“Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.” — J.M. Coetzee, "Waiting for the Barbarians."
These words are uttered by Colonel Joll, a sadistic torturer who plays a prominent role in J.M. Coetzee’s unsettling novel, "Waiting for the Barbarians." I start with these words because underneath them lay a philosophy of policing that views pain, indeed torture, as necessary.
Tasked with securing the Empire from the ever-present, yet never realized, threat of “barbarians,” Joll uses both physical and psychological violence to get the information he wants. Joll ultimately believes that the truth only comes when someone has endured pain. As another character puts it, Joll is an “obscene torturer.”
Joll can symbolize any police officer who has abused their power. While this dictum might define a violent philosophy of policing, we can also look at it through a more revelatory and insightful lens.
What happens when we say that the truth is pain? When we say that pain does not make the truth appear, but that the truth is actual pain we can then begin to make society better. We can work to undo that pain and make sure it never occupies such a prominent space in society again.
As I have watched the Derek Chauvin trial unfold, and after seeing yet two more examples of racial injustice this past week, I have returned a few times to Coetzee and this simple, devastating, and yet insightful dictum and the idea that the truth is pain.
The searing video of George Floyd’s life being sucked out of him seems to be one of the worst examples of inhumane violence perpetrated against Black Americans in recent memory. Floyd joins a long list of martyred Black Americans, from Jesse Washington to Emmett Till, from Trayvon Martin to Elijah McClain, from Sandra Bland to Breonna Taylor.
Yet, the arc of violence continues to extend and its painful realities continue to reemerge. As Chauvin sits trial, we have seen more examples of police violence. Just a bit from the courthouse where Chauvin sits, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, by a 26-year police veteran who apparently did not know the difference between a taser and a gun.
His body was left on the ground. The police in Brooklyn Center seem apathetic to the tragedy. Wright’s family, and his 1-year-old son, are left in the aftermath of police violence — a cycle that has become all too common. And just last week, a video emerged of police in Virginia harassing and abusing Lt. Caron Nazario.
Conservatives have seemingly decided that immigration is in a crisis like never before, but, I wonder, when do we accept the actual crisis of racial injustice in the country? When do our elected leaders start acting like we are in a crisis?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seem to think that we are in a crisis, as they have just declared racism a public health emergency. I suppose later is better than never, but a study between 2013 and 2018 found that Black men in America face a 1 in 1000 chance of being killed by the police.
Interestingly, in October 2020, it was found that Black Americans had a 1 in 1000 chance of dying from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). It is an interesting unity of the pain brought about by police violence and the virus. For too many, the truth of the American experience is pain.
For too long, we have ignored this pain. For too long, we have maintained our blinders. The pain Floyd endured has revealed the truth of the continual presence of that very dark underside of American society of racial injustice in the country. The crisis of racial injustice extends to the heart of the country: We need a fundamental paradigm shift in what we understand to be American values, and in how we coexist.
As a recent Wall Street Journal commentary put it, we need “to turn pluribus into unum.” Currently, we are too divided, too unwilling to listen and learn. For us to move forward, we need to listen to each other, understand and appreciate each other’s histories, and then we can move forward. But this all starts with recognizing how fundamental pain is to the truth of American society.
Joll’s antithesis in the novel is the Magistrate who decides to defend the “barbarians.” The Magistrate sees the truth behind Joll, the truth behind the pain, and decides to take a stand by rebuking hate and violence.
I think we can learn something from the Magistrate: Despite the personal cost, he did what was right. In an era of ever-accumulating violence against Black Americans, we need to stand together and work to undermine racism whenever and wherever we see it.
Especially for those of us in college, we must take courses that expand our worldview and give us access to diverse perspectives, and then apply what we learn to our everyday experiences to make our country better.
Richard Suta is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English and political science with a minor in French. His column, "The Suta Slant," runs on alternate Fridays.
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