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How Do We Tell Our Children About the Violence in Paris?

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, we must strive to steer our children away from vengeful responses.

Many of us still feel a real sense of helplessness, anger, outrage, resignation and disbelief at the violence we witnessed on the streets of Paris a few days ago. The images were intolerable and devastating, just as the suicidal terror that ripped apart communities in southern Beirut a day before demanded equal condemnation. French President François Hollande has now called for a “pitiless war” in response, as if we have somehow emerged from an age of compassion and human togetherness?

Such tragedies compel us to write, trying to make sense of the senselessness, hoping to gain some insight into its randomness, which only reaffirms the insecure and fragile nature of our times. Words continue to fail us. And yet I have been haunted by the comments of a dear friend, who writing of her family’s safety in Paris at the time, added, “so I’ll now go home. And think tomorrow about how I shall explain this all to my children?” This personal reflection speaks volumes. It should be at the forefront of our attentions. How do we tell our children about this violence?

Maybe it would offer us some comfort to explain to them how unfortunately the world is simply full of “irrational monsters.” And in doing so, at least we could tell them in the end, what is good always triumphs over what is evil. That however would be a deception. The world is certainly full of dangerous people. But like Paris, for the most part, it is those who reason, rationalize and calculate with a sure clarity of mind and purpose that pose the greatest threats. Our violence is no different. We too, it seems, prove to be incapable of answering the question, “When is too much killing enough?” We just know there is justice to be had through violent retributions.

Children and youth are being exposed to forms of violence borne of an age of new media technologies.

And yet don’t we already teach our children to think about the importance of forgiveness? Why then don’t we heed such warnings when facing the cycle of violence and its inevitable ruinations? I am reminded here of Simon Critchley’s “impossible demand” a decade after the violence of September 11, 2001. As Critchley wrote in a prescient tome, “What if the grief and mourning that followed 9/11 were allowed to foster a nonviolent ethics of compassion rather than a violent politics of revenge and retribution? What if the crime of the September 11 attacks had led not to an unending war on terror, but the cultivation of a practice of peace – a difficult, fraught and ever-compromised endeavor, but perhaps worth the attempt?”

What might such a politics of forgiveness look like today? How can we instill this compassion in our children in the political hope that we can encourage them to steer history in a different direction? All violence has a history – that much is clear. One option is to talk to them about the different forms that violence takes, without purposefully or even accidentally affirming to them that some lives matter more than others.

Children and youth are being exposed to forms of violence borne of an age of new media technologies. This places difficult and challenging demands upon parents and educators who rightly want to protect them from the raw realities of suffering and violence. But what does this mean when they are continuously exposed to its occurrences, or worse still, in the firing line? Maybe we can begin by reaffirming that the rights of children should be at the forefront of all political discussions, while stressing the importance of the arts and humanities in producing critically minded and ethically astute generations to come – against the current cutbacks.

Social media have notably been awash the past few days with what we might term “hierarchies of grief.” We mourn Paris, but not Beirut. Many of us are of course already aware of such arguments. That doesn’t, however, diminish our outrage at this intolerable event. Violence should be condemned in all its forms. To argue that some victims are more or less important than others is to fall into the trap set by those who argue that some casualties are justifiable if it creates more peaceful relationships.

Politics and ethics are not located at their ends; they should be judged as if the means are the ends. The recourse to violence is certainly no exception in this regard. We know what types of people are created through the violence of historical forces. It is precisely those who devastated Paris. Isn’t it about time we taught our children less about the virtues of nationalistic regalia, and more about engaging in peaceful relations with peoples by extending more a hand of friendship and taking seriously the politics of love? We know after all where the alternative leads us.

As I walked around New York City’s Columbia University campus on Sunday, I thought of my beautiful little girl back home in England, thankfully protected against the violence of historical forces. I also thought of her a few years ago, walking around the campus here in New York, and rushing over to kneel before the replica sculpture of Rodin’s “Thinker” situated outside the philosophy department. Confronted by “The Thinker” again, though now against the backdrop of the witnessed violence of the past few days, I was reminded of the importance of the power of education and critical pedagogy in order to break the cycle of violence.

It is our task to educate our children so they can offer more measured and thoughtful commentary on human suffering.

Rodin’s “Thinker” at Columbia appears (as is now common) on a contemplative and isolated plinth. In this setting, “The Thinker” might be thinking about anything in particular. We just hope it is something serious. And yet, in its original 1880 form, “The Thinker” appears situated kneeling before the gates of hell. This seems tragically apt today. What does it mean to think in the presence of the raw realities of violence and suffering? How can we challenge the spectacle of violence and the forced witnessing it creates, by explaining to our children the virtues of pacifism, in the face of such wretched acts and the widespread militarization of everyday societies?

Looking at the sculpture, I imagined, as some have argued, that the figure in this commission was Dante – the poet – who is contemplating the circles of hell as narrated in The Divine Comedy. I was reminded of the importance of this in the context of Edward Said’s claim that with Dante, Orientalism truly begins to assume a monumental intellectual force. I thought of the need for a more somber and honest reflection of our shared histories of violence – including our complicities. And I thought of the books I hoped my daughter would someday read, from Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

The idea that the future belongs to our children now seems perilous and fraught. We live in an age of dystopian realism, where entire populations can be rendered disposable, only for the bodies of their children to end washed up on the planetary shores. All the while groups such as ISIS have now mastered the spectacle, humanizing violence to devastating political effect as the human – from the progressive liberal, the aid worker, journalist and homosexual – now appears as a sacrificial category. And yet we must not lose sight of the most important of questions our children should be demanding of us in this bleak contemporary moment: Namely, what might it mean to break down the distinction between spectacles of violence and political passivity so the world might be transformed for the better?

If the first order of politics in the age of the spectacle is to colonize the imaginary, it is our task to educate our children so they can offer more measured and thoughtful commentary on human suffering while still finding reasons to believe in this world. This requires us to develop modes of critical reflection for them, which not only forces us to be alert to the ways in which our attentions might be harvested by the seduction of violent images, but how we might be co-opted by forms of depraved aesthetics that debase us as political subjects. It is to present to them alternative images of the world that are not destined to be littered with corpses of violence to come.

In Rodin’s original commission, “The Thinker” is actually called “The Poet.” “The Thinker” was initially conceived as both a being with a tortured body, almost a damned soul, and yet a freethinking human, determined to transcend his suffering through poetry. We continue to teach our children that politics is a social science and that its true command is located in the power of analytical reason. Such continues to be the hallmark of reasoned, rationalized and calculated violence in the name of political change. Never have we more urgently required a new political imagination that can take us out of the cycles of violence into which we are immersed.

Our children’s futures don’t need to be violently fated. Those who wish to condemn them to its spectral destiny cannot deny them the ability to imagine better worlds. They have the power of the imagination at their disposal. We need to give them the confidence to believe that imagination itself is the starting point for rethinking politics. Only then might we reclaim our collective futures. Our task as such is to speak with them about such tragic events and to affirm the devastating futility of violence in ways that encourage more compassionate relationships and move beyond the recourse to violence. In this sense, we are tasked with creating more peaceful futures.