December 14, 2005: Perspective
the suffering of others’
By Vanessa Wills ’02
Vanessa Wills ’02 is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh.
Shortly before I graduated from Princeton, Professor Jeffrey Stout *76 and I took one early afternoon to peruse an exhibit at the University Art Museum. The exhibit featured Anthony Van Dyck’s “Ecce Homo,” which is a scene from the Passion of Jesus Christ. It was in light of this painting that Professor Stout turned to me and said he was reminded of a bit of advice he’d wanted to give me as I went out into the world: Do important work, and remember the suffering of others.
In the years since, I have given a great deal of thought to that advice. I am pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, though my particular area of research within philosophy is not very closely related to the suffering of people. I think it is important not just to bear moral witness, but also to actually try to do something about the fact that we live in a world where people suffer and die for reasons that are completely unjust. I have come rather late to political activism, and people often think it strange that I went to Princeton, which is considered by some to be an apolitical campus. But I think my activism has everything to do with the education I received at Princeton. It is not something I have taken up in spite of having been there.
I can trace much of my thinking about ethics and politics back to my involvement with the Human Values Forum while at Princeton. The Human Values Forum is a student-faculty discussion group sponsored by the Center for Human Values; I served as an officer, including as president. At meetings, we would discuss issues ranging from the ethical implications of the death penalty, to the question of what rich countries owe to poor ones, to the ability of cinema to communicate something about the human condition. It was an opportunity to apply critical and creative thinking to fundamental questions about what people value, what they are entitled to, and how they ought to be treated. Ralph Nader ’55’s visit to campus in my sophomore year also had a profound impact on my budding political consciousness. I can remember very clearly the passion in his voice as he exhorted his audience to be outraged by the way poor and working people are treated in our society, and by the way resources are distributed in a fashion that leaves the least well-off even worse off every day.
Often, I am accused of being a pessimist, and there’s a certain amount of truth to that. I am deeply pessimistic about the likelihood that the United States will ever bring “freedom” or “democracy” to places like Iraq. I am deeply pessimistic about the strategy of giving tax cuts to corporations as a way of helping poor and working people. But I am optimistic about the ability of people to devise and implement solutions for themselves, and I think this optimism about human potential is something I picked up at Princeton. I could hardly spend four years in a place with so much exciting intellectual discussion, so much groundbreaking research, and so many leaders among the students and faculty, without coming away convinced that human beings are capable of quite a lot of good.
I had one of the most frightening experiences of my life last summer. On Aug. 20, an antiwar organization, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, called one of a series of protests outside a military recruitment center near the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus. This was a non-violent direct action, aimed at making it impossible for the recruitment center to carry on business as usual. Before we marched there, an organizer called the center to tell them that we were on our way. About 80 unarmed protesters marched to the recruitment center and assembled peacefully outside, and as we did so, more and more police officers gathered. When a cameraman said he had been assaulted by a protester, the police rushed into the crowd and threw a protester to the ground. By the time the confrontation was over, a 68-year-old grandmother had been bitten by a police dog, two young children were among those who had been pepper-sprayed, and a young woman had been Tasered while lying on the ground.
Some of my friends have asked me why, given the threat of such violence, I chose to return the next week to protest again outside this recruitment center. The answer is that I think the intellectual work of figuring out what’s right or wrong, and of sussing out what it is that justice requires, needs to be backed up with the practical work of getting out there and putting these ideas into practice. I hope I’m still far too young to throw in the towel and decide that it’s no use trying to change the world. In this particular case, I think it’s unjust that it is the most marginalized members of society, with few other employment and advancement options, who are disproportionately sent to fight wars that aren’t being fought to benefit them. If there’s something I can do to disrupt that process, I will do it. The way I see it, this is a matter of life and death for those people who are convinced by the recruiters that their fortune lies in Iraq.
Princeton trained me to be not only an intellectual and a thinker, but a doer. It taught me to see myself as an instrument for change. I’ve probably drawn political conclusions very different from those held by most of my fellow alumni, but the fact that I concern myself with these questions at all, and give them the importance that I do, can in large part be attributed to the way I was “brought up” there, intellectually speaking. I try to remember the suffering of people, which to me means not succumbing to the temptation to isolate myself from the harsh realities of other people’s experiences in the world. And most importantly, I try to do more than remember it — I try to change it.