The Tragedies of the Current Moment: Charlie Hebdo and Michael Brown

January 26, 2015

In a column in yesterday’s New York Times, (“What’s Worse Than Sad“) bio-ethicist Tom Koch argues that we are overusing the word “tragedy”. Then–almost as an aside–he says something remarkable (and very compressed) about how we should understand the Charlie Hebdo killings.

We err in calling the Charlie Hebdo killings a tragedy, he argues, or the Michael Brown Killing in Ferguson, Missouri, because when we label as “tragedy” all events that make us sad, we rob the word of its meaning. Yes, these events are terrible and terrifying, and they make us very sad. But Koch wants to insist on Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy. Says Koch,

“Tragedy is then a representation of an action that is heroic and complete,” argued Aristotle in Poetics, “and of a certain magnitude.” It is never trivial.

For an event to qualify as tragedy, its telling demands some kind of emotional catharsis, a resolution to the losses it details….To be worthy of its name, tragedy must instruct.

For Koch, and for Aristotle, its not the scale of our grief that makes something tragic. That sadness is essential, but it is in the telling that we construct tragedy. The telling of a tragedy sees things whole and helps us gain perspective. If we just weep at the horror we don’t gain any perspective. “You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies,” he quotes playwright Howard Baker as saying. If we don’t see, in our telling, how the Charlie Hebdo killings unfolded or how the Michael Brown murder transpired in a way that helps us see more deeply and clearly, we shouldn’t use the word tragedy.

You might dismiss this as pedantic, a scholar insisting on a technical use of a term. He’d say, I think, that reserving the word tragedy for the tellings of sad events in the way that Aristotle prescribes helps us gain perspective and even a measure of wisdom. There are plenty of sad events, but what are we learning from them? Tragedies help us with understanding.  Think Oedipus Rex or King Lear or Death of a Salesman.

Towards the end of his column, Koch lets fly these two sentences about a framing of the Charlie Hebdo killings that puts them in a perspective deserving of the term tragedy:

The tragedy lies not in the simple fact of their murder but in the decades of military encroachment and colonial expansion that helped to radicalize a religious sect. It lies, too, in our culture’s failure to integrate new members in an ethos that is inclusive and that assures a political space for legitimate complaint.

I know some will bristle at that framing though for myself I think it is remarkably on point. Koch is saying we don’t get the tragedy of how a few young Muslims came to kill some cartoonists, some Jews and some policemen in Paris, and then came themselves to be killed, if we don’t begin to grasp how these young Muslims came to have murder in their hearts.

To describe the murders as “senseless” or “evil” doesn’t help us understand a thing about them. ‘That’s utterly not me,’ we think when we tell the story that way. ‘Someone like me would never do anything like that.’  Such a telling makes the murders incomprehensible, essentially inhuman even. A tragic telling, on the other hand, tries to show us how human beings more or less just like us came to do such a horrible thing.  In no way does seeing these acts as something we can understand (as complete, Aristotle would say) justify or excuse them. It just connects us to them in a way that calls out our pity and our fear.

As a Quaker I’ll add that I don’t think we can really understand how all humans can have ‘that of God’ in them (as we regularly say)  if we don’t also understand how all humans, even us, can have the potential for wickedness, too.

Those two sentences in Koch’s piece, about “military encroachment” and “failure to integrate” stopped me in my tracks. They connect the Charlie Hebdo killings and the Michael Brown killing in a very piercing way. They sketch a tragedy that is unfolding at home and abroad, one that will go on facing us with sad, sad news until we see things more clearly.





About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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