Too Much of a Bad Thing: An Analysis of Desensitization and the Rwandan Genocide
Upon hearing that the United Nations had no obligation to intervene with the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch recounts a conversation he held with an American intelligence officer at a Kagali bar. When asked what genocide truly is, the officer suggests it is much like “a cheese sandwich”(Gourevitch). To compare such an atrocious and barbaric mass killing of innocent civilians to a cheese sandwich seems rather absurd, a suggestion that initially struck me as an insulting over-simplification of such a complex and painful tragedy. Then, the quote continued and gained my understanding, as the officer lamented, “What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?.. Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit”(Gourevitch)? As he repeated these words, I understood the numbing effect he was trying to convey. When faced with an overwhelming amount of global conflicts and tragedies, a society separate from the occurrences becomes unintentionally apathetic, as the stories begin to seem commonplace and the terrors are no longer shocking.
When the Jewish people were brutally killed by the thousands during the infamous Holocaust, the world could hardly fathom that such evil could take place in the twentieth century. Stories of men, women, and even children being slaughtered without hesitation was something so alien to the civilized societies of Europe and America, that at the end of the war and defeat of Nazi Germany, the United Nations swore to never let history repeat itself, and held what was known as the “Genocide Convention,” in which they discussed the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. Through the organization and officiality of their promise, the members of the United Nations consoled themselves with the belief that after such a shocking atrocity, they would never again allow history to repeat itself. Yet, the effects seemed to have worn off as history repeated itself again and again, in Cambodia, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and in Darfur. As the genocides appeared one after another, they did not attract aid, they no longer shocked the “peacemakers” of other nations. Just as the military intelligence officer explained, the effect of a genocide has become no more moving than the effect of a cheese sandwich. Both have become bland and expected, and the actions that were promised to be taken against such genocides have become noting more than “a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich” (Gourevitch).
I came to an understanding of how human apathy in the face of atrocity is possible through Sontag’s exploration of violent images and their relation to society’s interpretation/reaction to brutality and suffering. In her discussion, Sontag claims that “image-glut keeps attention light, mobile, relatively indifferent to content” (Sontag). In the same sense that images of barbarity can blend into one another and eventually be viewed passively by those who are not directly affected by it, stories of suffering across the globe can become the same.
When this violent image-glut becomes so prominent that it begins to influence an area’s identity, circumstances become even more hopeless. Such is the case in the American perspective of African culture, as exposure to it is typically limited to commercials displaying starving children or impoverished families without access to water. When the eyes and ears of developed nations are trained to hear only tragedy involving third world countries, they tend to turn the other way. The effect intensifies when the people being impacted by tragedy are especially different from those of developed countries as well, which was the case with the genocides following the western tragedy of the Holocaust.
Using this idea of detachment and desensitization, I was able to observe how our ability to imagine ourselves in other people determines our willingness to intervene or feel obligated to begin some sort of action. When violence occurs somewhere where it is commonplace, we become indifferent to the influx of gruesome images or testimonies. The frequency of the cruelty gains a reputation more as the area’s culture rather than an emergency, and organizations which swore to prevent mass murder and genocide find themselves sitting back and pardoning their inaction with the excuse that they “simply [weren’t] given the tools” to intervene (Gourevitch). It is because there already exists a barbaric and underdeveloped stereotype attached to our perception of Africa that many of us view its people as vastly different from ourselves. This inferior complex is the justification that enabled the enslavement of its people hundreds of years before and is now being used to pardon those in power to help to sit back and allow blatant human rights violations to continue and the situation to exponentially worsen. This mentality heeds our understanding of cultures separate from our own, and in this case, leaves others to suffer in desperate situations. These perceptions can largely be attributed to the limited view we are given of Africa, as we solely receive images of suffering and starvation, which contribute to its stereotype of primality. Therefore, while images of violence can serve to inform the public of the explicit details of cruelty happening across the world, it remains pertinent that we take an approach to these countries’ representation that is similar to the structure of humanities—to offer images apart from those which are graphic in order to develop a more holistic understanding of African culture. This way, when tragedies such as the Rwandan genocide arise, we will perhaps be more provoked to aid a population that has been more humanized.
While Gourevitch’s compilation of stories within his book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families serve to describe in explicit detail the actions of the direct perpetrators of the genocide, it is important that we as fellow humans recognize the role which we played in its continuation as well. The apathy displayed by the United Nations after being informed of the exact happenings within Rwanda parallels exactly to Sontag’s revelation of the apathetic effects of the over-exploitation of violence. Because Africa has historically been represented as a savage, barbaric continent, the news of the genocide triggered an indifferent response from audiences in the position to help. For this reason, we must try to approach such situations with the intent to seek context as Gourevitch did in his book, learning the personal stories and searching for humanity amongst the chaos in order to ultimately sympathize and hold our promises to seek a solution.
*In the process of revising, I removed sentences that appeared to be loaded with more emotion than evidence. In addition, I split up the third paragraph and added more information on the roots of desensitization in order to provide a better and more logical flow of information.