Os Guinness on suffering in the digital age

The Table podcast features an interview with Os Guinness by Evan Rosa. Os Guinness is indeed the great-great-grandson of Arthur Guinness. This hasn’t exactly insulated him from suffering – two of his younger brothers died in famine in China (which as he alludes to in the excerpt from the transcript . This interview is a thought-provoking and at times difficult listen (Rosa reads a painful-to-listen-to section from Elie Wiesel early on)



I wonder if we could talk for a bit about your take on suffering in contemporary society, the trouble that we experience. For many of us, technology brings suffering closer than we’d normally be familiar with.

Of course, there’s the kind of life suffering that happens to just anyone, but the news cycle, and I suppose the very concept of feeding people’s almost wanton desire for the suffering of others that comes through Facebook. I comes through social media, Twitter feeds, and so forth. There’s a kind of consistency of the cycle of suffering.

I wonder what you think about this phenomenon of being exposed to so much evil and suffering, so that we’re constantly aware. Yet, what can be done about it?

Os: The way I put it— and I have a chapter on this— is that modernity has transformed evil and suffering. When you look at what’s happening in the world, people say we’re allowing more evil.

You take the fact that, say, 100 million killed in war, 100 million under political repression in the 20th century, and another 100 million in ethnic and sectarian violence. That’s incredible. Does that mean that people are more evil than before? I don’t think so. We’re the same old sinners as ever, but the fact is modernity minimizes pain.

If you take, say, the invention of anesthesia or, in 1899, the patenting of aspirins, historians say around 1900, for the first time in history, an adult in the developed world could live without any pain the whole of their life.

The downside is many modern people, certainly Americans, are very unrealistic about suffering. All they see is virtual suffering. Maybe, when someone in the family dies, they see them in hospital, surrounded with technology, and so on. I grew up in China. My two brothers died in a terrible famine. I saw hundreds of dead people before I was 10.

That’s actually much more typical of the premodern world. You think of infant mortality. Our Queen Anne had 14 children, all of whom died as children. She was the queen! That gave you a realism about life. The rest of the transformations are dark. You think of the transformation of destructiveness.

There’s things like the distancing or the diffusion of responsibility and the division of labor. Things like this that say, “Auschwitz was run like Volkswagen and the other chemical factories in Germany.” You say, “P‑29 bombers, if I see you in the white of the eye two feet from me, I’ll kill you.”

There’s a human element there that makes it much more real than pressing a button at 29,000 feet and obliterating a city. Drone strikes, civilian casualties, and so on.

Evan: Targets on a screen like a video game.

Os: Exactly. Dostoevsky predicted that science would outlaw compassion. What we’ve seen in the 20th century and now is that traditional categories like good/bad, right/wrong have been squeezed out as being relativistic.

What people have noticed is that the instinctive human ways of responding, a community hugging people who are suffering or giving meals to the homeless and so on, is overwhelmed by flying in grief counselors and telling us we’ve got to go through six steps of mourning, or else we haven’t really done it the right way. All the experts and the specialists.

You remember Columbine?

Evan: Yeah, I do.

Os: Compare that with Andy Murray, the great Scottish tennis player. He was four in the Dunblane massacre. In the response to that, the queen went up and just hugged the children and the families. In Columbine, that was the first response, and then in came hundreds of grief counselors, and mourning specialists, and all those.

You can see that just the simple human ways are being pushed to the side with science outlawing compassion, as Dostoevsky warned. Modernity has transformed both evil and suffering. They’re different but enormously. Followers of Jesus we begin with realism, because of the fall. The world has gone wrong.

If you look at evil as a whole, the worst evils are done by utopians. The trouble is the gap between the utopian ideal that we think is there and reality is so great there’s only one way to fill it, with force and violence. That’s why utopians actually create the worst evil.

The second worst are the dualists. Those people who think, “I’m good, you’re bad.” “We’re good, they’re bad.” If we’re good we can treat the baddies any way that puts them down. That’s incredibly destructive, too. Obviously, Christians can be prone to that if they’re not careful.

I remember the famous story of a Scottish preacher, Murray M’Cheyne, who was congratulated by a lady after a great sermon. He turned to her quite sharply, and said, “Madam, if you could see into my heart, you might spit in my face.” In other words, he knew his heart was as rotten as anyone he might be talking about, and I quote, “sinner” in Dundee where he lived.

Incidentally there is good evidence that automatically providing “debriefing” counselling after a disaster is not a good idea.

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