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In the 1983 movie “Educating Rita,” aging British Professor Frank Bryant teaches his young, commoner student how to read Macbeth. Comparing Shakespeare’s character with someone who is killed by a falling tree, he notes coolly “we must not confuse tragedy with the merely tragic.” Rita doesn’t buy the distinction. It’s a tragedy “for the poor sod under the tree,” she replies. By the end of the scene, it is not entirely clear if an amused Bryant or an impassioned Rita is correct. I’m finding myself in the same linguistic dilemma over the plight of China’s blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng. The messy and complicated negotiations that occurred between the United States and China to get him out of the American embassy and possibly to the United States suggest we need a new vernacular. Even regarding human rights, there may be a difference between a tragedy and the merely tragic.


Kayyem, Juliette. "A Tragedy or Merely Tragic?" Boston Globe, May 7, 2012.