Expanding Our Groups: Reflections on Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

Obviously, images of human suffering are hard to take. But Regarding the Pain of Others is worth a close read anyway. Susan Sontag, a brilliant writer, encourages readers to look, to not shy away, and to reflect. 

Through her lens we see Jacques Callot's Les Grandes Misères et Malheurs de la Guerre, Goya's Los Desastres de la Guerra, and images of the Civil War, the lynchings in the South, the Nazi death camps, the Vietnam war, and the 2001 attack on New York City. She gives us a snapshot of atrocities, staged wartime photos, and propaganda. 

Not since reading Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem have I been confronted with such precision and insight about atrocities humans commit against other humans, and about the "banality of evil." Sontag writes:

"To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood."
While reading Sontag's book I made a point to search the images on the web. I found them all. And I'm still reeling. But what can I do with all these images of violence and horror? Is recognition and feeling compassion enough? Should I, as self-preservation, allow myself to become callous, indifferent to images from far away or in the past? Sontag suggests we should translate compassion into action.
"Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do...then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic."
Indeed, cynicism and apathy are poisonous and paralyzing. While it may just be our nature as a species to form groups, to separate our own groups from individuals in other groups, to misrepresent each other and attack the misrepresentation, to define people as we see them and not as they really are, Sontag’s book reminds me that I can instead and should work to expand our definitions of groups to include all of humanity, to understand the pain of others, to recognize that people in East Africa and France and people all over the world experience much of the same things I experience, to remember that violence against my next door neighbor is just as terrible as violence against the people of Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine.

We can take action by expanding our own identified groups to include all of humanity. We can work to understand that we are part of an extremely large group of individuals who suffer, love, and experience anger and joy. Doing this work will likely reduce political disagreement and remind us to eschew acts of violence all over the world. This is why Sontag's book is important, at least for me.

This book is not entertainment. Not easy reading. But it should still be read, even though violence en masse appears to be on the decline and our current conditions, for the most part, don't resemble some Hobbesian state of nature. It should be read as we contemplate ongoing conflicts around the world. It serves as a warning sign, a reminder to not repeat past errors. 

Suggestions for Further Reading

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil 

By Hannah Arendt

Why Isn't There More Violence?

By John Mueller

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

By Steven Pinker

Joint Geneva Statement on Ukraine from April 17: The Full Text