More than 2,000 people have died in the war that broke out in recent days in Israel and Palestine. Almost 3,000 people have lost their lives in the devastating earthquake that recently struck Afghanistan. More than 500,000 have been killed or injured since the conflict between Russia and Ukraine began. And as of today, more than 6.9 million have died because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
One could continue. It’s not that complicated. It’s easy to count the dead.
This too is part of a journalist’s job: to provide data, to give numbers, to list and compare statistics, to count the dead. But there is more to all of this. This alone cannot be enough. One can, and it is more difficult, but one must (if we want to remain human) move from counting to telling the stories because the deceased, every dead person, is a story, a story that deserves to be told.
Pope Francis has been saying this and repeating it for more than 10 years. He repeated this with an anguished, impassioned cry in Marseille on 22 September, in front of the Memorial dedicated to sailors and migrants lost at sea: “Let us not get used to considering shipwrecks as news stories, and deaths at sea as numbers: no, they are names and surnames, they are faces and stories, they are broken lives and shattered dreams”. What is true for the people who have made the Mediterranean Sea an enormous cemetery, is true for all the other situations, both those caused by nature, which never forgives, as the Pope reminds us, and those caused by man, who could forgive but often does not, letting “the spirit of Cain” prevail. Thus man kills. And so he changes the world, impoverishing it: when a person dies the face of the world changes, it loses something. And the history of the world, its destiny, also changes, it takes another direction.
The reports that the media must provide cannot ignore the numbers, the statistics. Those numbers however, do not arouse that “vertigo” brought on by the realization that the fate of the world and of all humankind has changed because one person has died. A single one. Instead, those numbers have an alienating, contradictory effect. On the one hand they move us and scare us, they terrify us and they create a feeling of anguish. On the other hand, they immediately fall into an automatic removal process, gently slipping into oblivion.
We are made up of senses and matter, and concepts and logic do not really touch us. This is perhaps what Pope Francis means when, speaking of the way we consider other human beings, he invites us to pass from the culture of the adjective to the theology of the noun. When we begin to classify human beings we lose sight of them, distancing them. And worse than classifying, is quantifying.
This helps us understand one of Pope Francis’ great efforts: to overcome the temptation of falling into abstraction and to instead cling to concreteness, to the face and name, to the story that every person is, to every human existence, be it brilliant or ignoble. Dignity comes from this.
This was perceived more than 80 years ago by a brilliant and intelligent young woman, Simone Weil, who passed away on 23 August 1943. In only a few words, she clearly expressed the point: “There is something sacred in every man, but it is not his person. Nor yet is it the human personality. It is this man; no more and no less”. (a. m.)