Last week, laid out in the center of the Arts Quad were five sets of sets of flags, each displaying a number. Heading each display was the name of a different nation: Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Somalia and Sudan. These signs, placed there by Cornell Amnesty International as a part of the Week of Action, counted the number of refugees displaced from each nation, and were designed to raise awareness about the hardships faced these millions. On Wednesday night, nearly all of the 250 flags were removed from the ground and scattered throughout North Campus. And it is very difficult to understand why.
The display made no mention of policy prescriptions, nor did it assign blame to any nation or group of people. It made no normative claims about the states it mentioned or any conflicts in which they are currently involved. In fact, apart from the choice to highlight these nations, the display was entirely apolitical, so it is not obvious why a person might find cause to object to a set of demographic statistics. But I think it comes down to the shortcuts we take when we reach the limits of our empathy
When I was 12 years old, I read Night like it was written by my father. It’s a short book, the 110-page account of Elie Wiesel’s life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald from 1944 to 1945. He calls it his deposition.
Thumbing through the light paperback on what I remember as a Saturday afternoon, I read this stranger’s narrative like it was a deeply personal family memory. The features of the character I constructed in my head were familiar, and every pain he felt seemed immediate. Fear and heartbreak jumped from the text on the page, and landed somewhere near my chest. This, I think, was a shortcut taken in deference to an empathy that had reached the limit of its ability. The extent of Wiesel’s tragedy was such that the only way I could think to process it was to place myself within it.
When faced with a certain scale of devastation, we are often confronted with the reality that the full scope of a stranger’s pain is impossible to comprehend on face. Staring at a flashing news banner or reading gory statistics in a textbook makes it clear that no matter how brutal a distant tragedy may be, it is extremely difficult to fully understand. And that is a deeply unpleasant experience. Much as I may like to be able to say that I know and can cognize the pain of some far away other, this is just so rarely the case.
Instead, we construct narratives to give ourselves a hand. In a certain context, like a movie or a book, where the narrative is laid out in detail, we will impose ourselves into the story. But when the presentation is more dispassionate, like a sign with a number, the shortcuts we take tend to be altogether more political. We might choose to digest the casualties of war as a necessary consequence, or the sign of a misguided leader. The victims of a natural disaster become the evidence of a necessary policy prescription, or a neglectful government. Regardless of the specifics, even when we are sympathetic to the pain that is being felt, the bodies and the lives are not really the point. They are the function of whatever larger meaning we would like them to have.
The lens through which Americans have chosen to witness the exodus of millions of refugees has been largely dominated by a perception of threat. It is hard to disentangle the various flavors of hysteria that have amalgamated in political discourse to create a widespread feeling that it would be a risk to allow the entry or support the survival of the victims of widespread war. Race and religion certainly play a role, but more than anything it is the overarching perception that advocacy for these refugees comes somehow at the expense of American safety.
Viewed in this light, it is unsurprising that someone might see these signs as something other than a humanitarian announcement. Those who took these flags, just like those who continue to peddle terror and hate, have chosen to understand this suffering with a narrative of fear. For months, America has been afraid of the shadows of huddled children walking in the dark, and for want of empathy, it seems we still are.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.