28 April 2008


In a recent book, Michael L. Morgan argues that 'we' -- by which he means bystanders to genocide -- ought to feel ashamed at living in a world that conducts such actions and continues to allow them to occur: "Guilt will not do, nor fear or anger, but shame will [motivate serious and responsible action aiming at solving these problems]".

But what about when mass killing is not specifically intended to eliminate a people or peoples but is instrumental in a struggle [largely but not exclusively] to control resources, generate profits and enhance lifestyles? In Eastern Congo around five million people are estimated to have been killed in such a case. Aspects of the situation have been well reported by Mike Thomson for the BBC, and others (see also footnote 1).

Perhaps 'we' might feel a special sense of shame in this instance with regard to the United Nations, an institution that is supposed to work for all of 'us', but which has allowed peace-keeping troops to 'arm Congo rebels' (see also here).

Shame, maybe, but how do we deploy our anger usefully, if (as Martin Plout reports Paddy Ashdown as saying [FOOC, 26 Apr]) the UN absorbs criticism like a blancmange, and doesn't change?

Mike Thomson asks [also in FOOC, 26 Apr], what is the point of revisiting the story of a woman raped 19 times and forced to watch 48 people die including her brother and three of her own children when, as a friend confesses to him, all this does is to leave one feeling depressed and powerless because nothing changes?

And how to observe and attempt to manage psychological reactions and emotions (or a lack of them) with regard to significantly larger challenges, such as reducing the risk of climate destabilisation and ecosystem disruption likely to endanger hundreds of millions of people (see footnotes 2, 3)? In a review of James Gustav Speth's The Bridge at the End of the World, Ross Gelbspan writes:
This...is an extremely probing and thoughtful diagnosis of the root causes of planetary distress. But short of a cataclysmic event -- like the Great Depression or some equally profound social breakdown -- Speth does not suggest how we might achieve the change in values and structural reform necessary for long-term sustainability. "People have conversion experiences and epiphanies," he notes, asking, "Can an entire society have a conversion experience?"
An eighteenth century view, from Adam Smith:
It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.

1) [added 2 May] Congo's population is likely to triple by mid century, increasing the probabilities of continuing tensions, according to some analysis. Suggested near term interventions include those outlined here.

2) ...never mind the impact of such changes on 'creation' including the gorilla, a gentle and charismatic non-human organism of Eastern Congo whose existence enriches the lives of those fortunate enough to be able to contemplate it.

3) The case for pessimism is well articulated by Clive Bates in his comment on this post.

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