Seeking Pain and Reducing Pleasure

By Robert Jensen

Published in Counterpunch · March, 2002

In most situations, people tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain, which generally makes sense.

I want to suggest that at this moment in history, U.S. citizens need to invert that. If we want to become human beings in the fullest sense of the term, if we want to be something more than comfortable citizens of the empire, if we want to be something more than just Americans — then we have to start seeking pain and reducing pleasure.

By that I don’t mean we must become masochists who live in denial of the joy of being alive. Rather, I mean that to be fully alive we must stop turning away from a certain kind of pain and begin questioning a certain kind of pleasure. I mean this quite literally, and with a sense of urgency; I think the survival of the species and the planet depends on Americans becoming pain-seeking and pleasure-reducing folks.

Let me begin to explain what I mean by describing two conversations I had with students recently. One young woman came to my office the day after we had watched a video documentary in class about the Gulf War and its devastatingly brutal effects — immediate and lingering — on the people of Iraq. The student also is active in the movement to support the Palestinian freedom struggle, and the day she came to see me came during a period in which Israeli attacks on Palestinians were intensifying.

We talked for some time about a number of political topics, but the conversation kept coming back to one main point: She hurt. As she was learning more about the suffering of others around the world, she felt that pain. What does one do about such a feeling, knowing that one’s own government is either responsible for, or complicit in, so much of it? How does one stop feeling that pain, she asked.

I asked her to think about whether she really wanted to wipe that feeling out of her life. Surely you know people, perhaps fellow students, who don’t seem to feel that pain, who ignore all that suffering, I told her. Do you want to become like them? No matter how much it hurts, I said, would you rather not feel at all? Would you rather be willfully ignorant about what is happening?

I could see the tears welling in her eyes. She cried. We talked some more. I cried. She left my office, not feeling better in any simplistic sense. But I hope she left at least with a sense that she was not alone and did not have to feel like a freak for feeling so much, so deeply.

A couple of hours later another student who had been in a class of mine the previous semester came by. After dealing with the classroom issue she wanted to address, we were talking more generally about her interests in scientific research and the politics of funding research. I made the obvious point that profit-potential had a lot to do with what kind of research gets done. Certainly the comparative levels of research-and-development money that went, for example, to Viagra compared with money for drugs to combat new strains of TB tells us something about the values of our society, I suggested.

The student agreed, but raised another issue. Given the overpopulation problem, she said, would it really be a good thing to spend lots of resources on developing those drugs?

About halfway through her sentence I knew where she was heading, though I didn’t want to believe it. This very bright student wanted to discuss whether or not it made sense to put resources into life-saving drugs for poor people in the Third World, given that there are arguably too many people on the planet already.

I contained my anger, somewhat, and told the student that when she was ready to sacrifice members of her own family to help solve the global population problem, then I would listen to her argument. In fact, given the outrageous levels of consumption of the middle and uppers classes in the United States, I said, one could argue that large-scale death in the American suburbs would be far more beneficial in solving the population problem; a single U.S. family is more of a burden ecologically on the planet than a hundred Indian peasants. “If you would be willing to let an epidemic sweep through your hometown and kill large numbers of people without trying to stop it, for the good of the planet, then I’ll listen to you,” I said.

The student left shortly after that. Based on her reaction, I suspect I made her feel bad. I am glad for that. I wanted to make her feel bad. I wanted her to see that the assumption behind her comment — that the lives of people who look like her are more valuable than the lives of the poor and vulnerable in other parts of the world — is ethnocentric, racist, and barbaric. That assumption is the product of an arrogant and inhumane society. I wanted her to think about why she lived in a world in which the pain of others is so routinely ignored. I wanted her to feel what, for most of her life, she has been able to turn away from.

I do not want to overestimate the power of empathy to change the world. But without empathy, without the ability to move outside our own experience, there is no hope of changing the world. Andrea Dworkin, one of the great feminist thinkers of our time, has written, “The victims of any systematized brutality are discounted because others cannot bear to see, identify, or articulate the pain.” [Andrea Dworkin, Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 193.] It is long past the time for all of us to start to see, to identify, to articulate the pain of systematized brutality. It is time to recognize that much of that pain is the result of a system designed to ensure our pleasures.

The pain of cluster bombs

It is my experience that people can feel empathy for the pain of others in certain situations, such as the pain of a loved one or friend, or in certain cases the suffering of people far away who are hit by a natural disaster or cruel twist of fate. But the key in Dworkin’s insight is “systematized brutality.” Empathy seems less forthcoming for those victims, especially when it is one’s own government or society or culture that is systematizing the brutality.

When that pain is caused by our government, we are channeled away from that empathy. The way we are educated and entertained keeps us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others in other parts of the world, and from understanding how our pleasure is connected to that pain of others. It is a combined intellectual, emotional, and moral failure — a failure to know and to feel and to act.

Let’s take a simple example, the CBU-87, also known as the cluster bomb, which is a part of the U.S. arsenal. It is a bomb that U.S. pilots drop from U.S. planes paid for by U.S. tax dollars.

Each cluster bomb contains 202 individual submunitions, called bomblets (BLU-97/B). The CBU-87s are formally known as Combined Effects Munitions (CEM) because each bomblet has an antitank and antipersonnel effect, as well as an incendiary capability. The bomblets from each CBU-87 are typically distributed over an area roughly 100 x 50 meters, though the exact landing area of the bomblets is difficult to control.

As the soda can-sized bomblets fall, a spring pushes out a nylon “parachute” (called the decelerator), which inflates and then stabilizes and arms the BLU-97 is packed in a steel case with an incendiary zirconium ring. The case is made of scored steel designed to break into approximately 300 preformed thirty-grain fragments upon detonation of the internal explosive. The fragments then travel at extremely high speeds in all directions. This is the primary antipersonnel effect of the weapon. Antipersonnel means that the steel shards will shred anyone in the vicinity.

The primary anti-armor effect comes from a molten copper slug. If the bomblet has been properly oriented, the downward-firing charge travels at 2,570 feet per second and is able to penetrate most armored vehicles. The zirconium ring spreads small incendiary fragments. The charge has the ability to penetrate 5 inches of armor on contact. The tiny steel case fragments are also powerful enough to damage light armor and trucks at 50 feet, and to cause human injury at 500 feet. The incendiary ring can start fires in any combustible environment.

Human Rights Watch, the source for this description of a cluster bomb, has called for a global moratorium on use of cluster bombs because they cause unacceptable civilian casualties. Those casualties come partly in combat, because the munitions have a wide dispersal pattern and cannot be targeted precisely, making them especially dangerous when used near civilian areas.

Even more deadly is the way in which cluster bombs don’t work. The official initial failure-to-explode rate for the bomblets is 5 to 7 percent, though some demining workers estimate up to 20 percent do not explode. That means in each cluster bomb from 10 to 40 of the bomblets fail to explode on contact as intended, becoming landmines that can be set off by a simple touch. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,600 Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians have been killed, and another 2,500 injured, by the estimated 1.2 million cluster bomb duds left following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. For decades after the Vietnam War, reports came in of children and farmers setting off bomblets. The weapons were also used in the NATO attack on Serbia.

What does that mean in real terms? It means that Abdul Naim’s father is dead. The family’s fields in the village of Rabat, a half hour from Herat in western Afghanistan, were sown with cluster bombs, some of the 1,150 reportedly used in Afghanistan. Some of the farmers tried to clear their fields; some of them died trying. Out of desperation, Naim said his father finally decided to take the chance. Using a shovel, the farmer cast three bomblets aside successfully. The fourth exploded. The shrapnel caught him in the throat. [Suzanne Goldenberg, “Long after the air raids, bomblets bring more death,” Guardian (UK), January 28, 2002, p. 12.]

Or consider this testimony from a 13-year-old boy in Kosovo: “I went with my cousins to see the place where NATO bombed. As we walked I saw something yellow — someone told us it was a cluster bomb. One of us took it and put it into a well. Nothing happened… We began talking about taking the bomb to play with and then I just put it somewhere and it exploded. The boy near me died and I was thrown a meter into the air. The boy who died was 14 — he had his head cut off.” The 13-year-old lived, but with both his legs amputated. [Richard Norton-Taylor, “Cluster Bombs: The Hidden Toll,” Manchester Guardian (UK), August 2, 2000.] When one brings up these unpleasant facts, a common response is that war is hell, that in war “people die and things get broken.” In this case, 14-year-olds die and 13-year-olds get broken. We are supposed to brush that aside. We are not supposed to feel. Dead and broken. Such is war. Such is life during wartime. While it is true that, as Gulf War era Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams put it, “There’s no nice way to kill somebody in a war,” it is also true that there are ways to fight a war without cluster bombs.

Let us remind ourselves at this point that one of the central concepts in international law, in the law of warfare, is that civilians shall not be targeted. That means not only a prohibition against the intentional killing of civilians, but as the Geneva Conventions state, against attacks that are indiscriminate. Article 51’s description of indiscriminate attacks is: “those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.” That’s a cluster bomb.

It is true that the U.S. military used fewer cluster bombs in Afghanistan than in the Gulf War or Serbia. One U.S. reporter explained that Pentagon was “more careful” than in past conflicts. But careful doesn’t seem to include following international law. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, “We only use cluster munitions when they are the most effective weapon for the intended target.” In other words, we will use them when we want to. In other words, the Geneva Conventions don’t matter.

Cluster bombs are made by Alliant Techsystems of Minnesota. I’m from that part of the country. There’s a term widely used there about the friendliness of Minnesotans, who are legendary for avoiding conflict (at least open conflict) — “Minnesota nice.” Alliant employs 11,200 people, most of whom are no doubt nice. Many of the military personnel who drop cluster bombs and defend the use of cluster bombs are no doubt nice. Many of the U.S. citizens who don’t seem to mind that we drop cluster bombs are no doubt nice. Minnesota nice. United States nice.

I wonder what the 13-year-old boy in Kosovo with no legs thinks about how nice we are?

I want everyone to think about the 13-year-old boy with no legs and his friend whose head was ripped off. Some of you may already know about cluster bombs and about such effects. Some of you may already carry images like this in your head.

If you don’t, I want you to. I want to plant that image, and I don’t want you to ever forget it. I want you to know that the U.S. government’s quest for global power, and the U.S. military’s barbaric efforts to achieve that, leave 13-year-olds with no legs and memories of dead friends. The next time you hear officials and generals say we are fighting for freedom, think of that. Ask whose freedom we are fighting for. Remember they are fighting with weapons that you helped pay for.

If the capacity for empathy is part of what makes us human, what are we to do with that image, that boy’s pain, the pain of the family members? If we had to face them, what would we say? If we had to face them, would we cry with them? Should we have to travel to Kosovo to feel that? Should we feel that simply based on what we know?

We know. We feel. The question remains, will we act? More on that later.

The costs of our pleasures

Most people in the United States take for granted a standard of living that the vast majority of the world can barely imagine and can never expect to enjoy. Most of us can recite the figure that the United States is about 5 percent of the world’s population yet we consume about 25 percent of the world’s oil and 30 percent of the gross world product. How is that related to foreign policy and military intervention?

The clearest statement of the connection came in February 1948 in a top-secret U.S. State Department document, known as Policy Planning Staff memorandum 23, which defined U.S. post-war policy in Asia, focusing in particular on Japan and the Philippines. The policy paper had been drafted by George Kennan, the first director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. Kennan wrote:

“We [Americans] have 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of the population. This disparity is particularly great between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming. … We should cease to talk about vague, and for the Far East, unreal objectives, such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

Kennan advocated ditching the idealistic slogans about freedom, but it turned out those slogans were too effective for U.S. policymakers to give up. Still, Kennan’s statement embodies the philosophy of a small elite sector of the United States whose goal is subordinating the interests of other peoples to the profit needs of American corporations. Most of us are not part of that sector. But while this nation’s foreign policy and wars are designed to benefit an extremely small sector of the country, the more general affluence of the culture is an important part of how those elites win support for those policies and wars. That is, I think the people in working and middle class America who live comfortably have come to believe that their continued comfort depends on U.S. dominance around the world. I also believe that those working- and middle-class Americans are generally willing to support policies and wars of dominance to protect that comfort.

Put differently: If you propose a relatively cost-free way (that is, few American casualties and limited expenditures) to continue that dominance and ensure continued material comfort, it is my experience that most Americans will endorse it, especially when the deeply ingrained mythology about how the United States fights for freedom can be tapped.

If I’m right about that, then in addition to being able to face the pain of the world, we also need to reduce our own pleasures. The level of consumption in this country can only be maintained if people in other places (and increasingly a growing number of people here at home as well) suffer deprivation. The degree to which people believe that they must keep consuming at that level to be happy will tend to distort the ability to see how much pain our pleasures require.

I cannot say with great precision what a sustainable level of consumption is, nor can anyone else. I have taken steps to reduce my consumption, but it may turn out that I will have to take far more drastic steps. In fact, it almost certainly will turn out that way. But what is readily evident is that the standard middle-class lifestyle in the United States is unsustainable over the long term and, if it that lifestyle were lived by all people in the world, it would be the end of life on that planet. If everyone in the world lived like we live, the game would be over.

I think there are self-interested reasons for reducing our consumption; I think this high-energy, high-consumption lifestyle actually keeps people from being able to experience joy in many ways. I don’t think there is much authentic joy to be found in a shopping mall. But I am arguing not only that reducing one’s dependence on those material comforts is a good in itself, but also is part of a political project of creating a world in which most people will not have the motivation to support unjust foreign policy and wars of domination. We need to begin the long process of taking apart a way of living that is grotesquely wasteful and based on unjustifiable disparities not only because it right in itself and in our own self-interest, but because that affluence tends to divert people from seeing how their affluence is made possible by brutal policies abroad (and increasingly at home).

At this point, many people will argue that such attention to questions of personal choices is diversionary, or that there are adequate resources for all 6 billion people on the planet to live healthy lives, or that technology will solve the problems that our high-energy, high-consumption lifestyle creates. All that is, I believe, obfuscation based in fear. I do agree that these personal choices will end up being insignificant without engaging in a larger political struggle to change the structure of society. But I think they are complimentary, and I have a hunch one can’t go forward without the other.

Political action

I push these questions of pain and pleasure because I believe that knowing and feeling can lead to acting, to collective political action. The goal is not simply to feel, to sink into despair, to allow the pain to paralyze us, or to feel guilty about our affluence and become paralyzed by that guilt. The goal is to transform our society and take the U.S. boot off the neck of people around the world trying to transform their societies.

If you think of the boy with no legs and you cry, that is OK. But we should remember the words of the great Cuban writer and revolutionary Jose Marti. Before he was killed by the Spanish for the crime of resisting Spanish rule, he said, “When others are weeping blood, what right have I to weep tears?”

Maybe we don’t have a right to weep in the United States. Given how comfortably the vast majority of us live, maybe we long ago forfeited that right. But whether or not I have a right to weep, I do. Virtually every day at some point in the day, I am confronted by some aspect of this pain and I weep. There is nothing noble about my tears; in some sense, they are self-indulgent. They are my way of reminding myself that I am a person, that I haven’t completely given up my humanity.

But our tears can be more than self-indulgent, if they motivate us to act. We cannot stop all the pain of the world. We all know that simply being alive means we will feel the pain of disappointment, disease, death. We all will watch loved ones grow old and die. We will be let down by friends we trust. That is part of the human condition. But cluster bombs are not inherently part of the human condition. Wars for domination, wars to protect privilege, are not inherently part of the human condition. The fact that such wars have been with us for so long does not mean they must be with us forever.

These things can be changed by people committed to changing them. We can organize to force the government to stop using cluster bombs. Eventually we can organize to force the government to stop fighting the wars for domination in which cluster bombs are used. Eventually we can organize to change the institutions that drive the wars for domination.

There is a better world to be built. It is a world we can get to only if we confront the pain of this world. It is a world in which we will have to learn to experience pleasure in very different ways.

Cluster bombs are not an inherent part of the human condition. But empathy is. The capacity for change is, in all of us. But these things are not automatic. The question is whether we will choose to know, to feel, and to act.