Monday, 3 July 2017

Picture Post #26. Life-Matters



'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Guatamala, 1968. Picture credit: Jill Gibson
A woman with a newborn passes by the word ‘Muerte’ written on the wall. Nothing could be more natural; birth and death simply belong to each other.

Which raises two questions: what happens when death becomes a symbol to reclaim something belonging to the past? What happens when a distinction is made about who, and who should not, live? Because then the right to live is not the same concept for all of us. 

Suppose that birth is a concept about being, and death a concept about non-being, then whatever touches upon these concepts, touches upon a principle. The problem is not birth, nor yet death itself. The problem is in the claims being made. To respect life means to respect death. Herein lies something universal.

A note by the photographer, Jill Gibson:

During the years 1966–1968, I was photo-documenting the work and progress of doctors who were examining the medical problems of children living in the pure Mayan village of Santa Maria Cauqué, located in the hills 30 minutes outside of Guatemala City. There were some days I travelled in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, up riverbed roads for five to six hours just to reach remote villages, along with a doctor. The doctor educated me about the United Fruit Company and it’s influence over the Guatemalan government, and the ramifications of U.S. involvement in the country. So, I believe the word Muerte, being a graffiti on the wall, has something to do with the resistance at the time.

There was in fact a lot of death going on then, as the country was immersed in military violence from 1965 through 1995. We saw it again first hand in 1984. During these years, the Mayans were being annihilated.

18 comments:

  1. The photographer’s note, at the end of the post, more than hints at an ironic juxtaposition tied in with the graffiti. On the one hand, there’s a program aimed at life (‘vida’), with volunteer doctors going out to a village and attending to the medical needs of the indigenous Mayan children. While on the other hand, there’s an overlaying of military, extra-judicial violence against the same vulnerable Mayans, perhaps prompting the ‘muerte’ graffiti. An obvious tension between the best and worst of humanity’s instincts. The word ‘muerte’ scrawled on the wall strikes a more blunt note than does the word ‘disappeareds’, with its Orwellian-styled sanitisation, that became the oddly understated thread throughout many parts of the world during that span of years.

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    1. This comment is posted by Jill Gibson

      Keith,
      At the time I took this photo, the poignancy of it was in the juxtaposition of the 2 forces, but were contained only within the photo itself: new life "Vida" as the child being carried on the back of the mother, and death "Muerte" the writing on the wall. So I appreciate your expanded insight that puts my work taking place in the mountainous Mayan village in the "Vida" camp, enlarging my understanding of the part I played in that darkly troubled time. Odd as it may seem, I hadn’t considered this before.

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  2. I wonder whether it would make sense to ask whether an emphasis on respect for life is what contributes to the motivation to end it?

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    1. Dear Thomas,
      Could you expound your question a little? I lack to understand it in relation to what. (Apart Martin mentioning palliative care below).

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    2. Dear Tessa, I was thinking, the more highly one values something, the more it may become a target for destruction. If one highly values life, this may mark it for termination. By raising the value of an individual life to the level of the sacred, may one not be favouring the very opposite? This is a purely speculative thought, to add another spark to the debate.

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    3. Thank you Thomas, first thing that comes to my mind is in which relation the sacred is presumed sacred? And is the sacred something individual?

      If life could be perceived as sacred, death should be sacred within that same perception, and no differentiation would be made between one or the
      other. It is not the unification but an idea of division that raises value between both conceptions. Could that still be sacred?

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  3. In the context of palliative care, yes, in the context here, surely not?

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  4. I’m not sure death becomes a symbol so much as killing being a quintessentially utilitarian act: the attempted eradication of a group. In this case the Mayans — but, as witnessed through history, it could be any number of ethnic or religious or national or 'tribal' or cultural groups. There is an underlying, but distinct, whiff of genocide in each case. And it’s fueled by demonisation and dehumanisation. If there is symbolism, it’s in what the particular ‘group’ in question is perceived to represent in the (resentful) eye of the beholder. The trigger for ultimately acting upon the resentment may be anything, real or contrived — the particulars of rationalisation matter less than their perceived sufficiency for killing. The latter resulting from pent-up animosities, the catalyst being a history of antipathy stemming from imagined offenses — building up to a mythology, shared by the majority, of what the targeted group represents. Since people typically fear both the means of dying and the uncertainty of death, to be sure there is that added layer of terror and catharsis; but, to come full cycle, raw utilitarianism is, I suspect, at the heart of the destruction.

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    1. Dear Keith, just wondering; is it not rationalisation that incites imaginative offenses?

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    2. You might be right! But what then do we make of utilitarianism? Supposing we say that utilitarianism should not serve the interests of a sub-set of humanity. What then if the interests of the full set of humanity would be best served by the eradication of the sub-set? All this would seem to depend anyway on a pre-judgement as to what is in the interests of the sub-set or the full set. Should one not think in terms of utilitarianism at all? I am mindful that these are terrible questions to ask, for reason that they are potentially about real people. The debate, however, might yield something of value!

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    3. Maybe all thoughts that involve utilitarianism are due to sub-set thinking?

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  5. My interpretation of the expression ‘sub-set thinking’, in the larger context of this post's historical setting, is of a typically majority group targeting another group, whether for subjugation, terror, or even eradication. The history of the world is, of course, replete with examples of singling out a ‘sub-set of humanity’ for genocidal treatment — examples I don’t need to traipse out here. The instigators of genocide act on their instincts for utilitarian reasons — founded on (imagined yet vivid) grievances that may take on any number of flavours.

    The question presented above — “What then if the interests of the full set of humanity would be best served by the eradication of the sub-set?” — of course reframes the thought experiment posed by ethics’ very familiar ‘trolley problem’. Where, hypothetically, sacrificing the lives of the few would save the lives of the many and, therefore, driving what one’s choice ought to be from among alternatives. It evokes morality-based what-ifs, with different ways to spin the conditions of the thought experiment, leading to evaluating the moral consequences of alternative decisions under alternative circumstances.

    However, the thought experiment suggested by the preceding question (in effect, the ‘trolley problem’) is arguably not germane to the case represented by the post. That is, the hypothetical doesn’t apply to history’s killing of groups (‘sub-sets of humanity’, as the comments say), including those possibly targeted for eradication. No matter how the instigators of these affronts to humanity may couch and handily chronicle their acts in utilitarian-based rationalisations and subterfuges — which I believe they do through manufactured narratives — they are doing so for no more reason than as a convenient deceit.

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    1. Thank you Keith. Re sub-sets, as a US military editor-in-chief, your books refer matter-of-factly to the 'eradication' or 'elimination' of groups of people. How would this relate to the above? Perhaps most importantly, what would a legitimate sub-set target be for eradication or elimination? Do you think differently now? Do we sense this in your comments? Or, when you refer to 'history’s killing of groups', what kind of groups would you mean? Can these be differentiated from cultural groups, or from strategic elements of cultural groups?

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    2. Your remark, Thomas, that “Your books refer matter-of-factly to the ‘eradication’ or ‘elimination’ of groups of people” suggests to me that you have indeed read some of the books on ‘official’ military history that my publishing team of editors and creative staff produced in support of the historians. Your specific reference to having spotted the hot-button words ‘eradication’ and ‘elimination’ — or similar fiery words — in your reading list piqued my interest. Especially since ‘official military history’ — the kind of books in question here, which tend to be drier accounts — doesn’t typically resort to such inflammatory words.

      All that said, I’m left to guess which books those provocative terms appear in. So, to help me meaningfully address the specific point you’re posing, I’d appreciate your providing me the fuller passages from the books in question. I need, that is, the fuller wording you found troubling in order to understand the context and to do justice to your question — though, to be clear, I’m not personally a military historian. Otherwise, it would be impossible for me to address your question substantively. Be assured, however, that if you’d kindly give me those passages, I’ll share my thoughts on what you suggest refers ‘matter-of-factly’ to ‘eradication’ and ‘elimination’.

      Meanwhile, Thomas, as for ‘sub-sets’ of humanity that have sadly been the targets of attempted genocide — that is, in answer to your question “[W]hat kind of groups would you mean?” — the list from history is of course long (too long): the Jews, Armenians, Rwandans, Roma, Cambodians, Assyrians, Kurds, Bosnians . . . and, disturbingly, on and on. I’m sure you’re amply informed on many such events. Certainly, history is rife with attempts around the world to kill, en masse, groups of people based on such distinctions as race, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Meanwhile, the online information is plentiful and easily accessed, so, if I may, I’ll let you do the googling.

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    3. Here are two books of which you were editor-in-chief:

      http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/030/30-21/CMH_Pub_30-21.pdf
      http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/030/30-22/CMH_Pub_30-22.pdf

      Groups were selected for ‘eradication’, ‘elimination’, ‘uprooting’. These are not ethnic groups. However, may one be speaking of ethnic avant gardes? How may one think on that?

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  6. To your point above, Tessa — “is it not rationalisation that incites imaginative offenses?” — I agree. One takeaway from world history is that people’s rationalisation, for which there is no lack of imagination, is what enflames intolerances grounded in racial, ethnic, national, religious, and other bigotries. The Mayans’ condition, depicted by your post, is emblematic of a quintessentially global phenomenon.

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