Society imbues preconceived notion of the world into people’s perspectives and pushes them to look at the world only in the viewpoints that it is in favor of. Though they get to know other sources to approach the world in different spectrums, they are adjusted to their predetermined thoughts and show indifferent attitude toward a set of other unfamiliar ideas. John Berger, in his essay “Hiroshima”, echoes the idea that people “look beyond (with indifference) that which is before the eyes” due to society’s deliberate manipulation (321).
American society wants to hide its evil action of dropping the atomic bomb in Hiroshima so that it creates the reality in which people all consider that “those events of 6 August 1945” are “justifiable” (315, 321). Upon this idea, Berger brings out the idea of “reinsert[ing] those events of 6 August 1945 back into living consciousness” (315). He asserts that we need to look at “the other reality” in which we need to accept that “evil”, the atrocious action done by America upon Hiroshima, is not “justifiable” (321).
In the beginning of the essay, Berger uses a rhetorical question: “At how many meetings during the first nuclear disarmament movement had I and others not recalled the meaning of that bomb? ” (315) To him, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima meant one of the stimuli to the “first nuclear disarmament movement” (315). Among the news about the bomb, the only facts that mattered to him were that the world observed the power of the bomb and that the bomb definitely had significance in the nuclear disarmament movement. Nothing else. At first.
Then, at the end of the essay, Berger defines the action done by America as “terrorism” (319). Looking at the horrors illustrated by the “drawings and paintings” in the book Unforgettable Fire, he acknowledges that the atrocious deed conducted by America is “evil” and “terrorism” as its “targets”, the Japanese, are “unselected and innocent” (320). This abrupt shift in his viewpoint upon America’s action baffled me. After knowing “the other reality” in which Japan went through sorrowful and dreadful history, I couldn’t just accept the truth that Japan was also the victim. As a Korean delved in preconceived houghts about Japan, I could only look at the truth that Japan conquered Korea for three decades and made thousands of Koreans to shed tears. I “look[ed] beyond (with indifference) that which is before [my] eyes” – Berger’s essay (321). Berger was one of those who “look beyond (with indifference) that which is before the eyes” (315). Even he was “in the army in Belfast”, hearing about so many “news of the bomb”, and yet he didn’t feel urgent to look at the “book”. He thought that he “already knew about what [he] would find within it”: “the bomb dropped on Hiroshima” (315).
Then, the readers notice a sudden shift in his reaction to the “book” as he tells them the title of the “book” which he doesn’t mention in the beginning. He went through images depicted inside the “book” called Unforgettable Fire after reading his friend’s article which introduced “destruction … caused by nuclear weapons” and the “possibilities” of “the socialist revolution in the United States” (316). Indeed, the article led him to look at “those events of 6 August 1945” as a problem of the United States rather than just an action done by it (315).
He realized that America could suffer from the likely chaos that Japan had to go through due to the atomic bomb. He got to know that the action done by America was not a trivial matter that he could “look beyond (with indifference”) but “what is before [his] eyes” that he needed to look seriously at (315). The readers, feeling confused at the abrupt shift in his attitude at first, come to understand the complex nature of people’ way of perceiving. The Japanese, considering “those events” as huge problem upon them, draw the images depicting the aftermath.
Likewise, Berger, realizing that “those events” can also be regarded as America’s own problem, look at “what is before [his] eyes”, Unforgettable Fire, instead of “looking beyond” it (315, 321). Using his personal experience, Berger points out that we all have such a selfish way of thinking and that we can change abruptly our perspective when something emerges as our own problem. Living in society full of competition nowadays, we think about ourselves and behave for our own goods. An individual is deeply entrenched in his or her own race of winning over others.
Charles Darwin, in his book On the Origin of Species, introduces the concept of “survival of the fittest”, which asserts individuals that are more fit have better potential for survival. Indeed, we show “survival of the fittest” through our behaviors as well as our way of thinking. In this perspective, Berger tells the readers that we possess such a self-centered means of perceiving something. And when he, in his essay “Hiroshima”, mentions a “mask of innocence”, he alludes to the idea of our complex nature of thinking (321). When we consider any event happening around us, we form our notions based upon all the facts about it.
However, at the same time, we try to reside in reality, in which we accept some of the facts favorable to us, and say that we have encompassed all the facts while thinking about the event. When Berger writes that we wear a “mask of innocence”, he means that how we look at “those events” seems objective and truthful on the surface while we actually make the “calculations” and manipulation to transform “those events” suitable for our own way of thinking. “The most of the pages concerning … Trotsky were torn out of official Soviet History” for the stability of Stalinist government in the Soviet Union (317).
Stalinist bureaucracy knew that ideas asserted by him would threaten their political policies, and decided to get rid of all the truths about Trotsky for making sure that their ideas are true and right. Likewise, we know the facts of nuclear holocaust, and “we choose to forget [them]” so that we can think that the evil deed done upon Japan is “under certain conditions justifiable” (317). At its core, the idea about our complicated nature of thinking is a discussion of “understand[ing] how to understand”, a concept introduced in the essay “Criticism” written by Matthew Goulish (558).
As critical thinkers, we try to get to know something in depth, but in reality, we face a fundamental problem as we don’t even know how to understand. Goulish brings up “glass” as an example of this idea. Nowadays, we regard “glass” as “a mostly transparent solid”, but “glass” also shows a characteristic of liquid as it “flows in the direction of the pull of gravity” (558). Though these two different states of “glass” coexist, how we define “glass” depends upon how we decide to think about it (558). “We understand something by approaching it.
How do we approach something? We approach it from any direction … We discover our approach and we follow it” (559). As we understand something by our own way of understanding, Berger would agree with the idea that how to understand and perceive something is our choice and our nature of thinking. Berger knows well that it is our nature that we filter out some of the facts to fit what seems important to us into our own way of thinking. He knows that it’s almost impossible to alter our complex nature of thinking.
However, Berger asserts that it is not right for us as critical thinkers to exclude blindly for our own goods something morally wrong and cannot be “under certain conditions justifiable” (Berger 321). Though we can relate anything with “rain” to understand it, Goulish writes that “we would be the first to admit … absurdity” (Goulish 560). As critical thinkers, we have the right to choose how to understand and consider something; however, we should not “look beyond … that which is before the eyes” like the atrocious action America had done upon Japan (Berger 321).
If we work hard to discover any event that doesn’t encompass all the truths because of our nature of thinking, we would find literally countless instances. The notion of looking at all the facts when we confront any event sounds easy to put it into action, but we live in society so fundamentally entrenched in the custom of concealing some or all of the facts about any event. Under society which pushes for competition and self-centered lifestyle, we cannot perceive something from all the viewpoints. For ourselves, we have to take on the truths that don’t collide with our thinking.
But we must remember that we also live in society so fundamentally based upon laws, all of which point toward the idea that evil can never be justifiable. By hiding the truths to justify our misdeeds, we contradict not only our morality but also society itself. Henry David Thoreau, in his essay “Why I went to the woods,” puts us into imagination, in which we don’t need to think about either our complicated nature of thinking or polarized system of society. He appeals his transcendentalist lifestyle to us by leaving the civilization and coming into the “woods”, the nature (577).
He “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life” (577). He did so to live simplistically with merely the bare necessities, rather than to “live meanly, like ants” (577). In other words, he asserts that we really require “two or three” affairs while appreciating what is truly essential to us. He got away from the civilization since it forces people to consider many things for doing a thing. While “reinsert[ing] the event into our “living consciousness”, we might face the same pattern of life that Thoreau went through while he stayed in the civilization (Berger 315).
We might confront so many complicated things to consider before we bring back the sufferings of the Japanese to the context of current society. We need to think about our selfish way of thinking and our two-sided society. By discarding all these thoughts like Thoreau, we can then “reinsert [those events of 6 August 1945] into our living consciousness” if we take on the idea that “evil” is never “justifiable” as our true necessary thing to consider (Berger 315, 317). In Korean history class, our teacher once showed us the documentary about the Korean comfort women.
In the middle of the documentary, the old woman, gently laying down a wreath at the Korean comfort women memorial, sheds tears. Scenes, in which Japanese soldiers with wicked grin on their faces touched all over her body, she desperately cried for any help but only laughter of the soldiers filled the room, and she spent every night in a small prison with other women who all looked weary and dejected, flash through her mind. She cries not because she is one of the comfort women who went through all those harsh moments but because Japanese government doesn’t even try to apologize to them yet.
Besides her, there are many Korean comfort women who want to hear sincere apology from Japanese government. At the end, the narrator in the documentary says that up to now, Japanese government has eradicated all the facts about the Korean comfort women on the history textbooks, and that the Japanese have heard about the Korean comfort women from other sources, but that they “choose to forget [the truths about those women]” and think for certain that what they had done upon those women is “under certain conditions justifiable” (317).
As critical thinkers, the Japanese have to acknowledge that what they had done upon the Korean comfort women is “evil” and not “justifiable” and need to give heartfelt apology to those women. That’s their problem. I, also as a critical thinker, should not “look beyond (with indifference)” the truth that Japan was also the victim (321). Compassion for the tears shed by the old woman in the documentary is just an emotion that I feel as a Korean who holds negative, preconceived thoughts about Japan.
Not accepting the fact that Japan suffered from the horrible aftermath of the atomic bombs is residing in reality in which the atrocious action done by America upon Hiroshima is “under certain conditions justifiable” (317). Like Thoreau, beyond my emotion upon those Korean comfort women and my identity as a Korean, I need to look at “those events of 6 August 1945” only with the idea that evil is never justifiable. That’s when I can truly look at “which is before [my] eyes” – Berger’s essay (315).
Berger, John. “Hiroshima. ” Ed. Nancy R. Comley. Fields of Reading: Motives for Writing. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. 315-321. Print. Darwin, Charles, and David Quammen. On the Origin of Species. New York: Sterling, 2008. Print. Goulish, Matthew. “Criticism. ” Occasions for Writing. Ed. Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II. Boston: Thomson, 2008. 557-60. Thoreau, Henry. “Why I went to the woods. ” Occasions for Writing. Ed. Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II. Boston: Thomson, 2008. 577-80.