Distant Suffering

YouTube Preview Image – Save The Children, 2014

The evolution of our media has led to a mass influx of information from all reaches of the globe. Journalists and citizen journalists upload from natural disaster zones, war-torn territories and refugee camps, bombarding us with often minute-by-minute accounts of what is going on. This raw exposure to suffering poses a moral dilemma for the spectator. When we are faced with this, we may feel unable to withdraw, sign out, turn off, for fear of accusing ourselves of being cold, indifferent.

In Luc Boltanski’s ‘Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics’, Boltanski poses the question, when we cannot act directly to affect the circumstances in which the suffering is taking place, what is the morally acceptable response to this sight of suffering?

One could argue that we can become actively involved in world issues by raising awareness of what is going on and taking time to explain how the people will be affected. Many people have taken to social media in support of those going through tragedies in the past. For example, ‘je suis Charlie’, a slogan adopted by those in support of freedom of the press in light of the January 2015 Paris attacks.

However, en masse, people are less likely to react in such a humanitarianly driven way. In her book, The Spectatorship of Suffering, Lilie Chouliaraki explained that certain transformations such as the commercialisation of the aid and development field and surges in new media and technology have altered our moral urge to act on the horrific scenes we see in the media. We have been desensitised to the violent horrors of war, death and famine by the numbers used to mediate the events.

“Just as the overuse of antibiotics has made people immune to their benefits, the constant bombardment of disasters, with all their attendant formulaic, sensationalist, Americanized coverage, has made the public deaf to the importuning of news stories and relief agencies”. – Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death