Dec 30, 2004


Every time some kind of tragic event happens, I'm always perplexed by a number of responses people have. I mentally group them into 3 types although all have a basic core driver underneath.

The 'you don't look sad enough so you don't care' group. These people think the only way to respond to these tragic events is with the most dour sense of personal remorse and seriousness. Any other kind of response is swiftly denounced by this group. There is a very good site that shows some excellent video footage of the tsunami in Asia. One of the commments was from one person saying how he kind of wished he was there to actually see and understand the magnitude of what was happening. He was roundly taken to task for such 'insensitive' statements. What exactly were these people doing at a site that shows video footage if not to 'understand the magnitude of what was happening?' Another site had this comment when the blogger made a post that kept in line with what his blog was about. 'Can’t help but think its a little early for an essay like this. The death toll is up to 114,000 and still rising, I think we should probably wait to make points that are tangentially related.' Yea let's wait until it hits 200,000 before we carry on with our lives. Can I get 10,000. 10,000 please. 10,000 from the man in the back of the room. Can I get 20,000...

The 'you don't comment so you don't care' group. These people think that if any organization or person does not personally make some public/visual statement about said tragic event they don't care. I've seen a number of these type of attributions placed on bloggers and corporations because they haven't made a statement or put something up on their websites. Conversely some individuals and corporations are considered upstanding members of society simply because they provide a link for you (not them) to go give money to support efforts. Gee thanks. I hope that doesn't destroy your bottom line for the quarter.

The 'you don't devote enough effort/time/money so you don't care' group. This is by far the oddest group. When I was a consultant one the first 'skills' we learned was prioritization. Fix what is important first. With the scope of the tsunami damage it's a little more understandable. But even with 200,000 people dead, that is less than some estimates of the number of children alone who die every week from starvation and starvation related health problems. Even if that estimate is 90% wrong, our efforts are still best spent raising money to help children get fed. It's more explicitly shown by the amount of energy shown for news items that don't deserve a passing glance. Things like a baby stuck down a well. "You didn't watch the news on that baby? Don't you care?"

But this last group more than any other illustrates what is really going on here. All these groups are effectively sanctimonious and ultimately quite selfish about how they 'feel your pain'. I would argue that the reason the tsunami will raise more money than a starving children campaign is because starving is not something that is going to happen to us. I think the tsunami freaks people out because it's so easy for something like that to happen to us. On some level we probably know it's likely. At least in some generalized natural disaster kind of way (tornado, earthquake, etc.). So screw those starving kids. That'll never happen to me and they brought it on themselves anyway. But a tsunami could happen to me and there's nothing those people did to bring it upon themselves. Hence if you don't show sadness or make a statement or devote some energy/money to the problem, you are in effect saying you don't give a shit about me. Well I guess that is right. I don't.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good post. reactions to tragedy tend to be knee-jerk, and i think it's good to step back and think about it...

one comment: i think there are other possible explanations as to why the tsunami will probably raise more relief money than similar humanitarian efforts.

the first is what i'll call 'compassion fatigue' (a term i picked up in a granta article from a few years back). the basic notion is that after being exposed to tragedy and suffering for a long enough time, people simply become unable to experience compassion any more. this is partially a self-preservation mechanism; if you keep doling out compassion (in whatever form) and feeling sympathy for people who suffer, at some point you begin to suffer yourself. perhaps this contributed to iris chang's recent suicide (she authored 'the rape of nanking' and has generally worked on stories related to mass suffering and tragedy). it's a little tricky to translate this kind of individual compassion fatigue to that of governments, but i suspect there's still a correlation in terms of what kind of initiatives can gain popular support.

another explanation that comes to my mind is blindess: at some point, because you've been looking at something for so long, you can't see it any more. a literal example for me is the wires that criss-cross our cities...i tend not to see them, even though they're pretty ugly and i'd just as soon they disappear. human suffering in the form of starvation, civil war and century-long ethnic conflicts are so pervasive that at some point, i think people just edit them out, or treat them as part and parcel of life on this planet.

finally, there might just be a feeling of apathy spawned by a sense of powerlessness: starvation and similar tragedies seem immune to solution, and so people might figure they can't help, so why even try?

natural disasters, on the other hand, are infrequent events of tremendous magnitude, with clearer needs and hence solutions. because of their relative infrequency, they're probably not subject to compassion fatigue or blindess. also, because the needs are more clear-cut, it's easier to supply aid. in the case of things like war and starvation, while the surface needs may be similar, the root causes are different enough that short-term aid winds up being ineffective. you can give food to people who are starving, but once the food is gone, they'll go back to starving again if the root causes are not addressed (e.g., political systems that lead to inequity in food distribution).

i guess what i'm saying in a really long winded way is that natural diasters differ from ongoing humanitarian tragedies in the way they are perceived, and in the way that aid can remediate the situation.

my $0.01. :-)


ps: if the disastrous consequences of the tsunami continued for another year, i would wager that people would be less likely to jump to aid affected nations. blanket news coverage and escalating death tolls already run the risk of making this tragedy a collection of unfathomable, grim statistics...think about iraq. another beheading? 50 more people killed in a car bombing? it seems to be people are already starting to react without compassion: 'business as usual. nothing can be done about it.'