Saturday, November 14, 2015

Considering Humanity and Representation

I had the incredible privilege to visit France on three different occasions, beginning in high school exchanges with Lycée Bréquigny in Rennes, in northwestern France (Bretagne). The host students and their families, friends that became pivotal to how I regarded the world revealed that our (U.S.) culture, ideology, and mannerisms are different. Yet I also came to realize that at the end of the day, we all desire the same thing: love, liberty, security, connection, and heck, if success came along with that, even better. Travelling opened those doors for my mind and soul. After three cycles of exchange students, I knew I would return to France

In August 2011, my sophomore year at St. Lawrence University, I embarked on a semester-long life in Normandy, the north-central province of France. Rouen was only an hour north of Paris by train. New families and faces and landscapes, each peeling back another layer of humanity. The full-throttle immersion was not always easy, and honestly I probably gained 10-15 pounds from stress-induced eating. In France that meant flaky, full-fat buttered croissants and luscious Belgian chocolate. I spent most of my time travelling the country, rather than hopping around Europe, because there were so many regions and histories to discover. I'm likely among the millions, perhaps billions, of people who can say that they hold Paris "close to their heart." My program spent a full week there, hilariously at the same hostel we stayed at when I was in 10th grade. That was my third visit to Paris, and each day I was still visiting new awe-inspiring sites and secrets.

Over time, France and its people lost a bit of glimmer for me. The aggressive politics of xenophobia, racism, and nativism rubbed me to defense-mode. It was easier to argue and blame me about U.S. neoimperialism and conservatism, than it was to speculate about the context in which it developed. Those interactions were never fun, but that's the trade-off I took for being a U.S. citizen. And honestly, Parisians can suck. Other non-Parisian French even agreed. If you weren't from Paris, they made sure to remind you with a heavy dose of egocentric snobbery. So, we're all human. And by no means perfect.

Although my gilded image of France chipped away by the end of my semester, I was indelibly thankful for the experience. I was transformed and ready to take on more. I think because of those compounded months of intense human experiences, I developed a more dynamic lens through which I could view the world. Travelling isn't the only way to hone these sorts of revelations, but it was for me.

So what's my point? There will always be part of me connected to France. By connecting with another culture despite language barriers and cultural difference, I felt (feel) more connected to humanity. Humans are complex, socialized, historicized creatures, situated into cultures and perspectives they have no control over. I actually love exploring that notion.

Humans can also be cruel. You can check out from the internet and radio for a few hours, and suddenly the world has flipped. I had caught a brief clip on the radio when the Paris attacks began, but it wasn't until this morning that I learned of the enormity. My mind is reeling, the more I learn. I'm so relieved that my Rouen host sister, who lives in Paris, is safe.

Through my punctuated grief and washes of pain for France, I can't help but feel guilty about my reaction, too. I think this crisis and the media spectacle has exposed the enormous deficit in the way we understand the world. For the most part, our lens of understanding is dominated and directed by corporate media, and instantly consumed.

What did I say earlier? "...and suddenly the world has flipped." Because I'm a U.S. citizen, "the world" equates to whom we most relate: U.S. military powers of the Global North, such as France. They are our partners, so similar to our ideals and what we stand for; liberté, égalité, franternité. The attackers were obviously individually motivated, but it is imperative that we don't forget the historical circumstances that lead them to this destruction. 'Terrorism' is too easy of an excuse, and a cop out. Recall: humanity is complicated. Was France possibly complicit in its own disaster? How deeply are we examining the rise of the Islamic State and extremism?

The unfortunate reality is that France holds greater proximity, and thereby priority, to me than Beirut. Than Syria. Than the Congo. Violence like this is happening every fucking day, and now I'm finally reacting (aside from the occasional-but-increasingly-frequent conversations to commiserate with my friends). The world is reacting with more for France because I've been told -- we've been told -- to do so. It terrifies and disgusts me that we are normalized to the violence in other parts of the world that aren't a national priority. 

By no means am I saying that anyone in Paris, France, or the rest of the world deserved this horror. But before we begin aiming our guns and hatred, don't forget what we -- the United States, France, the Global North or dare I say, Western Imperialists --  have done to others. Our drones drop bombs on villages in Pakistan every day. We've tortured and slaughtered thousands of Iraqis as mere suspects of terrorism, whether they were complicit or not. Thousands of refugees have sacrificed absolutely everything they know to escape hell, seeking refuge in Europe and the U.S., and we refuse to open our doors widely. Where was the safe button for Beirut, bombed two days ago? Where IS the safe button for Palestinians? These people have lives, families, histories, and dreams that simply aren't acknowledged. They are portrayed as the 'Other': static, unchangeable, voiceless, inherently unrelateable. That's reflected in simplistic answers, and blanketed assumptions. We aren't granting all people the human complexity they deserve.

What I'm asking is to make sure you take a moment to lift the blinds on your lens. Say a prayer, send your thoughts, post your hashtags for France. Because Paris, je t'aime. I really do. But please take a moment to remember others suffering in this world. Don't ever let violence be normal. I need to remind myself this more often.

There's one last piece to my brain vomit: perhaps my guilt is misplaced. I do have tangible and psychological connections with France, so it makes sense that I would be rattled. However, as humans, what is the threshold for empathy? How much information can we actually process?Technology has allowed this endless barrage of news and sensationalism to flood our minds, so is it possible to care about everyone and everything all the time? I can't believe that it is. I think I just despise how easily our minds are interpellated to care about some more than others.

I'm not trying to be self-congratulatory. Just trying to reflect critically on what's happening, and where we go from here.

All photos my own, taken in Paris in late October 2011.

1 comment:

Cal Lee said...

Enjoy reading your piece Nicole. I think you're asking all the right questions and I think you should dive more into answering these questions with your personal perspective.