Author’s note: I have always been interested in words and their changing meanings in time. Mercy is one of those, whose connotation was altered radically around the 9th century, combining its archaic meanings of price paid, wage, reward, and the biblical meanings of pity, favour. The meanings of sympathy and conscience were introduced much later (11th century) and finally, it was in the 13th century, when the more contemporary meaning of charity was attributed to the word. In order to complicate the notion of mercy in this text, I will bring these former usages back to the day, without naively trying to read a modern meaning into earlier references, but describing and discussing the multiple layers of our own contemporary pain and misery.
Mercy is defined as the ‘compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one, who is subject to another’s power’, and also ‘a blessing that is an act of divine favour or compassion’. ‘To be at someone’s mercy’ indicates a person being ‘without defence against someone’, according to Wikipedia. These definitions imply (1) a giver and receiver of mercy, (2) an infrastructure that holds and sustains the power relations between the two subjects, (3) a painful event and outcome that happens based on the infrastructure, and that calls for mercy. It is only ‘divine mercy,’ which is unconditional and unlimited, that does not fit into this definition; unless mercy is divine, it is hierarchical, and it victimizes the receiver.
The recent attacks on the M10 hospital in Aleppo was another milestone of the increasing violence in the Syrian war over the last months. People were left without water, hospitals were bombed. This had raised urgent questions as to where the threshold to intervene would be. As Ban Ki-moon compared the M10 to a slaughterhouse on the night of the incident, Dr. Sahloul, one of the volunteers of the hospital, gave a striking response: ‘This is a new normal that is created in this conflict that the international community is tolerating. Besides the descriptions of what is happening, and the words of condolences, we are not seeing any action to stop this.’ This statement basically suggested the further potential increase of violence in Syria in future, through its normalization.
But this was not when the threshold of violence was raised for the first time. An earlier case was when ISIS broadcasted its videos of destruction in Palmyra and other ancient ruins in Syria and Iraq. Later, we saw a 4 year old, washing to the shores of Turkey, or we saw people in camps in Lesbos trying to reach to safe grounds but remaining in-between. Meanwhile, the Battle for Mosul began, when Channel 4 made a 3-hour live broadcasting of the war through its Facebook page. This was a first in history, watching war happening real time on social media, and viewers sending ‘likes to Kurdish forces attacking ISIS sites, ‘sad’ or ‘angry’ faces to Iraqi defence lines being bombed. This was when ‘mercy’ was translated into Facebook emoticons. As some were blaming Channel 4 for making entertainment out of war, some were emphasizing the reality of Facebook becoming internet, and the impossibility of looking away from the live stream war. Those images might inspire dissent, foster violence, and actually further create apathy.
In her very last book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag dissected the contemporary understandings of war and conflict, reflected on the violence and atrocity of the ‘provincialism’ of media, the limits of sympathy, and the obligations of conscience. Bringing forward an argument of a new ‘society of spectacle,’ she emphasized the risk of a two-way victimization (that is, I think, revealed within the hierarchy of mercy,) between those who observe the pain and violence (the givers of mercy), and those who suffer (the receivers of mercy).
As we keep on watching the violence of the war in Syria or the ISIS attacks in the media, I come to think that our tolerance for (seeing) others in violence has been increasing, but also influencing the fear concerning ourselves. A fear that the same might happen to us, to our loved ones. A fear of uncertainty of future. We should shut up against the anti-democratic but security-related decisions of our governments, or their interventions in other countries even if we don’t agree with them; otherwise we might face the same violence one day. We feel at the ‘mercy’ of the State. This, as Sontag argues, makes us the victims of the same violence. This double victimisation detaches us from the thought of our own responsibility in the violence in other contexts. Some of us don’t actually feel responsible for what has been happening, some of us feel guilty. Many of us ‘in peace’ show mercy for many of those ‘in conflict’ through charity. It is as if they are better away from the possibility of direct contact with us, but still at our mercy – while certainly, most of us simply don’t want them ‘at home’.
At this point my questions are: how can we discuss issues regarding mercy, breaking the hierarchy between the giver and receiver, i.e. equalizing our human bonds, making our relations horizontal, and de-victimizing the receiver (and consequently the giver) of mercy? How do we go beyond the contemporary rhetoric of mercy that includes pity and charity?
In his lectures (2013-2015) Michel Feher explains the transformation of the modern state in order to deal with the corporate global economy. He talks about the growth focus, and the planned/managed destruction, debt, unemployment, and inflation as elements of the nature of neoliberal system. He adds about the instrumentalisation of national borders in this system, through which some people are encouraged for global circulation, while others become disposable. The people we see facing the violence in (social) media, are the same people trying to cross the borders to escape from it, but become disposable along the Mediterranean. They don’t fit into the category of people who are valuable enough in the existing system of global market economy, they should not be encouraged for global circulation.
Then, I go back to my question above to re-phrase it, for articulating my position: Can I, as reporter in this project, urge the reader to focus on the infrastructures that produce the double victimisation, rather than attempting to illustrate the pain of others?
The fear of uncertainty is one of the elements of the infrastructure of mercy, that reveal the hierarchy of mercy, but could also help us break it. Zygmunt Bauman (2006) describes it as the ‘liquid fear‘, not knowing what we can rely on, or not feeling secure and free, which, according to him, might be an explanation for the psychology behind the rise in nationalism and conservative politics, while for refugees this fear of what the near or far future might be holding for them in the refugee camps. Another element to this infrastructure is guilt vs. responsibility. James Baldwin once said most people don’t feel responsible for what their governments have done in the past, and are still doing. He emphasised ‘the long view’, as something we deeply need in the atmosphere of short-termism today, and considered the relationship between the past and the present in ‘making sense of responsibility’. He added: ‘What I am demanding of and for other people is what I am demanding of and for myself.’
Can we not just watch the painful others, who seem to need mercy, from a distance and a distant position, but instead, look at them, be looked at by them, and look at each other? Can we demand what we demand for ourselves for our future, for others? Can we familiarize ourselves with others by thinking of our pains through the pains of others? Could we question the notions of competition, performance, normality, success, which are also the very elements of the global market infrastructure that create the unequal conditions of global circulation, and investigate them further altogether? What would be the role of the creative individuals on breaking this (market) infrastructure of mercy, and re-define and re-appropriate the concept of mercy in a way that creates hopes for everyone?
Junot Diaz says ‘often our pain encourages us to isolate ourselves. The truth of it is that our pain is a badge for how we are members of this larger community. Recognizing this and recognizing our shared humanity is not a small insight. The ego pushes us towards individual, pushes us towards fantasies of achievement of power. And all of those things pull us away from our common link, our common clay. We are made of a common clay, and among the most prevalent minerals in that clay is our fragility.’