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World Literature and Moral Injury

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Organizer: Renee Randall

Co-Organizer: Joshua Pederson

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The term “moral injury” entered our vocabularies in 1994. Responding to his experience treating US military veterans of the war in Vietnam, psychologist Jonathan Shay nuanced what had until then primarily been a discussion of trauma in returning soldiers. He identified a different form of suffering: one which shared the emotional, psychological and physiological signs of distress often seen in trauma, but which were complemented by moral and spiritual crisis. This crisis, which he called “moral injury,” was precipitated by “the betrayal of what’s right” by a superior officer or other authority figure.

Since then, practitioners and scholars have evolved this definition. Moral injury is now understood as the consequence of having participated in, or been a bystander to, an act that violates one’s moral code and a broader societal expectation.

While war remains the primary context in which moral injury is discussed, new contexts encourage our attention, including the experiences of frontline workers during the global COVID-19 pandemic and of militarized police deployed against protestors in the US and elsewhere.

This seminar has two aims: the first is to help restore the role that cultural texts (literature and film, in particular) play in making visible the concept of moral injury. The second is to return to the global literary context out of which the turn was born. Indeed, Shay took inspiration from two classic world literary texts set in ancient Greece—Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Contributors are invited to:

  • Argue for other geopolitical/temporal contexts which help define moral injury;

  • Identify some of the literary (and filmic) hallmarks of representation;

  • Engage the distinctions between “perpetrator trauma” and “moral injury”;

  • Reconcile multi-disciplinary contributions to this field (including but not limited to literature, theology, philosophy and psychology); and,

  • Consider the ethical ramifications of positioning moral injury as a global concept.

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