Morality and genocide memorials
August 12, 2016 10:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to Cambodia. Should I see memorials/monuments/museums dedicated to the genocide?

Two questions:
1. What is the moral implication of visiting genocide museums and memorials? (i.e., In general, is it more moral to visit that to not? Why?)

2. I think going to genocide memorials in Cambodia will cause me significant distress. Is it important that I go?

The way-too-much information version: I've been a few places where genocide is memorialized. I would say I think about genocide and associated crimes against humanity a lot, and am well-informed on global affairs, especially in poor countries. I consider working to prevent or mitigate the suffering of the poor and vulnerable the most important. I am working on that professionally and also volunteer and advocate.

I went to the US Holocaust Museum and was devastated; I am devastated. I have passed genocide memorials in Rwanda but did not visit the museum because I did not think I could handle it. I know a lot about what happened in Rwanda; I am devastated. I know a little bit about what happened in Cambodia; it is devastating. My distress about these events is nothing, at all, compared to what happened. What I am wonder is: would it help other people if I were to see these memorials?
posted by quadrilaterals to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would consider it a personal choice with no major moral implication either way, to be honest, as long as you are not going to the memorial and behaving inappropriately. I'm a little confused by your last question; who would you be helping by seeing a memorial?
posted by noxperpetua at 10:50 AM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

The purpose of the memorials is to honor those who died and to serve as a reminder that genocide can happen and continues to happen. There is nothing in the least immoral about visiting the memorials if someone goes in the right spirit.

If seeing them devastates you, please don't go. You are already deeply aware of the atrocities that have been perpetrated all over the world. Visiting the memorials won't help you in any way, and staying away isn't a sign of disrespect.
posted by wryly at 10:55 AM on August 12, 2016 [17 favorites]

What happened in Cambodia is fascinating as an example of man's inhumanity towards other men, also horrific on a scale just a hair's width below Rwanda. Some might deem it worse than Rwanda. It's awful we have sitiations on par with each other to compare.

Go if going feels like a way to honor the people who lived and died that experience. Go if you want to learn.

Don't go if it feels like too much, I mean, you've already heard the message. You're onboard against violence and misery. You already get it.

I'm not sure if that helps. I would go even though it would overwhelm me and I would not make it through to the end. So then maybe I would not go, I might just stand outside the memorial and say a prayer.

Upon preview: You could probably learn a lot about the dynamics of cruelty and mass injustice from what happened in Cambodia. It might help you advocate better against such things. But it will devastate you in ways I can not articulate and you might never be the same. And then you'll turn to Buddhism.

If you don't need to walk that path, don't go.
posted by jbenben at 11:06 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your moral obligation is to have a clue about the history of the place you are visiting, and to know why genocide is wrong, and to share that knowledge if the circumstances arise. You don't have to visit the memorial.

If the memorial were in question (say, there was political disagreement about whether this incident should be officially forgotten and war crimes pardoned) then you would have a slight moral obligation to attend, and even then, nobody would expect you to singlehandedly save the memorial.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:06 AM on August 12, 2016

If you are the least bit apprehensive about it, don't go. These places are designed to evoke memories of the dead and the atrocities that killed them.
posted by Etrigan at 11:07 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

It is not important that you go.

There are two constructive purposes to the memorials: education and some kind of income. If you know terrible things happened there, you probably do not need to be educated, at least not in that way. It would be more constructive to read up on the ongoing implications to this day, where they have, for example, lax visa requirements because they need educated professionals from other countries to fill vital roles since educated professionals were seriously targeted in the mass murders.

Income from tourism -- you are going anyway, whether you see the memorials or not. You can enhance the economy spending your money elsewhere in Cambodia. As far as I know, there is no specific benefit of particular importance for spending the money there.

There can be things gained by understanding exactly what happened, but going to the memorials does not guarantee that it makes you more understanding, compassionate, useful to Cambodia's recovery, etc. If all it will do is add emotional baggage, that may be a net loss rather than a net gain. Wallowing in negativity and misery doesn't make the world a better place. In fact, it can make people incurred to suffering, callous and so forth.

It is your call. But, no, you absolutely do not have to go.
posted by Michele in California at 11:11 AM on August 12, 2016

Tuk-tuk drivers, knowing that you are a tourist, will almost certainly offer to take you to some of the memorials. None in my experience will press those specific places, though -- they're just looking for a fare. They'll happily take you anywhere else you want to go.

Tuol Sleng and the killing fields near Phnom Penh are intense. The pain and suffering were still raw when I visited nine years ago. But the guide who took me around Angkor for a few days and shared (of his own accord) a few pieces of his story as a boy under the Khmer Rouge, that was the most unforgettable experience for me. So you can honor people without visiting the memorials.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 2:41 PM on August 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Go to Monument bookstore, there's one at the airports and in Phnom Penh, it's a very nice local shop, and pick up the history book used locally that took a lot of work to put together over protest. It's how Cambodian students learn about genocide and purchasing that supports local scholarship. I also personally treasure a small copy of Painted Stories by Svay Ken about his family during the war and after, which you can get on Amazon but buying them at Monument will give you a chance to see other good books not available outside Cambodia and to put money more directly into the local publishers. There are some very nice local children's books too in English or bilingual, not only about the war.

I went to Tuol Sleng once, and have never been to the Killing Fields in fifteen years of travel to Cambodia. It was too painful. I think I could have gone inn the first few months but now I would only go accompanying my kids or another Cambodian friend, because it no longer feels like a purely of interest site but a graveyard. I do think if you would visit Flanders or Auschwitz with suitable thoughtfulness, you can go and learn and be witness to the many who died and those who survived.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:10 PM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

We went to Cambodia and saw the temples. It's the temples they are proud of.

The specifics of the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge are horrific and I wish I knew less rather than more. Subjecting yourself to that stuff doesn't benefit you or anyone else.

By the way, stay on the well-beaten paths there. There are still landmines in the ground and you don't want to find one.
posted by w0mbat at 6:44 PM on August 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

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