Wednesday, May 15, 2013
A cannibal in Syria
This ought not to be an important subject - one crazed guy in a horrifying video and a disturbing interview. Some insist that it takes attention away from far worse atrocities. That hasn't had much effect. It takes more than morality and politics to explain the divergent reactions..
The vocabulary of the reports is suggestive. In Foreign Policy, Peter Bouckaert asked Is This the Most Disgusting Atrocity Filmed in the Syrian Civil War? There was another source of disgust, some jokes about the incident. All these reactions testify to the special character of the atrocity. Cannibalism is an act fundamentally unlike the torture and massacre that outrage morality.
The prohibition of cannibalism is not so much a fundamental moral principle as a deep, deep taboo. The victim wasn't killed to be eaten; he'd died in battle. Eating parts of already dead bodies harms no one - unlike killing torture, exploitation and virtually all 'normal' moral concerns. We - I include myself - very much want to think of cannibalism as terribly wrong, but the commentary is accurate: really, it's terribly disgusting. It gets special attention for that reason. It deserves that attention, because it arouses fears that our efforts to civilize ourselves have failed. It's supposed to be something animals might do, but not humans. This certainly seems important whether or not anyone is harmed.
When people make jokes about cannibalism, it's not that they don't take it seriously; it's that they don't quite manage to see it as a moral outrage. (Moral rules are broken all the time; taboos, very rarely.) The video was literally a horror movie. People laugh at horror movies for the same reason: because they're thoroughly unsettling and humour is a kind of nervous reaction, a way to bring the horror down to size. No one says: "how can you laugh? these acts are terribly wrong."
Everyone is right about the cannibalism video. It's disgusting. It needs to be taken seriously; we just don't quite know how. From a moral standpoint there are indeed far more serious crimes. Violating a taboo is very serious, but in a different way.
There is no settling this, but perhaps the spectators can understand one another.