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Worlds apart: Is the western world too distant from external suffering?

By James Ekin

In the Western World we are so accustomed to our rights, liberties and freedoms, and everything we need at the drop of a hat, that we only see the rest of the world through a lens (sometimes termed ‘the mass media’). This is true of everything we consume, as food, tv and news are all put to us through the western gaze- a narrative that airbrushes (or in most cases simplifies) issues in the wider world. During July, as “Britain Boiled” and fires raged around London, we were reminded of how sheltered and Eurocentric our world view is. And yet, the Nimbyist view of “oh, that won’t happen in my lifetime” is something we hear time and time again. Whether it be global warming, inflation, poverty, war or famine, the privilege of the west and their state of ‘first-world living’ renders them ignorant to external suffering across the global south and beyond, until it reaches our shores.

Suffering is one of the existential grounds of human experience; it is a defining quality, a limiting experience in human conditions. It is also a master subject of our mediatised times. Images of victims of natural disasters, political conflict, forced migration, famine, substance abuse, the HIV pandemic, chronic illnesses of dozens of kinds, crime, domestic abuse, and the deep privations of destitution are everywhere. Video cameras take us into the intimate details of pain and misfortune.

This response tells us something important about the spectacle of suffering in the media.

Writing about the Holocaust, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Terror Famine in the Ukraine, writer and journalist Vasily Grossman was, by definition, writing about violence and atrocity. However, his response to that unfathomable scale of horror was to recognise the futility of attempting an objective account of it, and his works are not centred around depictions of violence. In an effort to form a modern response to barbarity, Grossman focuses on intimate accounts of the depth of individual human life and experience, contrasted with reminders of the scale on which these lives were wiped out. In An Armenian Sketchbook, he devotes a paragraph to the sufferings of his aunt, an uneducated, ordinary woman evacuated from Odessa via the Semyonov Pass, after losing her husband and children to state oppression. Something not too distant from the Ukrainian atrocities being committed today.

According to the eminent French philosopher Michel Foucault, the shaping of conduct is a technology of rule that, instead of the direct exercise of authority, relies on indirect action – that is, action on the actions of individuals. Instrumental in this narrative of power is that individuals are already conceptualised as actors because it is only on their relative capacity for action, their agency, that power can come to bear its effects. This is obvious in the news, where spectators are not addressed en masse, but as an abstract singularity or individual. This person is, for example, an informed citizen or a caring philanthropist (See Bakhtin (1981: 84–5, 243–58) in M. Holquist (ed.) ‘The dialogic imagination. Four essays by M. M. Bakhtin’.)

No doubt, news on suffering encompasses a broad spectrum of proposals for spectators to relate to the distant suffering. This suggests that the regulative function of television is not based on a single and monolithic apparatus of institutional control, but that it capitalises on a set of potential capabilities- that television both ‘imagines’ on behalf of spectators and enables them to enact as ‘free’ subjects. The method of transfer of information (pedagogy) makes the spectator a part of the theatre of playing out human suffering, where the spectator becomes a part of the imagery and the actual suffering becomes something we are immune from. Those who are suffering then become the 'other’, removed from our own experiences of pain.

It tells us that witnessing the event and its disastrous aftermath on screen is important in evoking emotion and, thereby, a sense of care and responsibility for the distant sufferer. It also tells us how important is the fact that 40 nations, many of them Western, not only witnessed but also experienced the feeling of national loss in some form.

To this end, television construes the nation as an ‘imagined’ community - something Benedict Anderson wrote about in his book ‘Imagined Communities’. An imagined community is a socially constructed space, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group, which fosters this empathetic view of togetherness. Similarly, transnational news flows construe a ‘beyond the nation’ community by establishing a sense of a broader ‘we’, that fails to recognise the suffering of other communities across the world. This ‘we’ is the ‘imagined’ community of the West, which inhabits the transnational zone of safety and construes human life in the zone of suffering as the West’s ‘other’. The West then occupies a space as a community in which you are either a part of the crowd or not, and if not your suffering is somewhat different, and not as important.

In this respect external suffering is experienced on a superficial level. The televised performances of suffering expose spectators to dispositions to feel, think, and act towards each instance of suffering. The interpretation of imaginative geographies expands the analysis because of the need for more spatially sensitive approaches to distant suffering. Imaginative geographies coproduce diverse spacetimes and distant suffering studies often overlook how media performances are shaped according to spacetimes where suffering occurs.

You may think in the Western hemisphere we are “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” as we do not have a say in how we experience external suffering, and in many respects this is the case. However, whether it be Afghanistan, China or matters closer to home such as Ukraine, the suffering experienced by all around the world is still relatable to the various emanations of suffering we experience here in the West, whether that be physical suffering, illness, disability, hunger, or poverty. Or in the form of mental suffering such as grief, hatred, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, and self-pity. We see the suffering, we hear the suffering, we experience it in a different form, but we can still empathise, support, or connect with those in other areas of the globe. It is all too easy to criticise ourselves for the privilege we live with but the west has two specific and related duties to prevent global suffering from Atrocity Crimes and this can only be achieved with accountability and comprehensive response from western governments.

All of this feeling of distance suffering then manifests itself in a certain way in which our philanthropic tendencies of the capitalist first world sees us as having been exonerated of our suffering, our emotion, and any guilt which the West may see itself as having through the act of giving money (as Bakhtin and Foucault have written). The perspective I have given above of the NIMBYist and the idea that if it isn’t happening on my doorstep, it isn't happening at all can be related to the suffering of Ukrainians under Russian occupation. When Russia bombed Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan as far back as 1922. Until it reaches the Western hemisphere, our own shores, we fail to recognise external suffering and are too distant from its consequences. This must change, whether by drought, famine, war, or global warming, we cannot change the world, but we must recognise our privilege and act on it.


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