Theories on how to ethically bear witness

In this post I will very briefly discuss the discourse surrounding the ethics of the  role of emotion in testimony of suffering/evil. This stuff is incredibly complex- I’ve just included some things I found interesting.

Hannah Arendt’s report of the trial of Adolf Eichmann- Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil- was written with an apathetic tone which was met with intense criticism and accused of “‘heartlessness’ for “violat[ing] conventions of sympathy” (Nelson 47). People went so far as to declare “Arendt was simply herself unsympathetic, cold, even brutal; she hated herself for being a Jew and therefore accused the Jews of their own murder; she identified with the German persecutors. “ (Nelson 47). In response to these attacks Arendt does not deny heartlessness. She writes, “I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument” (Nelson 51). This idea is fascinating- here she finds no moral issue with NOT feeling deep compassion or sympathy for the victims whose testimony she was recording. There is some agreement here between Arendt and Sontag about sympathy being useless to witnessing/recording testimony as Sontag writes, “sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence”(Sontag 102). 

It could be argued that one of Arendt’s reasons for writing with so much distance and apathy was to draw attention to the fact that emotions are detrimental to testimonial- “Arendt’s refusal of the obligation to attend to suffering rests precisely on its power to blind and deafen and to shift emphasis from an event to feelings about the event.” (Nelson 52). Other makers of testimony have used similar techniques of inserting distance from emotion and dramatization in their testimony of suffering. I’ll now jump across the world to China to the testimonials around the deadly labour camps in Gansu province in 1957. In the book, Chronicles of Jiabiangou, Yang Xianhui writes a clinical narrative of the atrocious inhumanities of the camps and rejects “scar literature” practices of “cathartic outpours of emotion” (Veg 175). In the documentary Fengming, A Chinese memoir, almost the entire film is a full frontal shot of the protagonist sitting on her couch and telling her story; the filmmaker rejects any dramatization by refusing to use “archival images and fictional reconstructions” (Veg 174). This lines up with another filmmaker’s views, Clause Lanzmann who made Shoah, that “only individual verbal testimony… is an ethically acceptable investigation technique” (Veg 182). Thus, there is a rich body of work which argues that emotion and dramatization in testimonies of suffering is unethical. As an important side note, these distancing techniques could also be taken as a form of irony; if this is true then the authors/filmmaker would be using distancing techniques more for the purpose for communicating subtle messages, rather than adhering to the school of  ethical thought that dramatization of suffering detracts from testimony.

This image requires alt text, but the alt text is currently blank. Either add alt text or mark the image as decorative. “Fengming, A Chinese Memoir” is a documentary about the atrocities of Chinese labor camps in the late 50’s. Almost all of the film is full-frontal shots of her giving a seemingly uninterrupted oral history”

My final thought is a question. The thinkers in this discourse have turned over these ideas so many times- is it possible they’ve come to a point of over-analysis? Have writers/filmmakers become too caught up in their own ethics that they’ve forgotten the real purpose of recording testimony or end up being disrespectful to those who suffered? 


Nelson, Deborah. “Hannah Arendt: Irony and Atrocity.” University Press Scholarship Online, University of Chicago Press,

Sebastian Veg (2012) The limits of representation: Wang Bing’s labour camp
films, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 6:2, 173-188, DOI: 10.1386/jcc.6.2.173_1

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

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