Americans fail to understand tragic statistics

Elton Wong

The last time I cried was when I saw the movie “Life is Beautiful.” Half of the film took place in a concentration camp after the main character Guido was captured along with his wife and son.

Because the men were separated from the women in the camp, Roberto Benigni’s character didn’t know if his wife was alive or whether she had been sent to the showers along with the weak and unproductive.

The most affecting scene of the movie came about halfway through, when Benigni was able to sneak into the radio room of the concentration camp to give a message over the loudspeaker to his wife.

She did not know if her husband was dead or alive. My girlfriend Aprille was sitting next to me, and I couldn’t help but lower my head as tears welled in my eyes. “Bonjorno Bellisima …”

Near the end of the film, in perhaps the only attempt on the part of the filmmakers to portray the larger reality of the concentration camps, Benigni wanders through the camp at night with his son on his shoulder.

He is lost, and as he turns a corner, we see his eyes open wide as he holds his sleeping son closer to his chest.

Before him is a pile of corpses, ghostly pale, filling the entire screen. I didn’t cry when I saw it.

When I took a western civilization class my junior year of high school, I heard a quote, one of Stalin’s I believe. “Two bodies lying in a ditch is a tragedy. Two million bodies lying in a ditch is a statistic.”

After I thought about it, I decided that I didn’t like “Life is Beautiful.” I thought it was emotionally bullying and manipulative of its audience.

Mostly though, I didn’t like my own reaction to the film. It didn’t provide me with any new information, yet it was able to provoke such a powerful response from me. It seemed irrational.

I learned a long time ago how many million people were murdered by the Nazis in those few years of the war.

I knew in my mind that those killed were people like me, like my friends and family.

I knew that terrible things happened in the world, that they still happen and that they will continue to happen. But I didn’t cry about it until I saw a movie.

The philosopher Emmanuel Kant, who proposed one of the most influential theories of morality ever written, held that the perfect moral agent would be apathetic.

That is to say, a perfect moral agent would never be emotionally inclined to act one way or another but would rather follow the dictates of morality by rational duty alone.

I realize now that basic facts of psychology make this theory inapplicable to humans, or at least, the vast majority of them.

Kant’s perfect moral agent would not cry if he saw “Life is Beautiful.” But a person should.

What I did not appreciate at first was the importance of empathy, the basic emotional response.

I no longer think it was wrong for me to cry during that scene of “Life is Beautiful.” That we as humans can feel the pain of others is our most noble ability.

But alone, empathy is limited. As an emotion, it is prey to inconsistency and manipulation. It is also limited by our personal experience.

I would not have reacted to the loudspeaker scene at all if I hadn’t known from my own experience what it is like to be in love.

But I was unable to grasp the full significance of the second scene because absolutely nothing in my experience could be related to it.

This is the reason why it is easy for us to be apathetic toward present-day horrors.

No television footage, no casualty graphs and no words could ever make a 19-year-old college student from Ames fully understand what is happening in Kosovo right now.

“Horror,” “atrocity” and “refugee” are thus reduced to sound and symbol, signifying nothing.

What it means is that we cannot truly understand without empathy, but we cannot truly empathize without first understanding.

I started thinking about all this last night when I was flipping through TIME magazine looking for current events to write a column about.

In a special section, there was a two-page layout of all the wars that had gone on in the past decade and the cost in human lives displayed on bar graphs: a few million in Rwanda, a few million in Tibet and so on.

These people are unknown, and most of them will not be written about or made the subjects of films. It is difficult to think of distant people as having lives, families and histories, but we must realize that they do.

We must see all people as more than just faceless numbers, even if that is all we are presented with.

Our sympathy may be sparked by a movie or by a personal story on the evening news, but it should not depend on them.

We must be able to see tragedy when it is not scripted or accompanied by music and cinematic technique. Empathy is noble, but it must be guided by the mind.

Elton Wong is a sophomore in biology from Ames.