest that one assert that the man with the gun cannot choose, that he is just a soulless manifestation of a broken system, and that he has no moral agency?  What of the man who records a bleeding, terrified young woman, intending to celebrate later, or to terrify others?  The man with power who drags the woman is a person, not a mindless automaton.  The man who records power brutalizing the helpless so the video can be celebrated or terrorize others is also a person.  

Nuance might suggest that this one terrified woman should be abstracted into a representation of a repressive regime, or of a sociopolitical dynamic between peoples.  Her immediate suffering, and the violation of her unique self-awareness?  Those are to be replaced with sterile, bloodless dialectical constructs.  Seeing her as fully human, as a soul, as a self?  It's almost unbearable.

Because it is harder to see the blind hate, the blood, the fear, to see the real horror we inflict on one another.

The deeper horror is precisely that they are persons.  The person is the fundamental and irreducible unit of our nature.  Not systems, not collectives, not corporations.  Not tribes or races or nations.  Persons.

Emphasizing overarching systems or context essentially assumes that these humans are not persons.  It allows the retreat into abstraction, and a looking away.  In its own way, it allows us to see them as something other than human. 

And it is from that assumption that so much horror is inflicted on the world.