More than ten years ago, I went to visit my grandfather’s home town in Catalonia. Walking into the coffee shop that had been my great-grandfather’s almost one hundred years back, I asked if they had coffee.
The young man at the bar answered with local Catalan irony, “it’s a café, isn’t it?”
An old man sitting next to me snapped back, “Kids don’t even have a clue that, a while back, there wasn’t any coffee anywhere, even in coffee shops.”
I remembered that event as I read Cristal Palacios’s article on having to argue with her colleagues in Northern Ireland, as most Venezuelans abroad have done, trying to explain what’s going on in our country to people who have already made up their minds without putting too much effort into understanding the actual events. She describes it as “peace privilege,” approaching the world from a stability that allows for simplifications.
It’s not surprising, then, that in Northern Ireland, torn apart by 30 years of conflict, people are resistant to registering chavismo’s capacity for terror.
There’s always a lot of denial going on when trauma interrupts our safe outlook on life. We know that people in general don’t want to see horror except in comfortable contexts (like fiction) so seeing human beings systematically torturing, starving and hurting others makes us feel vulnerable, impotent or responsible. It makes us question the comfortable assumptions of our own lives and why have we grown in a safe environment (could it have been by chance?).
Social psychology speaks of the “just world” fallacy: it’s frightening to know that terrible things can happen to good people so, when something awful happens, we prefer to think that there must have been something done to deserve it. “Are terrible human rights abuses happening in exotic parts of the world or in the seedy side of town? Maybe it’s just what naturally happens there, maybe they did something to deserve it, or they aren’t as evolved as we are.”
It takes effort to register cruel injustice, especially when it doesn’t happen to us or a loved one.
While many don’t know better, or don’t care that much about Venezuela, those who see themselves as enlightened progressives are more vehement in dismissing any opposition to chavismo as disguised Trumpism. If the human capacity for horror is hard to fathom, it’s much harder to imagine it being done by someone whose side I’m allegedly on, the good guys, the brave rebels against Trumpism and all that’s wrong in the modern world.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi describes a typical nightmare of Holocaust survivors: going back home and telling friends and family what they went through, to have their account discredited as impossible, inconceivable. Nothing dehumanizes you like having your pain dismissed.
I concede that it takes tons of insistence and patience to help unravel much of the narcissistic self-righteousness that our biases are often wrapped in.
In 2014, I was part of a group of mental health professionals who sought out psychologists sympathizing with chavismo, to try to find common ground against government abuse. I believed that good-hearted sympathizers of chavismo couldn’t possibly support the torture and persecution I was registering. We found five psychologists, all over 50 years old. One of them was jailed and tortured in the 60s so, in my mind, that made him ideal to talk to chavistas and take a public stance against government abuse. I was surprised to hear that they thought it impossible that National Guards tortured students: “That only happened in the past.”
I had the report of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello’s Human Rights Center at the time, and when I began to read the first testimony of a raped young student, one of the psychologists yelled that I was attacking them and lying, storming out of the room later. She couldn’t bear to hear what I was reading, she needed to disavow it. Her friends pleaded with me to not continue, saying that the conversation could only continue if we mooted the point. They weren’t willing to question their affinity for chavismo. They couldn’t accept that the government they thought had redeemed their political struggle of many years was doing much of what they suffered, and worse.
It’s not surprising, then, that in Northern Ireland, torn apart by 30 years of conflict, people are resistant to registering chavismo’s capacity for terror, identifying with governments that flip their finger to the central powers of the world. The young man serving me coffee in Vilafranca del Penedés probably needs to forget that his forefathers went without coffee for a number of seasons. Freud’s notion of the repressed, traumatic memories, that reappear as unburied ghosts to haunt our current political dilemmas is spot on.
The notion of “peace privilege” seems to me like a suggestive conceptual tool. I concede that it takes tons of insistence and patience to help unravel much of the narcissistic self-righteousness that our biases are often wrapped in, but we owe the effort to ourselves. We owe it to our past.