Monday, December 18, 2023

Dave Griffith on Thinking About Looking or The Essay as Ally

Screen shot from Instagram: Warning for Sensitive Content

In the summer of 2017 I met Shaun King at the Chautauqua Institution–yes, that Chautauqua, where Salman Rusdhie was attacked and subsequently lost sight in his right eye. 

I was onboarding that summer. I had just been hired to the executive team of the Institution and, though my start date was later in the fall, they wanted me to see what the lovely and venerable grounds were like in-season.

King, an activist and organizer, was unknown to me. All I knew was that his visit was controversial. The audience at Chautauqua, while known for being deeply curious and full of well-educated folk committed to life-long education, are also known for being majority white and politically center-right. All I was hearing about King was that he was a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, an affiliation that led most of the Chautauquans I spoke with to cock an eyebrow.

King’s lecture was in the newly rebuilt 4,400 seat amphitheater, or simply, “Amp,” as it is known on the grounds, and it was standing room only. I stood at the back of the Amp and listened, but mainly I was watching the crowd. I was curious to see how they would react to the news that this young man–still not quite forty-years-old–was there to share with them; that racism is systemic and structural; that it is endemic, baked in, so to speak, to most American institutions, especially law enforcement. 

While the crowd was gracious, clearly what King was saying was a direct challenge to the way most audience members, myself included, experienced everyday life. One audience member, an older gentleman wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of the military vessel he presumably served aboard during World War II, turned to me and said, “Love it or leave it.” 

King got his start blogging and writing as a justice reporter for the New York Daily News, but these days he’s most known for raising funds for families victimized by police violence, and for the long, impassioned explanatory captions he writes in the space below his numerous Instagram posts, many of which are reposts of videos sent to him in order to help boost the visibility and awareness of events that would otherwise be lost in the daily glut of fitness and lifestyle influencers. If you follow reports of police brutality, then chances are good that you have seen some of his posts. His words illustrate and illuminate: “Let me tell you what you’re seeing,” he often begins, providing context for the often jumpy or grainy cell phone footage taken by bystanders.

Since the October terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas militants, King’s Instagram feed has become focused almost exclusively on the IDF’s retaliatory counterattack, which has led to the death of thousands of civilians. Collaborating with journalists inside of Gaza, King has been reposting dozens of videos per day, many of them depicting the lifeless bodies of children. 

Many of the posts are flagged by Instagram as “Sensitive Content,” indicated by a white eye icon with a warning slash through it, as well as a brief message: “This video may contain graphic or violent content” and beneath it a small box containing the words “See why.” Clicking on the box reveals a boilerplate statement explaining that though the post “doesn’t go against our Community Standards, [it] may contain images that some people might find upsetting.” And then: “We cover graphic content so people can choose whether to see it.” 

The unintentional poetry of this statement–choosing whether or not to see–is profound.

King has many detractors for a variety of reasons–see Wikipedia–and I’m not here to defend him against those criticisms, but one thing that I think needs to be said is that what he is doing here and now goes beyond mere “outrage journalism.” He is forcing us to confront the choice itself. Do we opt for blissful ignorance and avoidance of what is being done in the name of justice and peace out of fear of being allied to, or complicit in, the cause, or do we engage in the difficult work of looking and thinking for ourselves.

King’s Instagram posts are, in a way, reminiscent of the work of essayists and thinkers like James Baldwin, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, and Susan Sontag, writers who look(ed) at the world around them and, as Henry Giroux writes, told stories about what they saw in a way that has “the potential to unsettle common sense, challenge the commonplace, and move communities to invest in their own sense of civic and collective agency.” In this way, essays and essaying “make knowledge meaningful, in order to make it critical and transformative and provide a different sense of how the world is narrated.”  

I am thinking here of many essays at once, but top of mind is Thomas Merton’s “Letter to an Innocent Bystander,” which I wrote about 11 years ago this month for this very forum on the occasion of the school shooting in Newtown, CT.

As odd as it feels, I will quote myself: 

Reading Merton's essay now in the full, glaring light of the the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut--27 dead, 20 of them children between the ages of five and ten--I am reminded how an essay, a preoccupation relentlessly chased, an attempt to articulate--to assail--the unspeakable, written decades ago with no thought of Newtown, Connecticut or gun control laws, can implicate us and charge us--and here I mean "everyone"--with a mission: "Our duty," Merton writes, "is to refuse to believe that their way is inevitable." 

I know that I (and we) must be careful how we choose our words and our analogies. And so let me say that I do not mean to equate the murdering of American school children with assault-style rifles with the IDF’s current bombardment (much of it with munitions whose flight cannot be controlled) of innocent Palestinians. Nor would I call the unrelenting spate of school shootings the genocide of American school-age children. 

This is not what the essay, as I am currently imagining it, intends. Merton might say it best. Writing in the prologue to his collection of essays Raids on the Unspeakable he directly addresses his essays:

You are not so much concerned with ethical principles and traditional answers, for many men have decided no longer to ask themselves those questions. Your main interest is not in formal answers or accurate definitions, but in difficult insights at a moment of human crisis.  

In other words, the essay, in the face of a crisis like the murder of revelers at a party in the name of freedom or the indiscriminate bombing–”total war,” as it called–of a civilian population, moves away from the safe pedantry of articulating ethical principles, and detours into the history of warfare to underscore the fact that we have been here before, and, don’t you know, that we have treaties and conventions abolishing such conduct, to focus on what we can say of ourselves at this precise moment in time. And, in so doing, enter the timeless and the prophetic.

I am thinking now of Wendell Berry who begins his essay collection What Are People For? with “Damage,” a poem about the building of a pond on his property to water his livestock.

The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine.

I am thinking of the closing paragraph of Susan Sontag’s book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others. Writing about a photo depicting dead soldiers from the Russian/Afghan war, she takes on the perspective of the dead:

What would they have to say to us? “We”--this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through–don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.

What we can say of ourselves–we, us–at this moment? I look to a post on Shaun King’s Instagram for assistance. The post is dated 12/5. It has received 317,890 likes, if that matters. It bears the “Sensitive Content” warning, so the screen is blurry in that 2 am scrambled cable channel pornography way. The caption reads “Forgive me for what you will see and what I have to say.”

The caption continues:

 What you are witnessing is the Massacre of Deir Al-Balah in Gaza–RIGHT NOW.

This is being filmed by our dear brother @motaz_azaiza [a photographer living in Gaza whose own Instagram feed has 17.1 million followers] - this is HIS NEIGHBORHOOD. He soon realizes that he has lost many family members, friends, and neighbors.

The entire videos are some of the worst I’ve ever seen. It looks like 6 ENTIRE BLOCKS of LARGE APARTMENT BUILDINGS were just completely destroyed. Kids, elders, women, men. Everybody - either blown to literal bits or so badly mangled that survival is unlikely.

I saw torsos without heads of limbs.

Hands with no arms.

Heads with no bodies.

Skin with no bone.

It’s been a lie since 1948.  

When I saw this post on the 5th of December, I chose to click on the “See Reel” link at the bottom of the blurred window. I did not bother with clicking the “See Why” button. I knew that what I was likely to see would be graphic. I told myself that I needed to see it. I had been avoiding such accounts. I had been taking other people’s word for it–thousands of innocent dead; whole neighborhoods bombed to rubble–so now I needed to see it with my own eyes.

What I see is this:

Cell phone footage from Motaz Azaiza. His camera is facing the street–not at him. He is running so the camera lurches up and down, up and down, with his footfalls. I am reminded of standing over my youngest brothers’ shoulder, watching him play the first-person shooter game DOOM. It is the 90s. He is maybe 10. All I see are the player’s hands as he runs through the maze of rooms. If I listen closely, I can hear the panting of this digital person as he runs. This is not Gaza, but some subterranean hellscape, but the movement and the sounds are eerily the same. The bobbing, lurching action simulates desperate, life or death running. I am concerned about my brother because I have heard the warnings about these first-person shooter games; worries that they can desensitize you, make you into a violent person.

Azaiza’s camera does not pause until he encounters bodies, and even then he runs past the first body he sees, fixing his camera instead on the large apartment building–or what had been an apartment building–shrouded in dust, a dark plume of smoke rising above it. Then, he doubles back a few yards to capture the body in the street–a man, covered in dust, above his head is a halo of blood, spreading itself on the asphalt of the street.

The camera turns and he is running again towards the wrecked building. People are running into the rubble and returning with small, limp, dust-covered bodies in their arms. All the bodies that he passes are covered in this dust. We must not come from the same dust, I think to myself. It is the only answer to how such destruction and death could be tolerated, could be countenanced.

I keep coming back to the formal apology of King’s caption: “Forgive me for what you will see and what I have to say.”

I am thinking now of John Hersey’s Hiroshima. I am thinking of the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist minister who survived the initial blast on August 6, 1945. I am thinking of him running through the streets in the aftermath and saying to the wounded who walk burned, bloodied, dazed, and covered in dust past him: “Forgive me for having no burden like yours.” 

I am thinking of what we are told is a quintessentially Japanese attitude, the guilt of having survived while so many others perished. 

I am thinking now of James Baldwin who begins his essay “The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American” with a Henry James quote:

“It is a complex fate to be an American.”

I am thinking of my students from this past semester. We had just begun reading Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others when Hamas militants attacked and massacred young people their age at an outdoor rave. 

I am thinking of the looks on their faces when what we were reading became practical, if that is even the word for it. I am thinking of Sontag, quoting Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, of the Poem of Force” (another book-length essay) how “violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing.” I remember looking out at my classroom, this ring of students in their desks and allowing for just a moment to think of them as things. I am thinking of the horror, the shudder that went through me at the thought; that I had even allowed myself to have it in the first place.

After Shaun King’s appearance on the amphitheater stage, he was to lead a workshop for a much smaller group of people who had paid extra, I believe, for this more intimate experience. I asked if I could sit in on the workshop. This, too, was standing room only. 

Held in a high ceilinged ballroom on the third floor of Alumni Hall, a beautiful old manse with a wrap around porch, I stood at the back of the room and, again, as in the amphitheater, listened and watched the audience. The focus of King’s remarks to this small group of maybe fifty people–mostly white–was allyship: How can we be allies to the oppressed? 

His message, and I quote (as best as my memory serves): To be an ally don’t show up expecting to provide the answer. Being an ally means asking what you can do. It means bringing food, setting up chairs. It means standing back and listening, waiting, watching, and being ready to help. But don’t expect that anything you have to say will help solve the problem. 

From the looks on the faces of those present, this was a hard, deflating message to hear–it was definitely not what I expected to hear–as it burst the growing bubble of hubris; that fantasy that we alone can make a difference. 

I am thinking about looking. I am thinking about thinking about looking, and about how looking causes us to think. 

But, I am thinking: Is looking required, or is requiring photographic proof of atrocity a concession to the cynics among us? No, I am thinking, I suppose not–the freedom to choose to look or not must be protected. 

But I will say this: an essay is a different sort of looking, a different sort of proof, a different kind of choice. It is an allying. 

The essay asks, If this is true, then what? 


DAVE GRIFFITH is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press). His essays have appeared in print and online at the Paris Review, New England Review, Belt Magazine, Image, and Another Chicago Magazine, among others. 


This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"


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