Social Science, Trauma, and Atrocity

A social scientist approaches writing about atrocity in a peculiar way.

Atrocious events are traumatic events. They overflow people’s normal capacity to process and assimilate the psychological, cognitive, and moral qualities of pain and suffering, whether their own or others’. Scholars of any stripe, if they write about atrocity, have a responsibility to address this overflow, to help restore the resilience which enables people to process their experiences and continue living. While all scholars, as public intellectuals, can write and speak in support of political activism aimed at bringing aid to the victims of atrocity, scholars also make a cognitive contribution: we work to understand atrocity, to make it comprehensible. But humanistic scholars and social scientists go about this in different ways.

The humanistic scholar works to process the subjective experience of atrocity. They do this, in part, to contribute to that subjective process by which people assimilate and recover from painful experiences. They  do it also to make others aware of the occurrence and consequences of atrocious acts, to mobilize on behalf of atrocity’s victims that human sympathy which inevitably has been denied them, or given them in insufficient share. The humanistic scholar must therefore concern themselves intimately with the idiographic, the personal, the unrepeatable qualities of individual experience.

The social scientist, on the other hand, has a different responsibility. This is: to find, in inferno itself, the patterns of conflagration, the mechanisms and forces which produce the fire.  To do this, the social scientist must practice a certain detachment.  Although the social scientist must recognize and affirm the unique and unrepeatable lived experience of atrocity, the truth they seek is not to be found in that experience itself, but in dynamics of cause and effect which operate without regard to human joy and suffering. To them, the knowledge of the victim is necessary but not adequate to the explanation of events. This detachment can seem clinical and cold, even inhuman, when applied to atrocity. But the social scientist practices their craft precisely in the Promethean hope that by so doing they may help to find ways to tame the fires of passionate action, quench the blaze of collective violence and cruelty, and prevent further outbreaks before they start.

The most clinical detachment may serve a passionate aspiration for the preservation of humanity.

(public domain image by Katherine Newburg)

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