Being a voyeur of the pain of others satisfies our lust to witness suffering from a distance. A culture of spectatorship is built on whispers of the misery of others in a Tweet or Instagram observed from behind the safety of a screen. Memers never expect us to respond to remote melancholies. The image of shock and the image of cliché are two faces of the same presence. Memes of gurus dancing in delirium to the mantras of Stomzy in Sea Lots bring to wakefulness the depths of our decay. Gangsters garlanded with Malas of Gold ornaments like bridegrooms with bracelets too weighty even for the Gods to tote invoke only recrimination. But, we make our children and we make their minds. Minds are made inside the milieu we choose to immerse our children inside.
In iRaq’s Abu Ghraib prison, a man stood with a green plastic sandbag over his head with wires streaming from his hands. His treatment became a much-parodied image. Satirical posters of his humiliation plastered the wall of the subway in New York for everyone to witness. This particular portrayal of power and public humiliation plagiarized the unique design of a billboard campaign of the iPhone by replacing the silhouette of a dancer with a hooded human standing motionless on a box.
This tragic paper-poster personified the pleasure that some people found in reducing others into litter. Sadly, not even a flyer of Manadel al-Jamadi displaying the inhumanity of his ‘Palestinian hanging’ would have done much to make us feel sadness or confusion or anger or shame. In July 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court reduced the liability of those responsible for the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, claiming that peace keepers had only a ‘slim’ chance of averting the deaths of 8,000 boys and men and the rape of innocent girls and their screaming mothers.
The judges reduced to 10% from 30% the Dutch state’s responsibility for compensation to the families erased by Serb forces. Munira Subašić, the patron of these mothers of sorrowfulness, was wounded by the judgement. It was a humiliation piled on top of previous indignity. To degrade the survivors further, the judgment was not delivered in their native language. Munira wept as the words swirled around her ankles like autumn leaves in the wind. She told the court that at Srebrenica ‘every life was taken away 100%. There is little we can do with 10%, but yes, the responsibility still lies where it does.’ Her son Subašić’s was sent to a killing field. Today, ‘I only have two bones. I have found less than 10% of his body.’ Thousands marched for three days on July 8 2019 from Nezuk to Potocari to memorialize this Muslim genocide that remains the most horrific mass murder witnessed on European soil since World War II.
In 2004, Sylvia Walby and Jonathan Allen reported on a British Crime Survey which revealed that 26 per cent of men had experienced domestic violence, sexual victimization or were stalked at least once. Today, it is impossible to discuss the range of factors that impinge on consent or the ways in which consent is violated. The ‘Me Too’ hashtag represents the ubiquity of sexual violence that we find acceptable including sexual harassment, groping, street harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence and rape. The majority of these infractions remain unreported and when victims muster the courage to unveil the abuse to officials, the justice system is not only woefully inadequate, but it can frequently re-traumatize victims through invasive measures during both the investigation and the trial.
We seem to have greater compassion for men whose careers stand to be ruined by allegations of sexual misconduct. The world listened to the quivering voices of Drs Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill, both of whom faced humiliating public ridicule. What we have learned from the chilling allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Julian Assange, Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh is that we do not have a clear, uncontested idea of what sexual consent looks like, and that we do not collectively and equally value what it is.
Bodily autonomy is the idea that you get to decide what you do with your body, what happens to it, who else has access to it, and how that access is obtained and exercised. Moreover you should be able to make those decisions in settings free of coercion or fear of those in positions of power or care.
C. L. R. James wrote West Indian history from below the decks of slave ships. Once the brutality of the plantation ended, the obliteration of every cause of sufferings was next. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, were far more humane than their masters in their indiscretions. The Irish painter Francis Bacon believes that spectatorship of pain restores our sense of purgation. His canvases lay bare difficult emotions and an anatomy of destructiveness that we wish to bury. We want to present a more constructive version of ourselves. But in Bacon we find an authentic relation to the real. He strips away the barnacles that encrust the truth and we witness what we really are.