Learning from the pain of others

Image: Suzy Hazelwood


The way we signify the suffering of the other is a symptom of our frequent inability to exercise otherness

In the face of the devastation of life by neoliberalism, such as when thousands of Brazilian citizens died due to the delay in the purchase of vaccines by the federal government in the Covid-19 pandemic, petty and criminal disputes over bribes of one dollar per dose of immunizers, according to evidence of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI), in 2021, as well as the unbelievable scenario of hospitals that officially guided the prescription of chloroquine to hospitalized patients and the suspension of the internationally recommended treatment, due to cost reasons, leading to the death of countless victims with a diagnosis of contamination by the coronavirus, it is really hard to believe that subjects can learn from the pain of others.

In many respects and, unfortunately, for a still considerable contingent of people, the pandemic has taught absolutely nothing, especially in relation to how we place private interests even above collective issues. The new wave of infected people in Brazil with Covid-19 at the beginning of winter and the fact that fatal victims are absolutely within the unvaccinated population or with incomplete immunization, rekindles the debate about how long it will take us to understand the relationship between information and empathy.

The insane position of denial of science and contrary to the work of the Butantan Institute, in São Paulo, the injustices that followed, the unacceptable mourning and the absolute lack of empathy associated with the discourse in favor of CNPJs and not of life, reinforce the scenario of episodes trampled on by the deliberate ineptitude of the State, the strategic failure of public health management by the federal government and a neurotizing dialogue in public spheres, especially digital, closed to the suffering of the other and loaded with hate speech and indifference.

The month of May 2022 was appalling for anyone who has a degree, however small, of humanity. The murder, as in a gas chamber, of a citizen by police in Sergipe, the execution of dozens of people in an “intelligence operation” in Rio, the shooting of children, aggravated by the delay of more than an hour for an effective action by the police, and so many other events are horrendous acts with strong social determination and which are supported by a logic of summary extermination via guidance that even suspects receive “a shot in the little head” (remember?) feedback by a flexible arms trade, associated with a pathological need to demonstrate strength and power, notably marked by the culture of reaffirmation of masculinity, desire for domination and ostensive control.

Neuroscientist and professor emeritus at UFRJ, researcher at Instituto D'Or, Roberto Lent, draws attention to the fact that, alongside political and social determinants, greater attention should be paid to psychotic brains, investigating reasons why certain people kill and torture with absolute coldness, with signs of mental illness such as psychoses. Even more so because these psychoses already accelerate structural processes of violence around us in our daily lives.

Lent highlights recent research by Chinese researchers who have examined the dynamics between brain networks and neuropsychological functions. They discovered different signs between psychopaths (who are generally more violent) and schizophrenics (who suffer from hallucinations because they interpret reality with total anomaly). There needs to be, according to Lent, a better selection so that police officers with diagnoses like this are not authorized to carry out the activity, putting other people's lives at risk. Obviously, public security institutions have very professional contingents, highly prepared in other times and qualified for the functions they performed. One cannot generalize, demonizing the figure of the police. But there are excesses and they need to be punished.

It is deeply embarrassing how the social discourse in defense of positions more sensitive to a communication guided by universal points of view (polis) has been rejected by participants in a dialogue marked by particular desires (oikos) in the current public spheres, where hatred, intolerance and disrespect prevail, slandering total selfishness and trivializing death.

The other's pain can only be perceived when we move from emotions to feelings. Emotion is something private: it is objective and momentary, circumstantial and fleeting. Feelings, on the other hand, are subjective, are potentiated in the community, give meaning to worlds in depth and cannot be theatricalized. Emotions we show and can be acted out. Not feelings. Struggles such as human rights, for example, seek to cross the emotional line to reach the subjectivity that injustices mean. It is not enough to be moved by violence and inhumanity that ignores human rights: it is necessary to be able to perceive them sentimentally because that alone moves us from spectator complacency with what is inadmissible in our conditions, as “humans”.

Critics of discursive formations around human rights have been saying that they are tired of what they call melodramatic narratives that, in their view, have worn out, through excessive use, the term 'empathy', slightly marked in the production of meanings with a clearly ideological bias and in the which the prevailing perception is that of protecting bandits. On the other hand, we feel tired with the cruel indifference to the pain of others, with the intentional naturalization of suffering and deaths that could have been avoided (in the pandemic and beyond, in everyday violence) and with the specter of necropolitics and its nefarious rhetoric of exemption from civic responsibility and lack of moral integrity while the practices of destruction and annihilation appear as natural values ​​and evil is always, again, simply trivialized. A necropolitics in the form of what Mbembe defines as a power that decides who will live and who will die.


Public spaces

The communication practiced in public spaces has often also dramatized the capacity for real indignation in relation to the pain of the other and increased the feeling of nullity of empathic understanding. Our reactive capacity and sensitivity demonstration, today, still lasts a much shorter time than the short minutes of journalistic coverage in reference media about brutal events such as the death of peripheral citizens or minorities, the murder of innocent citizens in urban life by hand of the police, like stray bullets victimizing children inside the house or the injustices and inhumanities in a perverse logic around diversity and intolerance of differences. We sigh seconds of revolt when a “stray” bullet kills a child. And we practice a comfortable consternation before the world that follows the emotion represented in the convention of our culture. The economic cultural matrix makes us think that it is “life that goes on”. But for whom?

Our annoyance lasts the time, today, from passing through a post on social networks to the frantic scrolling of our fingers on the mobile technology screens of our smartphones e tablets: perception at your fingertips. Few characters simulate denunciations and solidarity that we deem sufficient in a demonstration of our assumed humanism, manifested from the place of our comfortable sofas in our homes and we still say “we are together” as if this actually comforted someone in the moment of pain. We say we are in solidarity with the suffering of families who lost everything as a result of landslides and the mud that covered urban parts of entire neighborhoods because we saw scenes on television or on social networks. Militants for social justice in the enclosure of our extreme individualities, we believe that the screen brings us closer together. The utopia of the first idealists of the frivolous promise of digital technology was not confirmed.

We are, in fact, less and less capable of a welcoming political gesture. Disclaimer notes are no longer enough (they never were) and have become as ineffective as the reproduction of clichés in resistance speeches in the digital universe, which only create and reinforce stereotypes of an apparent humanization that serves more the comfort of our consciences than our duty. to reach out to the other's feelings and make some substantial practical difference to him. The different words of force in the circulating counter-discourses no longer produce meaning. Empty signifiers.

The way we signify the suffering of the other is a symptom of our frequent inability to exercise alterity, conceptually, in the Greek tradition of the term, as the exercise of putting oneself in the place of the other, of perceiving the other as a singular and subjective person. and to make, through it, that the suffering of others is, at the same time, mitigated by some effective sense of justice and that it can promote something far from just our protocol communicative reactions in the digital public spheres.

Suffering from alterity also carries the risk of deepening violence as it increases the vulnerability of the other, as objectively defined by Iris Young, in 2001, an American philosopher and political scientist, when she published Communication and the other: beyond deliberative democracy. Some measure is needed as the search for a balance, but in this dispute, perhaps, we are losing at a large disadvantage, because we do not know how to create a communication in the public spheres that in fact contemplates transformations of the space of the polis with effect in the decision-making and mobilization instances of the virtualized public opinion.

Iris Young, in a work published posthumously, also made an important contribution to the theory of social justice based on the concept of responsibility. Our evolutionary stage does not bring, to the social field of communication experienced in digital public spheres, the responsibility that belongs to those who promote violence. There are many legitimate struggles around them, their visibility is undoubtedly necessary, but they cannot obscure the essential: it is necessary to point the finger at the deepest problem even than social injustices, all such as structural racism, or femicide, the genocide of minorities or the annihilation of subjects whose bodies are judged incredulously as bodies without dignity are necessary and urgent struggles.

It is necessary to see in all forms of violence the inhuman and unacceptable nature of the species itself. There is no way to understand the psyche of a subject who, in his capacity as a federal highway police officer, considers circumstantial and justifiable the treatment of violence that seeks to asphyxiate another (a subject of the same species) to whom he submits in a stage of outemization and that promotes the practice of human extermination, as happened recently in Sergipe, taking the life of another person by deliberately restricting oxygen, in an act of torture that cannot even be imagined against an animal life, let alone against a human being.

Unbelievable brutal savagery, especially coming from Federal Highway Patrols. Who is this being who judges himself superior by his uniform to act on another whom he considers inferior to the point of taking his life with tear gas and pepper spray, forcing him to try to breathe in a closed place, subjecting the person to a torture of searching for life in the midst of a lack of oxygen while the police officer presses the lid of the car's trunk in front of the other's agony in a desperate search for air, in his eagerness to survive the torture of asphyxiation, waving his legs out of the door -bags?



It is the inhumanity of police treatment that must be the subject to be debated. We just don't know how to use the public spheres to raise the real cause of the problem. They are different struggles: that of awareness around all these injustices, such as the deeply necessary anti-racist struggle, and that of prejudice against the social condition associated with a presumption of a hierarchy of forces, driven by a total lack of preparation within public security institutions and an inhuman formation with false notions of authority.

Both converge on a point that really interests us in favor of an evolutionary society: it is not just a battle against fundamentalisms and crimes, whether racial, class, sexual orientation, or gender: there are black police officers who have already subjected non-white women to the agony of a knee forced into the neck, for example, imposing the life-control force in an unacceptable agonistic position against another person.

These episodes need to be seen as inhuman and unacceptable beyond prejudice or racism. They are parents killing children, children killing parents, they are violence beyond phenotypes and economic, class, gender or any other classifying social conditions, even though these are equally urgent fights and that in fact the incidence of victims for reasons skin or gender are more frequent than others. What we are seeing happen are illnesses. It's humans killing their own, and this is a perception that needs to be raised. That needs to be taken up in the family debate, in schools, but, above all, in the police forces in their training, in training courses and in daily procedures for approaching citizens, criminals or not. Police don't have to be less rigorous in dealing with violence because someone is gay or black, poor or whatever their ethnicity. But because we are all human.

We almost complacently witness daily scenes of flagrant violence and appalling disrespect for life and human dignity. The road police officers who suffocated to death Genivaldo dos Santos, in Sergipe, at the end of May this year, arrested because he was driving a motorcycle without wearing a helmet, thought they were doing their job properly. Genivaldo was treated as a suspect in a crime because he was not wearing a helmet. Nothing would happen to him if he were president. Some bodies are seen as worthy of respect, esteem and consideration, but in the aesthetics of prejudice, there is no place of dignity for someone who commits a traffic violation if he is wearing shorts and a T-shirt, wearing flip-flops, and if the motorcycle he is driving is not is neither young nor expensive, its skin is not white, nor its eyes are light so that the police authority's approach is mild and without exaggeration. A citizen's phenotype and zip code continue to define his treatment and prescribe his destiny. Being born a woman has also been an increasingly affected condition in the face of the growth of femicide crimes. But, the violence is even more widespread. It is not even limited to identity or guidance labels. It is also necessary to decolonize what we mean by identity.

Tweeted emotions and dismay on Facebook or descriptions on TikTok and Instagram, as well as shares on networks such as Telegram, WhatsApp or Signal, no longer express feelings of our humanity: they only appear in the field of perceptions, with emotions regulated, contained , ritualized and transient, culturally already determined, and therefore colonized. They reproduce equally ideological discursivities like the ones they themselves condemn. Mandela spoke for the dream of a humanity in which there was no more difference between whites and blacks, not only in Africa, but in the world. He was aware that a fight over race endogeneity could create even more violent sectarianism.

It is for no other reason that in the United States, where we are comparatively many years ahead of the fight waged in the rest of America against racial prejudice, the marks of racism and segregation are still so visible today, like separate neighborhoods by phenotypes, cities and regions marked by ethnic differences and borders dividing the human right to a life in peace and security. We recently took into our arms children who died in the waters off the coast of Greece, when their families tried to cross the sea towards Turkey, as refugees from Syria. Those shocking scenes seemed to be a blunt historical proof that perhaps the struggle for a more equitable society in terms of rights should not be built based on a differentiating perspective that separates us, whites on one side, blacks on the other, heteronormatives, and people from different backgrounds. identifications and sexual orientations, let alone nationalities or geopolitical borders.

We are all human. As long as we do not understand this, every fight will only be an endogenous flag of a minority in the reach of its rights and identity affirmation that leads, understandably, to fatigue. Struggles need to be collective, but collectives are revolutionary only when all are united, as were the great revolutionary moments in history, such as May 1968 in France: “Etudiants, enseignants, travailleurs, tous unis".

A traffic violation like the one committed by Genivaldo is not a crime, nor should it be a justification for a citizen to pay with his life for disobeying traffic laws. The repression and frustration of the life of security agents, under daily stress, do not explain the stupidity and bestiality of these behaviors. There was no resistance on the part of Genivaldo, he did not appear to be violent nor was he armed, although an internal PRF bulletin, according to press reports, described the opposite, at the same time that it qualified Genivaldo's death as a “bad sudden”. But there are images. And we need them more and more so that narratives do not distort the truth or distort the facts.

Police corporations are returning to adopting the camera in vehicles and uniforms. They are a guarantee, above all, to public security agents themselves. An unprepared police force that banned human rights classes from its training, which does not assess the psychological conditions of agents in their corporations, allowing their frustrations and repressions to be channeled into the expression of power in the streets, into the domination they believe they have over life of others and in the excess of errors of approach conduct, make us discredit that citizens are in fact protected by those who have, precisely, the constitutional duty to do so.

It is not a question of politicizing the argument with a false syllogism, as if the idea were to make us believe that we are trying to defend that the police should be soft with dangerous bandits. But it is always against those who pose no danger that this bravery is tried out, while one does not have the courage to face militias, nor the crime of drug trafficking, nor does one show any bravery against those who, in fact, carry a gun, commit serious crimes and threaten people. . It is incredible that we are still in a Brazil that punishes those who steal food and absolves those who commit much worse crimes, according to the Penal Code. It is not possible to understand why this need for a demonstration of force for public opinion when it is known that not even the police can enter certain areas of some cities. The public image of security agents was much more destroyed by themselves and their desire to show courage, courage and determination, but against the wrong people. It's easy to be brave against those who pose no danger.


dramatized emotion

We cry more because of the emotion dramatized in teledramaturgy than in everyday scenes that surpass any fiction plot. We are as if vaccinated for the universe of news. In the disoriented society of our world-culture, as Gilles Lipovetsky describes, we are losing references of meaning and meaning.

We neurotize the television audience and delete from our social bubbles everything else that affects the categorical imperative of the rhetoric for our happiness. The sharpness of the cruelty and the perversity of the world that we ourselves have consented to became gigantic in overcoming any predictability and lucidity became unbearable, as described by the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. On the various platforms of virtual public spaces, we feed a purely evidentiary communication about brutality, inhumanity and everything that hurts our human condition to the point that we prefer, for mental health and even self-survival, to resign ourselves to the role of knowing them without actually feeling it. them, as if emotionalized, they were resolved in our consciences. After all, we need to be happy. If not others, at least us. This is what we unbelievably think of in the exacerbated individualism of our era. Imperious individuality in a time of uncertainty, as Zygmunt Bauman had denounced.

Twenty years of tragedies follow each other in Brazilian cities with landslides, bodies buried in the mud: families who have lost everything. The horror of inhumanity repeats itself. And we have become viewers of digital public spheres, reproducing the massive audience on open television with its rituals of emotionality. We impacted. But we do very little. Our reactive capacity is tamed by the imaginary of super-industry, with capital transforming our sensitivity and ability to look, “appropriating everything that is visible”, as Eugênio Bucci says.

Phillip Schlesinger (2022), researcher at the University of Glasgow, reinforces that the public sphere is still the main loci of political communication and the strategies and tactics that characterize this type of social communication. We underestimate, at all times, the real potential of social media, the use of networks and their mobilizing force. Habermas, when proposing the concept of public sphere as something that is around, as a space of Logos and decision-making bodies, in the 1960s, admitted (although only at the end of the 1990s) that he had been very pessimistic and, for a long time, with the critical resistance potential of these non-episodic and non-presential public spheres, due to the way he thought about these media as public spheres, mistakenly taken in another sense at the beginning and not as synonymous with broader communication, with its symbolic exchanges.

Effectively, Jürgen Habermas never positioned himself as a media theorist, but as the author of a theory of communication and discourse, which makes it not even make much sense to criticize him for this limitation that he properly assumed. A follower of the tradition of Adorno and Horkheimer, the Frankfurt School and critical theory, as well as one of the most vigorous mentalities among living intellectuals who will soon complete a century of life (in 2029, he will be one hundred years old) and still impresses us today with his ability to think about the future far beyond its time. I was able to attend some of his classes and conferences in Germany, in the early 1990s, and dialogue with him, albeit briefly, when I learned that as a Brazilian and fluent in German, I was among his students in those huge auditoriums.

Communication researchers colleagues Luis Martino (ESPM) and Ângela Marques (UFMG) rescued this Habermasian condition, remembering that Habermas himself pointed out, in 2004, that we are dependent on the moral condition of our apprehension and capacity for recognition (empathy) in relation to the suffering of the other, being necessary to feel “with the other”, according to the appropriation that the German philosopher made of George Herbert Mead regarding communicative interactions. “It is an ethical work of understanding motives and reasons”, say Martino and Marques (2021), so that we can assume the pain of the other as our own. Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser will continue with reflections on how we build this recognition.

Empathy cannot be seen/perceived as a response that alleviates the asymmetries and inequalities that define the conditions of recognition and non-recognition of subjects and groups (YOUNG, 2001). It needs to be dimensioned as part of the actual evolutionary stage of our human condition and the reiteration of universal and collective values.

We can ask ourselves, with Habermas (2014), to what extent a public sphere dominated by mass (or mass) media provides the real opportunity for change. And to this we add: how much we still lack in communicative capacity so that we can learn the use of public spheres such as the internet and digital media as spaces for reinforcing universal and collective values ​​and not mere freedom of our private dimension and expression opinative?


digital public spheres

Opinion everyone thinks they have. Most don't even see that we are never, in fact, owners of our own ideas. We are the product of discourses that cross us in historical materiality, as understood by Pêcheux and the entire tradition of French discourse analysis. In the inevitable tension game that establishes language through disputed discourses, the conformity of the world is being given to us. The saying and the said challenge us in increasingly mediated discursive formations.

When we think about whether we have, in fact, made the digital public spheres favor the production of meanings in the direction of a more evolved humanity or if they are just being used as media in favor of dystopias, ending up reinforcing destructive ideologies, of retrogression and disenchantment, annihilating hope and, above all, denialists, symbolically marked by “gun” gestures with the hands, by the stupid idea that the population should be armed when public security is unable to face the real crime. It is the State seeking to exempt itself more and more from its duty. It is neoliberalism valuing the arms trade, regardless of the serious consequences of this, given the ease of acquisition of weapons by the civilian population and the historical increase in crimes due to this ease of access. There was no decrease in crime in the United States with the ease in the arms trade and there are no plausible reasons why it would be in Brazil.

Perhaps the digital public spheres have served too much to reinforce illusory awareness that it is necessary to kill in order to resolve, that deaths due to violence are natural, that the ends justify the means and that when it is not possible to fight structured crime, nor to face the militias, the ghettos and urban areas where not even the police can enter, as in drug trafficking, the State can wash its hands of absolute ineptitude and seek to exempt its responsibility for these deaths.

Without knowing how to act in the face of the social problem of cracolândia, for example, our public security and our governments project as enemies those they can face and use their weaknesses to reaffirm their fighting strength, the one they do not have, trying to build a different image with the community. public opinion. They only reinforced the opposite.

Handcuffing and asphyxiating Genivaldo is easy, it is no proof of the police's action to combat violence. It is, on the contrary, the confirmation of a weak training and a bestial condition with which security agents organize their uncontrolled synapses, affected by the matrix of populist thought in which the enemy is always the other. It matters more to seem than to be. Even if for that, lives are annihilated as if they were unnecessary, disposable or the deaths resulting from this mentality are said to be natural.

The pain of saying these things is no greater than the pain of keeping them silent. When a Brazilian Army patrol fires more than 200 shots at a car belonging to a black family in Rio de Janeiro, as happened in April of this year, because it supposedly confused them with bandits and the social media did not know and we did not know how to do it through them, with the issue of unpreparedness and disqualification in military training being a topic duly raised in public opinion, we have an equation to be revised. We misuse digital public spheres.

We need to force society to demand a review of military procedures and conduct, transparency and visibility of their training, reorganization of their action manuals, until violence of this extent does not happen. Because they are not accidental, they are an indelible mark of your unpreparedness. They are not an “incident”, because no one can claim to confuse criminals with innocent citizens when they fire 200 times. Our military forces are using bazooka to kill mosquito. Because they are courageous and valiant to attack hardworking, honorable, fathers and innocent civilians.

But they don't face the real enemies of the Law as they should. They accept that they cannot enter certain urban areas of cities or the Amazon itself, as something inevitable, they coexist with territorialized crime, with the imposition of who decides where the police and the Army can or cannot enter. It was this same selective security that meant that those responsible for the murder of the English journalist and environmentalist, Dom and Bruno, who were dismembered at the beginning of June in the Amazon, remain apparently protected in anonymity.

The digital public spheres only repeat what is repelled in these episodes. They could and should mobilize much more, demanding changes that are necessary and urgent. They stand up as empowered voices, shifting the passive audience and only moved by the inhumanity to a new role, protagonist, active, of full citizenship and in the informative awareness that together we can do much more.

*Geder Parzianello Professor of Journalism at the Federal University of Pampa (UNIPAMPA).


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