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Compassion and the Femicides in Santa Teresa

April 9, 2010

I recently read an article in The Week about human compassion and our ability to comprehend mass suffering. The article is and excerpt from the book The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam. It recounts the story of a dog that was lost in the Pacific Ocean on the oil tanker Insinko 1907 when a fire broke out and the crew abandoned the vessel. When word of the incident got out, it captured the imaginations and tugged at the heartstrings of people everywhere. Soon after, checks started showing up (some as much as $5,000) from animal lovers around the world to help fund a rescue effort. The U.S. Coast Guard, the Marines, along with various fishing vessels joined in the effort. The Humane Society contributed $48,000 to help locate and rescue this one dog. This was 2002. Eight years earlier, the same world that showed so much compassion for a dog lost at sea had sat idly by while 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda.

The point of this is not that humans are evil or that our compassion is misguided. It’s that our ability to feel compassion for something depends on our ability to visualize it. In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath’s lay out six principle reasons why some memes stick in our minds better than others: Simple, Concrete, Emotional, Unexpected, Credible, Stories.

These are the characteristics that evoke human emotion, that generate sympathy.  And, I would add, to create actionable sympathy—that is, to persuade someone to actually do something about the sympathy they feel (e.g. donate to a cause)— people must feel they can make a tangible difference, that there is hope for the cause.  You see many of these principles at work in the television commercials for sponsoring starving African children. Although millions are starving, they typically focus on one child and make it simple for you to understand—one dollar a day feeds this one child.

Similarly, the dog on an oil tanker lost at sea is a tangible image. It’s concrete. It’s simple. I can easily picture it. I understand the story: fire breaks out, one dog, one boat. And it’s emotional. On the other hand, 800,000 people slaughtered in Rwanda is not simple or concrete. Rwanda is a country that, before the genocide, most people had never heard of. They didn’t know what it looked like or what the people there looked like. And 800,000 is not a story. It’s a number, not a narrative, and abstract number at that; most people can’t grasp 800,000, have no concept what that looks like. Even when you delve into the story behind the genocide, it’s complicated, a feud going back hundreds of years. Were the Tutsi killing Hutus or vice versa? Who is the good guy? Who is to blame? What can be done?

The axis around which the world of 2666 spins is the town of Santa Teresa, the literary stand-in for Juarez, Mexico. Juarez has been dubbed “the murder capital of the world.” In the past two decades, drug-trade-related violence in northern Mexico has claimed 20,000 lives by one estimate. More specifically, in and around Juarez, over four hundred young women and girls have been brutally raped, murdered, and sometimes mutilated since 1993. Most of those crimes remain unsolved.

What I found most shocking as I read more about the murders is that I had heard nothing of them before (although now that I’m digging, there have been a few movies made about the topic, starring the likes of Minnie Driver, Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas). I knew that the Mexican drug gangs were getting more violent, had heard stories of severed heads being rolled onto the floors of night clubs and other intimidation tactics employed by gangs, but not of the violence against women in Juarez.

This may stem from all kinds of problems with the mainstream U.S. media, but it also relates to my earlier point about what generates compassion. Like Rwanda, hundreds of women being murdered in a small town south of the border is terrible but not tangible. It’s actually quite hard to believe. And it certainly is not simple. It is a story that lies at the crossroads of geopolitics, the drug war, sociopathic behavior, social justice, economics, sexual predators, abuse, immigration and globalization. There is no simple box to put this in, no one-liner elevator pitch.

I can’t speak to Bolaño’s intent when it comes to “The Part About The Crimes.” I heard that he started this novel with the intention of writing a science fiction story, but as he started to write about the murders, they just took over. Perhaps it was nothing more than a literary gravity–I can see the murders growing in size and importance, overwhelming Bolaño as he wrote the story like they do us when we read it. But whether it was his main intent or not, what “The Part About The Crimes” does is make the murders in Juarez painfully concrete. By cataloging them with the precision of a coroner’s report, he gives each single murder a place, when possible a name and a face. The victims are no longer statistics–they become people, individuals. Whatever one knows about the Juarez murders, after reading “The Part About the Crimes” they will not be soon forgotten. Whether there is any hope, the hope that is necessary to spur action, that’s another matter. 2666 doesn’t leave much room for hope.

“There’s no end to it, is there, Juan de Dios?”

“No end, no end,” answered Juan de Dios.  [p532]

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