Let’s begin with a story. It’s my first Christmas in Colombia, and I’m currently revising a novel set in Soviet Russia, early-to-mid-20th-century. It’s why I’ve been a little sluggish with posting*, but not because of the writing so much as the research.
None of this research is new to me: I first read The Gulag Archipelago at an impressionable 17, and I’ve immersed myself extensively in Soviet-era literature ever since. While writing the first draft I reviewed documentaries. Read witness testimonies. Sifted through source materials like NKVD member rolls, official Party correspondence, and order forms for purges and shipments alike. (Along with catalogues on coins, uniforms, radio, munitions specs, and all the other delightful rabbit holes writers find themselves down when they think they’ll knock off an easy paragraph or three.)
Still, I have a tendency, when immersed in this topic, to dwell unexpectedly on the smallest details. To think to myself, wow, we’re the worst, for at least a gloomy hour.
(I will give examples, but please don’t read them if you don’t want to: The male prisoners in one work camp who formed queues of 12 behind freshly landed female prisoners and only after the first run-through hauled out the dead and queued up anew for the survivors. The women who stole rations from gulag infants and toddlers, hastening their deaths by starvation, or else tied their arms behind them and choked scalding hot slop down their little throats. The woman who left her young child in the care of a dear friend and neighbour when arrested, and returned from gulag only to find that it was the neighbour who had falsely reported on her, severing her and her daughter for those long, uncertain years. Lavrentiy Beria… just, every last bloody detail about Beria.)
It’s a curious feeling, though, working on a project this bleak in a season dedicated to a narrative of hope. The streets, of course, are awash in seasonal decorations. Fireworks nightly fill the sky and disturb my slumber. Last weekend I hosted a Canadian Christmas meal for a family I’m close to, then took up their invitation to my first Colombian “novena”. Novena itself is a part of the Christmas backdrop here: a nine-day spree of singing, praying, and eating–primarily for the children, but also advanced by employees at many a local business. There are hourly nativity plays in some parts of the city, intricate nativity displays are sites of nightly outdoor church services in others, and this morning the air is full of calls to the city’s first major Christmas masses.
So, no, I can’t exactly avoid the juxtaposition–at least, not if I want to make my pitch deadline in the first week of January.
But there is one benefit to the stark contrast. I’m reminded, after pacing in the wake of a particularly affecting bit of historical research, about a sloppy rhetorical move that more humanists should strive to avoid.
I’m talking, of course, about the fallacy of relative privation.
Let’s Get the Jesus-y Version Over With First
On Día de las velitas, I heard a priest in the local park give a sermon to parishoners carrying lights connected to a statue of the Virgin Mary. He wasn’t really focussing on Mary, though, so much as the miracle-child itself. Over and over in Spanish, he kept arguing that there was no struggle in the world greater than the struggle of Christ. No suffering in the world greater than the suffering of Christ. No problem in the world greater than that of reconciling oneself with Christ.
So, you know, the usual Christian rhetoric.
Now, I’m always struck by how much Christians tend to draw strength from this diminishment of their own problems. For many, this is by no means an act of erasure, but of fortification. If they just believe that Christ suffered more, that Christ suffers with them even now (helpless deity that he is to more tangibly intervene), they often find the courage to stand up to the burdens set upon their shoulders.
And you know what? Great. That is 100% awesome if it works on an individual level.
But the problem arises when people try to diminish other people’s problems with the same rhetoric. Then you get into the dangerous territory of diminishing the profound loss of safety, security, and innocence that comes from children being sexually assaulted by the clergy. Or the daily horrors endured by a domestic assault victim afraid to leave their marriage because divorce is somehow the greater sin. Also, ‘at least you weren’t flogged, speared, crowned with thorns, then hanged on a cross until dead’ isn’t exactly the most useful reassurance when someone desperately wishes they were dead to begin with.
So How Does Relative Privation Manifest in the Secular Realm?
I wish I’d screencapped the thread, it made me laugh so much at the time: a Colombian newspaper reporting on an acid attack on a woman in Medellín, and a man in the comments, in Spanish, gruffly addressing all the “feminists” who were fixating on the occasional, rare problem here while women were suffering “real” problems in the Middle East. Thank your stars, that silly argument always suggests, that we’re not treating you as badly as they treat you! But it was the first time I had seen it from a Colombian, about Colombia as a supposed heaven for women compared to the rest of the nasty old world. And I was laughing because of my own presumption, in being surprised to see the rhetoric here–as if it somehow has more credibility in Canada, Britain, or the U.S.!
(Engaged atheists, of course, know the notorious invocation of the fallacy of relative privation in relation to feminism from among our own ranks, so I sure as heck am not going to give it more play than it deserves!)
But secular uses of this fallacy aren’t always opportunities for amused self-reflection.
In Canada, we use the fallacy of relative privation extensively, reassuring ourselves when things go wrong that at least we aren’t as bad as the U.S. (e.g. on health care, on rich-poor divides, on environmental protections, on complicity in human rights abuses the world over). It’s a smug bit of rhetoric that ultimately does us great harm. So long as our notions of progressive policy are tethered to (what we perceive as) that lower southern bar, we limit our ability to dream up far braver new worlds.
The USSR novel-research likewise reminds me of how poorly extreme historical comparisons tend to be used in mainstream discourse. First, someone notes a similarity between contemporary political trends and the rise of authoritarian states. Possibly going too far! Possibly extrapolating too heavily! But then, second, they’re met with great derision for having invoked such extreme comparisons at all. If “Godwin’s Law” isn’t brought out sneeringly, the example is positioned against an even worse counterpoint–a sort of, “if you think it’s bad now, wait until your politics bring real Communism to North America!”
Yes, we aren’t literally in Nazi Germany or the USSR. Yes, we aren’t literally eating our starvation-plagued children to survive a genocidal famine, or freezing our digits off in heinously cold temperatures while working with rudimentary pickaxes to form useless Soviet canals, or betraying our neighbours to firing squads.
But how close do we need to come to these extremes before we’re permitted, as a culture, to talk plainly about the lessons supposedly learned by such histories writ large?
All Together Now
In my last essay, I discussed the importance of making more space for religious humanists, because we all have room to grow to meet our most aspirational texts. In that spirit, I want to suggest an easy reframing for all of us to avoid the fallacy of relative privation. A way, that is, to talk about one body of suffering without diminishing another.
For Christians, this is always a bit tricky, because your core narrative requires that horrific blood sacrifice to settle the divine score–so many of your folks, as you well know, have an unsettling fixation on suffering as sacred. Nevertheless, for the humanists among you, I’ve got a hunch that you side-step this tetchy problem by leaning on the likes of Matthew 25:35-40. The only trouble is that those examples are fairly mundane and one-on-one–feeding, hydrating, clothing, and sitting beside others in sickness or prison. Where is the example of petitioning for release from prison or changing unjust laws entirely? Or lobbying government to establish better social security nets so that individuals don’t have to rely on individual charity for reliable access to food or medicine? Christ gets pretty cranky about people bringing the secular into the temple, but he’s got a lot less get-up-and-go when it comes to secular state reforms.
Still, he’s not the only one. Atheists also have a tough time rallying to change the status quo, because humanity’s natural inclination towards small-c conservativism doesn’t simply go away by being secular. Whenever we reach for the “Oh, you think you’ve got it bad?” we’re just as guilty of trying to diminish another’s pain by reaching for extreme comparisons, instead of extending a more meaningful helping hand.
So… what’s the answer, for all of us?
A Better Use for Extreme Comparisons, Secular and Religious
When most of our birthdays roll around, we tend not to fixate on our birth so much as what’s happened since. Not so with the narrative of Christ: he gets reborn in the hearts and minds of Christians (and all attendant Western persons) every year without fail. That, and the annual marking of Crucifixion, make the story of Christianity one intrinsically of extremes.
In the secular world, we do something similar on military holidays. In Canada, on Remembrance Day, we’re drawn back to the extreme comparisons of World War I and II, even if it means tacitly sliding over issues with our military roles today. On November 11, we imagine instead the stark peril of a world a century or so behind us: one with massive death tolls and the precarious surge of authoritarianism.
Where we all tend to waver is in the day-to-day application of these extreme histories. And why not? In some ways, the most startling extreme of all is that the world keeps going in the wake of the exceptional. After exposure even to the most monumental historical extremes, we still have to go about our days: Exchanging pleasantries with local grocers. Transporting ourselves to and from work. Touching base with friends and family. Reading with dread for the next shocking news reports all around the globe.
So either these most extreme stories of joy and suffering serve our immediate realities, and make us more present in them, or… they’re simply ways of deflecting from the needs of humans all around us.
And that’s where notions of relative privation prove most useful: in helping us remember ways to remain useful to each other, even when the whole world seems at its worst.
On Christmas Day here, I’ll be walking the streets with toys and food for many of the displaced Venezuelan and indigenous families there. I find it absurd even to imagine telling them (atheist or not), “Rejoice, for the Saviour is born, and all your earthly problems are nothing in his wake!” But also, I would of course never try to reassure them with, “Hey, at least you’re not in Soviet Russia in the early- to mid-20th-century!”
If we pay attention, though, to that impulse to diminish other pains and fears, what might we discover about ourselves? What calls to action make us so uncomfortable that our first instinct is to deflect?
If a member of your community is struggling, what can be done to diminish their pain by more concrete means than reminding them “others have had it worse”?
If a friend is genuinely worried about the direction of the state, what coherent action plans can you create to strengthen your democracy?
And instead of invoking extreme historical incidents unto themselves, what lessons can we draw from the people inspired to better actions within them?
Because that’s the real lesson of history’s grand extremes: not the relative depravity that we have sunk to time and again, but the lights of better conduct that in every era some among us are always striving to become. When we raise up the examples of harder seasons of humanity in order to reflect on how individuals persevered, and what lessons we might take from their strength, we match suffering with suffering not to diminish the needs of the present, but to give them a leg-up from the past.
If you have faltered this year in being that better light (as I am sure I have at times myself), may this season find you ready to reflect on how better to mind your words and strengthen your actions for that strangest humanist extreme ahead: the sheer fact of living, though all the world cries out with dire histories, merely one day at a time.
* I’m going to continue to be sluggish with posting (and replying) these next two weeks during novel revisions. However, I do have a four-part series more or less ready for easy posting in that interim. That set of essays looks to contemporary sci-fi to explore what’s working and what needs improvement with secular storytelling in general as humanist practice. I hope you find it a pleasant change from the usual Colombian discourse!