The reflection in the mirror

The unending theater of human affairs is becoming very nauseating. Russia is concentrating troops in the border with Ukraine. China is staging military exercises near Taiwan. The United States is trying to protect its decadent empire by trying to secure the allegiance of the nations that fell under its influence after the end of the Cold War. Besides that, we have tension brewing between Israel and Iran, India and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Syria and rebels, to name a few of the ongoing conflicts and disputes. And, of course, my country has been taken by religious fanatics and imbeciles that became radicalized by the internet.

All is vanity, by Charles Allan Gilbert

Because of ideological and religious craziness, because we defend “early treatment” for covid-19 with hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, we've become international pariahs, and rightly so. We belong in the hall of nations that concentrate most deaths by covid-19 in the world. Meanwhile, the federal government, lead by a crazy idiot, does whatever it can to sabotage any and all genuine scientific response to the pandemic. Worst of all, most doctors defend the president's blunders and contribute to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. That was expected, since the majority of medical doctors voted enthusiastically for Bolsonaro, and contrary to common belief, medical doctors aren't scientists, but technicians.

Hanging above all of this is a world dominated by the belief that the poor deserve to be poor and that civilization doesn't owe anyone a damn thing. “Tough luck!” That's what people think. “If they're starving, that's their problem, they didn't work enough.” Someone who is poor, born in the slums, with little access to opportunities, more than likely won't become successful in life. The exceptions that sometimes we see on the news only confirm the rule. Other than by a miracle, someone that barely has a high school diploma and works minimum wage jobs (or jobs that pay even less) has almost no chance of ascending in life, no matter how much they break their backs working.

Those in the middle class live in fear of becoming poor, although they repeat to themselves that they're closer to the rich class, a class that despises them. And the middle class performs its part well, hating and mistreating slum dwellers who are practically their neighbors. Meanwhile, they're in love with the rich, who are nothing but a bunch of heirs, even though they try to sell themselves as “entrepreneurs who came from nowhere.” The immense majority of human beings fight each other for the chance to become luxury lackeys to the owners of the world. When they can't become luxury lackeys in jobs that pay well, they're thrown down to the condition of serfs, which is where the majority of poor workers find themselves. And there are still those who say that life is a blessing. What a great blessing to be condemned to this!

Still, some dreamers believe we can build a world where being born would in fact be a blessing. “You don't hate Mondays, you hate capitalism”, they say. No, I'm pretty sure I hate Mondays besides also hating capitalism. And since I'm conscious of being a decadent heap of meat and bones animated by a nervous system that didn't ask to exist, I can safely state that I'd hate everyday of the week even if I was born before the arrival of the capitalist system. The same would occur if I was born after the overcoming of capitalism. While I don't dispute that the human world could be better than the piece of crap it already is, not even the arrival of Thomas Moore's Utopia or the advent of Francis Bacon's New Atlantis would come close to healing the hurt of being. Being born will never be worth it, not even in a utopia, and we're far from getting there — that's assuming it's possible to get there. But let us leave the bigger issues aside and focus now on the microcosm of human horrors.

Among the tragedies that are in Brazilian news lately, we have to case of Henry, a 4-year-old boy that died after being severely beaten by his mother's boyfriend, a politician known as Doctor Jairinho. Jairinho is rich and connected to the militias of Rio's poor western districts. His mother, Monique, more than likely participated in the crime, although some people try to force a narrative claiming that she's innocent. After all, a mother would never do this to her child, isn't that right? Those who believe in this narrative work with the unfounded hypothesis that she feared Jairinho criminal connections. But even if Monique didn't participate in the murder itself, she certainly participated in the attempt to clear her boyfriend's name. This is what every piece of evidence and every deposition show. No, fear didn't make her hide the crime. Deep down, even those naive enough to see in her some sort of “motherly innocence” know this.

The naive and the way they act remind me of the countless attempts made by philosophers to justify our species. And philosophers aren't the only ones trying to do this. It's very common to hear attempts to save the moral reputation of the human race by pointing to a good person or a group of good people. The formula goes somewhat like this: “at least this person is good” or “at least these people are good”. Of course, there's an enormous variety of guilt among individuals. It is true that not all of us are Ted Bundy or Josef Mengele, even though no one can be considered a saint. And sure, some humans are way above the average when it comes to goodness.

But when we talk about groups, not a single one escapes. They are all guilty, although some are way more guilty than others, it's true — after all, not all nations became colonial powers and genocidal empires. But that doesn't change the reality that even the people who were massacred by outsiders had their contradictions, violence and guilt, even if those were smaller in scale. It is foolish to believe that the peaceful Shangri-La or the paradisaical El Dourado were introduced to evil by foreign men. The seed of horror is in all of us, and in every living being. Even some plants are the torture and death chambers to certain species of animals. Even fungi are capable of killing.

However, although we share the horror with every living species, the human is unique. We are the only species that knows to be causing pain when we hurt another being gifted with consciousness, even if this consciousness is minimal, as in the case of certain wild animals hunted by ancient peoples in the Savannah, or in the case of animals being mass processed in modern factory farms. This realization does not depend on whether eating meat is natural or not for humans. I'm not defending this or that diet here, although I do see attitudes that seek to decrease overall suffering as positive. I'm only pointing out that even if the consumption of meat is natural, in no way that would make the pain caused by meat consumption morally justified, it would only make our existence even more tragic.

Imagine a species of intelligent extraterrestrials that need to eat some of their cousins in order to sustain themselves, since that was the way they evolved. A particular behavior being the product of the natural development of a particular intelligent species doesn't necessarily make it correct. In the same way, if we humans really do need to consume meat in order to survive, this doesn't make this need something correct or good. It's only an unfortunate condition. Happy is the lion that doesn't understand it is partaking in an insidious mechanism. But the dietary problem is not what I want to focus. The important thing to focus here is that we are the only kind of animal that understands the pain we cause in other sentient beings. Even if we exclude what we do to other animals in order to feed ourselves, that still leaves what we do to our own species, what we do to ourselves.

Talking about what we do to ourselves, especially to those who can't defend themselves, here's another example that has been on Brazilian news lately. A few months ago, before the murder of little Henry, three children — Fernando, Lucas and Alexandre, ages 8 to 11 — disappeared in Belford Roxo, a poor municipality located in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Since they are poor and black, the authorities and most of the media have been slow in investigating the case. It is heartbreaking. In countries that have a high rate of crime elucidation, most cases are solved in a few days. Even in those countries, when this window of opportunity closes, the elucidation rates fall drastically.

In Brazil, the crime elucidation rates are pitiful, including missing persons and homicides, no matter how long they occurred. If even in countries that have better crime solving rates this type of case is hard to solve after a few weeks, try imagining Brazil. It's unlikely these children will be found. It is unlikely they'll find the culprits. But it doesn't stop there. Even if, against the odds, everything is solved and the culprits are punished, there will remain the pain felt by Fernando, Lucas and Alexandre. The pain of those they left behind will also remain. In the end, Henry, Fernando, Lucas and Alexandre came to this world in order to end like this: victims of evildoers, aggressors, murderers and kidnappers.

I could waste my time making those empty and supposedly inspiring questions like, for example: “how did we get here?” and “what can we do?” We got here because that was the path we took. What we can do about it is try not to make things worse and stop basing our civilization on the exploitation of the majority by a minority — but, preferably, we should stop making new slave-owners and new slaves, new evildoers and new sufferers. The best thing we can do is not to bring new Jairinhos and new Henrys into the world. The optimist will say that not all of us become evildoers or victims like Jairinho and Henry. It is true, but there are other ways to be an evildoer and a victim. The very nature of our biology makes us victims, forcing us to feed and move in order to exist. All of that so we can suffer and die at some arbitrary moment, be it of disease, accident, old age or something else.

It is sort of a slap in the face to hear that no, we cannot have it all, and that if we really want to have descendants, they will suffer and (more than likely) make others suffer to a greater or lesser degree. It is a metaphorical slap in the face to say this to others, but it must be said. Preferably, everyone should ponder about these things at one point in their lives. Do this and maybe you'll arrive at the honest conclusion that life is suffering — even though you might have a different attitude in the face of it than the one I recommended in the last paragraph. If you want to bring new Jairinhos and Henrys to the world, at least be honest about the reality of existence. We cannot claim ignorance after the fact. We know that even the best lives result in death, and even the best lives have way more suffering than what people commonly believe.

I've been hearing that pain shouldn't be considered a school, that we shouldn't romanticize pain. Yes, I agree. This type of discourse has been in vogue since the beginning of the pandemic, when lots of famous personalities tried to romanticize the situation saying that we'd all come out stronger from this painful moment, that the pandemic would be a time of learning, among other nonsense. This nonsense has been used for a long time to romanticize the poverty experienced by millions of human beings — and at the same time, those who do this blame the poor for being poor. It's terrible. Because of this, I completely agree with those that say that pain isn't pedagogical and shouldn't be romanticized. But I go further. It is horrible to romanticize sentience and, therefore, the last 500 million years on planet Earth, give or take.

Otherwise, when we choose which kinds of suffering should be naturalized and which shouldn't, we are making an arbitrary value judgement based on absolutely nothing besides our wishes of continuity and the belief that everything will be fine. Even if many admit the several horrors of human life, they treat the horror not caused directly by humans as natural and acceptable. They act as if a future utopia will magically justify all previous human evil — and the diseases, the tragedies, the accidents and suffering that weren't caused directly by human wrongdoing won't matter, because they are “natural”, “they're a part of life” and should be accepted by everyone.

I disagree. First, we don't know if we'll ever reach a world where human wrongdoing will cease to exist — and even if its possible, why should we accept that this future utopia will justify all previous wrongs? The evil that occurred can't be undone by a future and better humanity. What's more: why should we accept that this future universal harmony between men will justify “natural” suffering, the types of suffering that aren't caused by human action, like accidents, diseases and natural disasters? It's not enough to say that the natural world is the way it is and expect this statement to solve our misery. Accepting a natural fact isn't a neutral attitude, but a disguised form of approval. We judge everything, even mathematical formulas, why the hell wouldn't we judge the natural world's mechanism of death and suffering?

The fact that we are inserted in the natural world and we can't escape life in order to judge it from the outside can't stop us from looking at existence in horror, it can't stop us from rejecting our program. Even though optimists might deny it, this supposedly neutral acceptance of life is an enthusiastic approval. And if some approve, others have every right to disapprove. When we look at our reflection in the mirror we should have in mind that, even if we don't participate in the horror directly, we are part of a chain of events that is intrinsically horrible, whether we want it or not. We might not be Jairinhos nor Henrys, but we are part of the same suffering factory that produces beings like them. And this suffering factory also produces an enormous amount of other horrors, either by the hands of men, nature or by chance.

by Fernando Olszewski