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Should Literature Humanize the Inhuman?

Books can get us to empathize with monstrous people. Professor Richard Middleton-Kaplan believes that’s not only a good thing, but a vital part of human rights work.

How do we extend humanity to people who commit inhumane acts? In professor Richard Middleton-Kaplan’s Speakers Bureau talk Humanity in Print: Literature and Human Rights, he explores the merits of using works of literature as a way to connect with figures in historical events who we do not fully see as human. He emphasizes that we can extend these ideas, and use empathy, to prevent the next atrocities from occurring.  

Middleton-Kaplan is the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Walla Walla Community College and has a background in teaching literature.  

The following interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Humanities Washington: How did you come up with the idea for this talk? 

Richard Middleton-Kaplan: In 2011, I did a sabbatical as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York. I contacted the director and asked him if there would be a way to help them develop a course through their curriculum. And he said yes, and that’s what I eventually did.  

The idea of their Applied Human Rights program was to train their faculty not to sit behind desks. To be not only publishing scholars, but activists in the field of human rights. So I started to think about what the value of literature could be to somebody who was working as a human rights defender. 

What I started to realize was that in many works of literature, there’s an encounter with extremity, and then an author working with their creative imagination to find meaning in their experience. And sometimes finding a lack of meaning in their experience of mass atrocity or extremity, but even that could be consoling if I’d been through something and it seemed meaningless to me. I would at least see, There’s another writer who’s worked through that—I’m not alone, and it might help me, and it also might help me understand the incomprehensible.  

So if we’re looking at something like what took place in Rwanda, or Cambodia, or Bosnia Herzegovina, or the Nazi holocaust, there are things people did that we talked about as being incomprehensible, unimaginable, inhuman. But they’re not really inhuman, because they’re done by humans. So if through literature we can understand that, we can find meaning or even consolation in that connection. Or at least a sense of feeling less alone. That, for me, was a powerful recognition. 

“If people who do these things are just monsters, then we don’t have to really try to understand them in human terms. But they are human, and another such human will come along, and we need to learn from that and understand them.”

What are some pieces of literature that have personally moved you?  

One is a play by Arthur Miller from 1947 called All My Sons. A person who has done something really horrible makes the plea, “see it human.” Meaning, please try to understand what I did in human terms. And that line really stays with me, because we’re thinking about human rights defenders in the field and the kinds of acts that they may see committed. Can we see it as human, when we’re faced with something that was just incomprehensible?  

There’s a play called Master Harold and The Boys written in the 1980s. It’s about a privileged young white boy and two Black South Africans who have essentially raised him because his own father had been a violent, absent alcoholic. That young boy can’t admit to how cruel his father had been to him, so he takes it out on these two black South African men who’ve done nothing but love him and try to be surrogate fathers to him.  

One more is a work by Linda Ellia and it’s called Notre Combat, “Our Struggle” in French. “My Struggle” was the name of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. And she changed it to Our Struggle. And the reason she did that was she grew up Jewish in Tunisia, and her family left there because of the outbreak of antisemitism. Her daughter picked up a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf that she had found at her friend’s house. Ellia did this project where she took 600 pages of Mein Kampf and first started trying to imaginatively transform the page, and decorate it in different ways. She sent them out to people from all over the world. And the results, which I saw at an art exhibit, are absolutely remarkable. So that’s really affecting to me, because it shows me the power of the creative imagination, to take atrocity, to take hatred, and not to erase it, but to instill empathy in people who we might not have thought to extend that to. And to do that without denying the horror. 

That’s what I think literature in the creative imagination does. And isn’t that the goal of human rights? To lead us to justice, to better human conduct? Those are just three little examples. Big examples, of course. 

Humanities Washington: What would you say to folks about the merits of learning about literature from the perspective of perpetrators of violence? 

I’d say a couple of things. One is that we all have our own trauma. If we can see how others who’ve experienced those things have come to a better understanding, to healing, to a more humane path, then we’re less alone. We can begin to heal by the example of others.  

As far as being exposed to the perspective of perpetrators, I’d say a couple of things. One is if we write them off as monsters, aberrations, inhuman, then we’re not going to be able to be prepared for the next one, right? Because if people who do these things are just monsters, then we don’t have to really try to understand them in human terms. But they are human, and another such human will come along, and we need to learn from that and understand them. And we can determine for ourselves through exposure how somebody might have become that way, or fought that way, through literature, which can give us insights that we might never have gotten otherwise.  

This is what literature does—it expands the optical field of human behavior, the morality of humanity, the feeling and connection and empathy. That won’t go away if we pretend they’re not there.  

Humanities Washington: What would you want listeners to take away from your talk? 

I would want them to take away that literature has a direct relevance to human rights work and can open up experiences of understanding the behaviors of perpetrators. So literature can provide us with insight and access to the psyche, the hearts, and the souls of people whom we can’t understand at the surface. And it can help us come to terms with our own trauma and can then aid in the work of human rights. Part of the goal is for people to see what’s in these works of literature, how those writers dealt with what was local to them, and how people who attend the talk can then apply that to their own communities. 

Hong Ta is a Seattle-born journalist from the University of Puget Sound, studying politics and government and Spanish literature, language, and culture.  

Check out Richard Middleton-Kaplan’s Speakers Bureau talk, “Humanity in Print: Literature and Human Rights,” both online and in-person around the state.

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