Friday, March 20, 2015

"Survivor": A Problematic Term

Cannibalism was reported by Flavius Josephus during 
the siege of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD,
 and according to Appian, the population of Numantia 
during the Roman Siege of Numantia in the 2nd century BC 
was reduced to cannibalism and suicide.

            The story I tell below is fiction, but one "based on a true story," or, more exactly, based on my reading and listening recently to a short series of depressing (audio)books that do things like elaborate on the horrors glossed over when you find a sentence in a typical old history such as "the City of Outopos fell," or was saved, "after a protracted siege."

            Ready? You've been warned this will be an unpleasant tale. Anyway —

            During the Siege of Outopos, little Nano was a survivor and a savior of her family. When the Outopians were reduced to eating dogs and cats and rats, Nano was one of the best hunters in the town. When even the rats grew scarce, Nano would steal food from the soldiers and then from the neighbors, taking for herself only what she needed to be strong enough to find food and defend her family's meager stores, and defend her family.

            Toward the end of the siege, her family and friends had all died off except for her parents and Dano, her little sister; and when Dano began to show signs of a wasting illness and could no longer pull her weight, it was Nano who knew the differences among "mercy," "taboo," "sentimentality," and "squeamishness" — and slit the little girl's carotid artery and windpipe as cleanly and coolly as a Shoykhet of thirty years experience and field dressed Dano as efficiently as any game keeper could.

            Indeed, Nano — near miraculously! — indeed Nano even found wood and a couple of pieces of sea coal for proper cooking, and the roasted Dano was the difference between her and her parents' living to see the relief of Outopos or joining the pile of corpses to be thrown into the nearest mass grave.

            So they lived. A survivor was Nano, and a minor savior, too, a girl who loved life and her family, a person who saw what needed doing, and did it.

            See where this is going?

            "Survivor" nowadays comes out of the usage from the 1960s and after for survivors of the Nazi death camps, and our intentions in that usage are mostly good. But there are often problems.

            For one thing, we talk of someone's surviving a plane crash or an auto accident, and there's a serious problem with the idea that a rape not only might be fatal but possibly should be: an idea out of such pernicious art as Birth of a Nation, where rape — at least of a White woman by a Black man — is "a fate worse than death," or out of an 18th-century piece of pious pornography like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa.

            For another thing — well, there is my "Parable of Little Nano" and the full(er) horror of sieges and death camps and other extended atrocities: the choices such atrocities force upon victims if those victims are to survive.

            It may be permissible in a situation to choose evil, e.g., to do what is necessary to survive. Indeed, it is a moral imperative in real dilemmas to choose the lesser of two or least of several evils.

            To choose evil, though, is to choose evil; to do evil is to do evil.

            Killing and eating one's sibling is an evil act, even if one shares. My imagined heroic little Nano, however — and her real-world analogs — is and are beyond our judgment.

            She survived.

            Good. With luck she'll recover and get on with her life. If asked about the siege, she can say, "I survived, as did my parents," and she need say no more.

            We can say, "She survived," if we like, but then we should shut up. And more so in other, non-imaginary cases. If the victims want to talk, we must listen. If they don't want to talk, we should respect that decision.

            In any event, to repeat a point: with words like "victim" and "survivor," we non-victims should speak and write with very great care.

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