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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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On the genre of “Raising Awareness about Someone Else’s Suffering.”

A propos of absolutely nothing, a few texts I’ve found helpful in unpacking the aforementioned genre, in no particular order:

1. Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa.” You’ve probably read it already – and if you haven’t, get on that – but I need to get that out of the way first. It’s the entrance to any serious conversation, the prerequisite. Not just because he’s right, but because it’s funny. And its funny because it comes from a place of exhaustion, of total and complete exasperated frustration. That’s important, because it helps you understand how omnipresent this shit is, what an unstoppable energizer bunny of neverendingness it is. Humor isn’t enough, is never enough – after all, how can you satirize people who satirize themselves? – but the recourse to it tellingly reflects an experience that you need to come to terms with, the experience of living in the world created by such discourse. As he wrote in a reflective essay, later:

“How to Write about Africa” grew out of an email. In a fit of anger, maybe even low blood sugar — it runs in the family — I spent a few hours one night at my graduate student flat in Norwich, England, writing to the editor of Granta. I was responding to its “Africa” issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known, a sort of “Greatest Hits of Hearts of Fuckedness.” It wasn’t the grimness that got to me, it was the stupidity. There was nothing new, no insight, but lots of “reportage” — Oh, gosh, wow, look, golly ooo — as if Africa and Africans were not part of the conversation, were not indeed living in England across the road from the Granta office. No, we were “over there,” where brave people in khaki could come and bear witness. Fuck that. So I wrote a long — truly long — rambling email to the editor.

“Fuck that” and “truly long – rambling” are important words to note when they come from Binyavanga Wainaina, also the author of one of the most profoundly thoughtful and careful – and utterly genius – meditations on what it means to write about a place, his 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write about this Place.  Oh, and also this 52 minute podcast interview with Binyavanga is worth listening to.

2. “Photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus…[But] no “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” –Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.

3. Alex De Waal’s Famine Crimes. It’s a book worth reading, but the basic argument is also penetratingly simple: by underminging popular and international expectations of government accountability, anti-famine charities actually make famines more likely and more deadly. In countries where elites pay a political cost for allowing famines to happen – and famines are always a function of elite politics – those elites will take a consequent interest in preventing them from happening; in countries where this is understood, and where famines hurt the powerful as well as the weak, the powerful therefore have an interest in preventing food prices from going through the roof, etc.  De Waal’s argument, then, is that “Feed the Children” type stuff is on the one hand, practically inefficient –since by the time a famine becomes visible enough to raise awareness and cash and buy food or whatever, the famine is already well underway – and on the other, politically counterproductive, since it raises precisely the wrong kind of awareness: by allowing local elites off the hook for famine prevention, and naturalizing as inevitable something which is always a man-made occurrence, the international community gives local political elites an excuse for inaction.

4. Elliot Prasse-Freeman’s case study, “Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics.” Serious and vicious. Kristof isn’t the problem, but he’s a walking embodiment of it.

5. Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors, in which he argues that the War on Terror is the inescapable interpretive matrix through which to understand why American college students suddenly got so excited about Darfur, years after the violence had peaked and declined.

“One needs to bear in mind that the movement to Save Darfur – like the War on Terror – is not a peace movement: it calls for a military intervention rather than political reconciliation, punishment rather than peace…Iraq makes some Americans feel responsible and guilty, just as it compels other Americans to come to terms with the limits of American power. Darfur, in contrast, is an act not of responsibility but of philanthropy. Unlike Iraq, Darfur is a place for which Americans do not need to feel responsible but choose to take responsibility.”

If Mamdani’s book is controversial, it’s also indispensable (especially since a certain NGO working on the issue of the LRA got its start in the Save Darfur movement). But even if you ultimately answer “no” to the questions he asks, you still need to ask them. You need to think through this set of relations very carefully:

The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

The most powerful mobilisation in New York City is in relation to Darfur, not Iraq. One would expect the reverse, for no other reason than that most New Yorkers are American citizens and so should feel directly responsible for the violence in occupied Iraq. But Iraq is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics. Americans worry about what their government should do in Iraq. Should it withdraw? What would happen if it did? In contrast, there is nothing messy about Darfur. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as ‘Arabs’ confront victims clearly identifiable as ‘Africans’.

6. Teju Cole’s twitter feed, but particularly his thoughts on the banality of sentimentality.

7. Nicholas Dirks on the political function of scandal:

“Scandals point to the underlying tensions and anxieties of an age, even as they work ironically to resolve crises by finding new ways to repress these tensions and anxieties. Scandals require careful management, and they elicit widespread vicarious attention, because they invariably produce a spectacle in which we see how the mighty have fallen. Whether caused by sexual indiscretion, extreme political ambition, undue greed, or other appetites driven by the desire for self-fulfillment and self-aggrandizement, the public unfolding of scandal provides public titillation at the same time it becomes a morality play. Despite either that authority will be subverted or the rules and conventions of public (or private) life radically changed, scandals in fact usually lead to far more benign outcomes. For the most part, public scandals become ritual moments in which the sacrifice of the reputation of one or more individuals allows many more to continue their scandalous ways, if perhaps with minimal safeguards and protocols that are meant to ensure that the terrible excesses of the past will not occur again. Scandals often do lead to reforms, but the reforms usually work to protect the potential agents of scandal rather than its actual victims. Indeed, it is the scandal itself that must be erased, not the underlying systemic reasons for scandal. The scandal is only the tip of the iceberg, the moment of excess that in the end works to conceal the far more endemic excesses that, at least for modern times, have become normalized…” (Nicholas Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britainp.29-30)

We get upset about things which crystalize an anxiety, he argues, but are enabled to do so only because these things are not – themselves – the true source of it. We scapegoat, in other words, so that we can continue to do what we still need to do.

Dirks’ book is about the moment when Edmund Burke put Warren Hastings on trial for the scandal of British empire in India, an imperial form that in the late 18th century was too new and too vicious for Britons to be comfortable with. But in doing so, in scapegoating a single man, a system was not only let off the hook but given an opportunity to actually come into existence as itself. And while the specific argument Dirks makes is specific to then and there, I find myself turning to that quote every single time a new scandal pops up, and I almost never find it failing me.

8. Amitav Ghosh, “The Greatest Sorrow:”

As a writer I have tried to live by the credo that nothing human should be alien to me. Yet, my imagination stops short as I try to think of the human realities of what it must mean to plan a collective suicide over a span of years or to stand in a check-in line with people whose murder has already been decided on; of what it takes to speak of love on a cell phone moments before one’s death or to reach for a stranger’s hand as one leaps from the topmost floor of a skyscraper. These are new dimensions of human experience, and I realize that they will become a part of the generational gap that separates me from my children: their imagining of the world will be different from mine and that very difference will create a new reality. From my own childhood I remember a day when I stared at a newspaper, mesmerized by a picture of a Buddhist monk burning at a crossroads in Saigon. At that time, this too represented a new addition to the armory of human motivation: this was the moment that inaugurated the era of political suicide in the modern world. Since then such suicides have become so commonplace as often to go unreported. They have become a part of the unseen foundations of our awareness, present but unnoticed, like the earth beneath a basement.

The thickening crust of our awareness is both a sign and a reminder of our unwitting complicity in the evolution of violence: if that which mesmerized us yesterday ceases to interest us today, then it follows that the act which will next claim our attention will be even more horrific, even more resistant to yesterday’s imagination, than the last.

This is about 9-11. Or is it?

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15 Responses to “On the genre of “Raising Awareness about Someone Else’s Suffering.””

  1. Truly S. says:

    You know what would make a nice addition to this list of thoughts on “awareness raising”? Some mention of the pink-ribbon breast cancer movement. If anything, this is Exhibit A of the “Awareness for Awareness’ Sake” movements existing today, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure has been at the forefront of it all.

    A great place to start? Gayle Sulik’s website A veritable clearinghouse of consciousness-raising centered on the previously little-questioned (if questioned at all) movement centered around the idea that wearing and buying tchotchkes with pink ribbons on them, not to mention “Save the Ta-Tas” bracelets, singing and dancing in flash mobs, and raising money for the cause of “awareness” is doing something truly meaningful about breast cancer.

    No other form of cancer has been sentimentalized and trivialized as much as breast cancer has…and few diseases have (perhaps Jerry Lewis came close with his muscular dystrophy crusades), to less positive effect.

    The pink-ribbon movement has taken the attempt to “raise awareness about someone else’s suffering” and turned it into a hip, sexy, fun “ta-ta saving” party. When it happens to disease, it’s just as bad as when it happens to war and famine. Only now are people finally starting to wake up.

  2. Emily Sefcik says:

    I like that you brought up “save the ta-tas”. The phrase itself makes me feel like people don’t really care about saving women. It’s just about saving boobs. Women are reduced to a body part. It’s fun to hold “save the ta-ta” parties but people forget what that the real issue is breast cancer. People wouldn’t do the same for lung cancer because lungs aren’t sexy. The real purpose for raising awareness is lost.

  3. Mama T says:

    Absolutely true! These campaigns never frame “saving boobs” as saving our baby-feeding devices. Breastfeeding, which has been shown to reduce cancer risk, somehow never enters the conversation. It seems that it’s more about saving breasts so men can look at them… Barbara Ehrenreich is wonderful on the subject of awareness raising and the “pinkwashing” that goes along with breast cancer awareness campaigns. Surely there is plenty of overlap with the concerns raised by the list above!

  4. Freddie says:

    At some point, of course, you just come back around to apathy, with the corrosive addition that it’s somehow different than the old fashioned kind.

  5. Freddie says:

    If you aren’t careful, that is.

  6. Zunguzungu says:

    Or not!

  7. Zunguzungu says:

    Well, I was pretty much focused on geographical othering, but absolutely.

  8. Evan says:

    How not, Aaron? That isn’t at all a rhetorical question. All these articles raise (valid!) problems with developed-world do-gooding. One solution, as Freddie says, is apathy and minding your own business. I don’t think that’s what anyone wants, though.
    What I don’t find in these articles is a prescription for more effective, less culturally imperialist altruism. And I’d really like to hear some recommendations that way.

    So… what are some less problematic ideas about how to be an effective person of both privilege and conscience?

  9. Chris says:

    Is that Freddie DeB?

    Also on point: I think there are several messages that come out of these texts (though I’m more familiar with some than others):
    1) Always present the original situation in its full, political context
    2) When confronting a situation of suffering, recognize that riding in on a white horse (i.e. international military intervention) may not be the solution, and may lead to more harm then good–there is an equally problematic strain of thought, not mentioned here, that would always oppose this, but for equally introverted reasons
    3) Make sure that humanitarian action does not replace local political responsibility-build up and reinforce local governance
    4) Look to the wrongs you own country has committed – Iraq just one example for the US – and push for accountability for those, as well as attempting not to make the same mistakes!

    That’s a start…

  10. Chris says:

    Also: De Waal’s book really belongs on a different list as it is concerning a very different sort of thing (although I understand the connection) – the others are really all observing ‘us’ observing and reacting to the suffering of others, whereas De Waal’s is a pragmatic critique of humanitarianism on the ground (actually, the thesis as cited here is Amartya Sen’s, isn’t it?), which should perhaps be linked with A Bed for the Night by Rieff and Condemned to Repeat? by Terry, to name a few…

  11. Freddie says:

    Here’s what I know, homeslice: take the guy who never hears of Joseph Kony and spends his time playing Xbox. He’s a settled intellect.

    Now take the kid who is playing Xbox, and the Kony video comes on his Facebook. He watches it. He gets passionate and inflamed. He wants to #StopKony. Than an anti-#StopKony link comes across his Facebook. And then another. And another. And his mind gets blown. So he drops #StopKony, and starts playing his Xbox again.

    Now, here’s what you’ve got to let flit across your one-track mind: there is absolutely no difference between the first and second kid. Which means that there is absolutely no difference either of them and you and me. I should think that ten+ years of antiwar work and noninterventionism should make it clear that I’m not out to advocate military intervention in Uganda. But I also don’t pretend that there’s any difference between enlightened neglect and apathy.


  12. Zunguzungu says:

    Wow, “one-track mind,” homeslice. And your Xbox kids are charming examples, just charming.

  13. Zunguzungu says:

    For me, the thing is this: you wouldn’t ever say to yourself “I think I’ll end poverty in America today!” But the prospect of humanitarian intervention in a place like Africa scans — for all sorts of reasons — as a much more plausible possibility; the Westerner is empowered by all manner of discourse and suggestion to believe that he or she *can* do things there that a more measured reflection would reveal to be completely unrealistic. That means, for me, that one behaves as a person of conscience in relation to Africa the same way one does in relation to the United States: don’t be a shithead and help where you can. But one generally has to shrug off the suggestion that one can or should take personal responsibility for Big Solutions; Big Solutions are a trap, and they’re attractive to people who want to think that they are Big People. Put that aside and you’re left with the fact that you can make very small differences here and there — and have it be a good thing, imho, relative to your smallness as only one of the billions of people on this earth. That’s not cynicism to me, just a kind of realism; you can do a little, a very little, but its not nothing either.

    For me, in other words, charity should generally start at home, mainly because you can be more effective at home, and because there is a whole humanitarian aid industry designed to siphon off your dollars and use them in ways you had no intention of supporting. But there’s no categoric reason — for me –why one can’t do things that are moderately helpful for a small number of people “out there,” wherever that may be. Though, that said, it seems t me that the places where “At home” and “out there” connect are the most important, as with the US’s ongoing project to partner up with and empower sketchy actors like the Ugandan military.

  14. Zunguzungu says:

    Definitely; it was a fairly haphazard list of “stuff that occurred to me to suggest,” more akin to the famous Borges/Foucault Chinese encyclopedia than a “Top Ten” list of some kind. Though I mentioned De Waal particularly because he has quite a bit to say about the specific deployment of African famine as spectacle.

  15. Zunguzungu says:

    I’d agree with all of that. Re: #1, the importance of that point isn’t just representational fidelity, but the fact that the more deeply you embed any set of facts in their local context, the more likely you are to perceive the local dynamic that makes them continue, that keeps whatever violent cycle it is in motion. When you deracinate something like Kony/LRA, it can seem like a thing that would be relatively easy to intervene in, which is why a video like that one *has* to strip it of context. When you look closer and know more, you see all the ways no such magic bullet exists (which brings us to your second point).

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