Friday, July 20, 2012

Missing, epistemic injustice, and victim-blaming

I don’t know how I failed to see the 1982 Costa-Gavras film Missing

before this week.* It’s splendid. Here’s a summary of the film, and here’s a report from this past December about a Chilean judge’s call for the extradition of the former head of the US Military Group, Navy captain Ray Davis, for complicity in the murders of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi.

The main subject of the film is Horman’s father, Edward (played by Jack Lemmon), but his wife Beth (played by Sissy Spacek) is also a central figure.** The movie follows, very believably, the elder Horman’s political awakening, as he comes to realize the reality of Latin America and what the US government does there.

But two other, related aspects of the character’s development, touched upon in the summary I linked to above, also caught my attention. The first is epistemic injustice. When he arrives in Chile, Ed repeatedly challenges and discounts Beth’s ideas, not particularly - it doesn’t seem - because she’s a woman, but because she’s young and the couple have been living an unconventional life. He dismisses her suspicions about US officials and the government’s intentions in Chile as paranoia, and becomes angry and impatient with her hostility toward embassy officials.

The second is victim-blaming. Early in the film, Horman follows precisely the same tendency with regard to his son, Beth, and their friends that I was talking about last week. He fires questions at Beth, demanding to know what Charles had done to make himself a target, and suggests that Beth is also partially responsible for what’s happened due to her noncooperation with officials. He begins with the assumption that they must have done something wrong to draw the attention of the coup regime, and that even if they hadn’t committed any overt acts, it was their choice not to follow the conventional route and political immaturity that put them in harm’s way. He aggressively challenges their choices, blaming them for failing to take some imaginary path that would have kept them safe and secure.

Horman changes on both counts. As he comes to a better understanding of the situation, he also starts to listen to Beth more seriously and to treat her as a reliable source and teacher rather than a silly idealistic child or an interrogation subject. At some points, in fact, he and Beth even change roles, with her educating and comforting him and helping him face the situation as he begins to appreciate his own political naïveté. As he deals with the US and Chilean governments, he comes to view them as untrustworthy and suspect. He also turns his anger on those who have victimized his son and others and the system they (and he) support, and tries to appreciate his son’s motives rather than dismissing them as quixotic or frivolous.

The film asks its audience to make this journey with Horman, to overcome their own political innocence. This is as important now as it was three decades ago when the film was released – not only has the evidence for the case presented in the film grown, but the US government’s pattern of behavior in Latin America hasn’t changed. But the reason for talking about epistemic injustice and victim-blaming tendencies in general is that it can help us to avoid these habits of thought and action from the start, so that we don’t have to travel that route endlessly in our daily lives or the political realm. Being cognizant of these tendencies and cultivating epistemic virtues (in ourselves and our institutions) can open us up to experiencing that political awakening in every case, without needing to be prodded and cajoled into it or having the evidence shoved in our faces.

*Wikipedia says a State Department lawsuit led to its being withdrawn from the US market until 2006, after the suit was dismissed. This would explain why I hadn’t seen it, but it sounds questionable, there’s no citation, and I haven’t been able to confirm the claim.

**For a political thriller from 1982, the film is remarkably gender-aware. There are several female characters, and they’re far from window dressing. There are even indications of the Catholic, patriarchal nature of the coup itself. In one chilling scene early on, Charles and his friend Terry (played by Melanie Mayron) are in a bus line shortly after the coup. Some women are yanked from the line by soldiers and pulled over to a military vehicle. When Terry asks what the men are saying to the women, Charles translates: they’re telling them that women in the country will wear skirts. They’re then shown cutting the women’s pants with scissors.

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