I witnessed suffering this week. You did too. I didn’t witness it in person, and not even as graphically as a better view might have afforded. Someone in Japan filmed their chilling sight of an earthquake-instigated tsunami taking over the city of Kesennuma in slightly over six minutes.
In a FAIR Podcast episode with John Durham Peters last year we discussed the communal opportunities afforded to Church members by General Conference broadcasts. Peters, a professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa, mentioned how the miracles of radio, satellite, and the Internet facilitate a worldwide ritual gathering of Saints with greater numbers than ever before.
At the same time, such wide access underscores difficulties exacerbated by such awareness-at-a-distance. Peters talked about ethical problems we face when seeing tragedies around the world. I was reminded of his comments as I watched that video above:
BHodges: Back to the topic of the Haiti earthquake. We had broadcasts almost, within the hour, the Church had trucks being sent out really quickly, you had people sitting at home watching celebrities sing on TV and donating money and these things, and it can all happen very quickly. That kind of increases that burden of obligation to a global community.
John Durham Peters: Yeah, it does. But it’s complicated, because if there’s a flood in Iowa city, which there was two and a half years ago, I’m easily mobilized. I know what I can do, I can go sandbag. If there’s an earthquake in Haiti what I can do is complicated by the pure fact of distance. And there’s a really interesting book by this French sociologist called Suffering at a Distance, and he suggested that essentially all we can do in a world of mediated suffering, televisual suffering, photo-journalistic suffering is to donate, or to speak out. And that seems, a kind of meager menu of options, and certainly I’m glad the Church does humanitarian on the ground work. But I remember people saying in the Haiti earthquake [coverage], “you do-gooders, stop coming down here, you’re mucking up the infrastructure. We can’t support all these people coming in who don’t know what they’re doing.”
And so, I don’t know. In the world of television and of journalism more generally—this goes back to the nineteenth century—in the modern world we live in a world of vastly increased awareness of global suffering without a concomitant or parallel growth in the means to help global suffering. Obviously we have the rise of philanthropy and of all kinds of really great humanitarian organizations. But, in the end suffering is intractable, you can’t fix it. My mother-in-law recently died just almost three weeks ago, sometimes when you watch the Haiti thing you say “if only I were there I could do something,” but sometimes you are there and you still can’t do anything besides, you know, I guess President Eyring talked about this in Conference, he wanted to see the master lesson in how you administer to suffering. President Kimball comes in, talks to his dad, just hangs out, doesn’t do anything. And I think sometimes admitting our impossibility to do anything except just be there is maybe the most profound testimony of care or of love that we can bear, and so I’m a big believer in showing up…
–FAIR Podcast, Episode 5: John Durham Peters p.1 (33:40-36:30)
6 Replies to “Living with a “vastly increased awareness of global suffering””
Peter Singer (in his 1971 essay on our moral obligation to assist those suffering around the world) argues that our awareness of distant suffering invokes our obligation to eleviate that suffering. It is a very utilitarian argument in that suffering is the key factor. While Singer used a famine in Bangledesh, there is never is shortage of these events.
just gotta say that that particular video will probably be the iconic video of this tsunami.
I’ve never read Singer’s essay, Chris. Tell me, would he include deposing oppressive foreign governments under our obligation to eleviate distant suffering?
He does not since his focus is on humanitarian events. However, utilitarianism could be applied to such a situation. That said, it would depend on the specifics on the ground.
I think its worth asking if we really live in a world of greater awareness of global suffering or if we live in a world with a greater number of images of suffering? My sense is that there is a significant difference between the consumption of media images that tell stories from well controlled point of view, that utilize specific narrative structures and hope for a certain type of response from the consumers of these images, and the actual plight of individuals effected by diasters of different sorts.
Something I struggle with is the false sense of empowerment that occurrs when we enter into the economy of relief. Writing a check being the central feature of the typical American’s response to all sorts of problems. So our empathy, our individual abilities to assist another, are reduced to an exchange value. I think its worth being troubled by the question of why we don’t do more for others, of why we don’t structure our lives so that we can and do dedicate a great deal of our time to meeting the needs of those caught up in catastrophes ranging from homelessness, to hunger, to slavery, addiction, to natural disasters and so on. Why not ask ourselves if we are really living the gospel if 100 hourse per week are spend on our own concerns, work, desires, and any attempt to help others come by chance if we happen to see a call for donations on a TV program or the internet.
I think those are great questions, Douglas.