Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the first installment.]

I.  Comfortably Numb

I never studied abroad as a BC undergraduate, which was probably for the best, since I had vague designs of going to Australia (primarily to surf, of course). I felt honored to be invited to participate in the faculty seminar in Latin America, and decided to treat it as the study abroad experience I never had. Preparing for the trip, I found myself asking more basic questions: what is the point of study abroad? How does it fit into the greater purpose of college? And what does all of this have to do with human rights? I wondered: beyond the facts and statistics and history of the dictatorships and their litany of human rights violations, what will I learn of great value that I can bring back to my students? It wasn’t until weeks after I’d returned that I recalled a scene from the film Calvary that crystallized the most important thing I learned.


In the climactic scene, a priest, with a gun to his head, confesses to a victim of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal. He confesses not to abuse, or sexual assault, or rape—indeed, the priest is the sole virtuous soul in the small town that is the setting of the film–but to apathy. The victim, unable to wreak his vengeance on either the deceased perpetrator or the impersonal institution of the church, decides to focus his fury toward one of its innocent representatives. He asks the priest, “When you read about [the abuse scandal] in the papers, did you cry?” The priest thinks for a moment and says, “No.” “Why?” He shrugs, and mutters something like “It’s just somethin’ you read about it the papers. I was just…detached from it.” The priest—the person who is thought to be, and should be, the moral exemplar of the community—has become numb to the most heinous of acts; and ones perpetrated by the institution he loves and serves.

In some ways, he simply embodies the modern condition: inundated hourly by an onslaught of news—most of it negative, much of it grisly—it is natural to become numb to it all. The civil war in Syria, the European refugee crisis, culture wars over immigration, mass shootings, a terrorist attack here, a terrorist attack there… after awhile it all runs together with who got dumped on The Bachelor and the daily ritual of “Ugh…so what did he tweet today?” Swipe right, swipe left. Email. Text. Snap.

At one level, of course, such apathy is rational. The higher the numbers and the greater the distance, the harder it is to be moved by the suffering, the easier it is to scroll to the next story and get on with your day. And, besides, beyond perhaps donating to a relief agency, there’s usually little we can do.

But if we shift from the macro to the micro—from the global to the local—we can ask what effect this over-exposure has on our everyday relationships. What habits of mind and heart does it cultivate? By growing numb to the suffering of the world, do we gradually, imperceptibly grow numb to the suffering of those around us—and even our very selves? Perhaps this instinct to turn away from suffering, to cling to comfort, to resist resistance—call it the “primordial avoidance”—is exacerbated by what the late political scientist Benjamin Barber termed the “infotainment telesector.” Perhaps this—the slightest shift in regard—is how we grow insensitive, calloused, closed, jaded. Perhaps this is how we become people incapable of being moved.

[Part Two coming soon…]

One Reply to “Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America”

  1. After shifting to the micro, come the challenge of choosing – which sufferings to respond to vs. tune out in order to respond to others? One does not need to travel abroad – ample overload on just about every doorstep. This post reminds that we all need each other, that each of us can indeed cultivate our givingness, our receptivity to others.