“One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” This quote has been running through my mind like a scrolling marquee for several weeks now. I believe that when a thought like this gets stuck in my head, it is a signal that I need to fully embrace this idea, examine it from every angle, talk about it, grapple with it, and try to make as much sense of it as I can. Considering that this phrase originated from a man who is responsible for the deaths of over 20 million people, I find my distinctions between right/wrong, good/bad, and truth/deception to be somewhat blurry at present. Nonetheless, what follows is an attempt to make sense of Joseph Stalin’s words.
Last week I watched a film about the Bosnian War, which was written and directed by one of my favorite actresses. Although dramatized for the movie industry, the history of events and the circumstances surrounding the war are very real and incredibly haunting. Throughout the war, approximately 100,000 people died, nearly 2 million people were forced to leave their homes, and as many as 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped. Until the Bosnian War, rape was seen as just a side effect of war. But once the war was over, the word became aware of how rape can also be a means of waging war. Though now considered a war crime, the tragedy of this mass rape continues today, as justice remains unfulfilled. As of 2010, only 12 cases of rape during the Bosnian War have been prosecuted. While watching this film and taking in these numbers, Stalin’s words echoed in my head, and I became aware of a distinct disconnect between the rape victims and myself.
Human suffering is a difficult concept to grasp, especially when thinking about it in statistical terms. It’s hard to remember that behind each statistic, there are real, living and breathing people. At WomanStats, we deal with suffering on a daily basis. This is evidenced in each coder as she or he undergoes an inevitable emotional development process (see this blog post). In the beginning, there is an initial phase of utter shock. It’s an awakening of sorts to a brand new world of daily pain, heartbreak, and tragedy. Once this initial shock has worn off, coders seem to slip into a phase of anger, depression, or frustration—a different emotional reaction for each coder as a way of coping with this new world paradigm. For me, this second phase turned into one of complete and utter apathy. It’s easier to do my job when I’m thinking about suffering women as statistics. And to be perfectly honest, this has worked quite well…until a few weeks ago when I opened up a short news article to code for the database. This article detailed the brutal gang rape of a seventeen-year-old South African girl who died in the hospital a few days later. By the time I finished reading it, I had tears streaming down my face. It was a moment of profound confusion for me—I was shocked by my emotional response. I had read hundreds of articles like this before, but never once cried because of one. Why did this particular story affect me so deeply?
Looking back at this moment, I’ve figured out that my emotional reaction was a result of two separate things: First, there is certainly some truth behind the concept of “One death is a tragedy.” Having a face and a name to go along with a death makes it that much more real. (For anyone who has visited the Holocaust Museum, you understand exactly what this means.) And secondly, something inside of me snapped when I was reading about the South African girl. My barricade of apathy that I had been hiding behind started to crumble. This story wasn’t necessarily more tragic than any of the other stories I had been coding, but my façade had worn too thin. And thus I began to move out of the second phase and into the final stage of a WomanStats coder.
This last phase doesn’t have a specific time frame and lacks have a foreseeable end because it is a stage of acceptance and endurance. It is a process of coming to accept the suffering in the world as it unfolds each and every day, and then learning to be okay with how much or how little you are doing about it. No, I cannot physically stop gang rapes from happening to teenagers in South Africa, but I can talk about it with my friends, bring it up in class discussions, and diligently continue coding for the database. It’s not a lot, but it’s a contribution toward change nonetheless. Coming to terms with one’s place in the world and learning to be happy in spite of all the suffering is a process that can take a lifetime. WomanStats has guided me along on this beautiful journey.