How ironic that at a time of great spiritual bankruptcy personally, I found myself in the bowels of India, dumped unceremoniously at the fringe of the great bustling city of New Delhi…
It goes some way to explain that at the time, I was in love with my best friend and would’ve crawled across broken glass to be near him. He didn’t know. For a while now he’d told me about his plans to move to a third world country for a few months. While the exact nature of this trip – a holiday? A tour? An experiment in philanthropy and self-discovery? – was never decided upon, I knew why he wanted to go. It would provoke everything he loved about being human: adventure, compassion and spontaneity. And he asked me to come with him.
Three weeks walking or cycling alternately in the crying, dying slums of outer West Bengal and it was clear that I was not suited for this. The locals were interested but only tangentially. They had other things to do than gawk at the sunburned white foreigner, like feed hungry mouths and tend to anorexic, weeping cows. I did not feel like I was helping anyone by being there. I wanted to go home.
In line for the only bus in the village, a child approached me. I resent labelling him as a child, because this is not what children should look like. I thought, born in the great blue land of the West, a child should be healthy and happy, not with huge eyes white and rolling, ribs you can count and scraps of ragged clothing dragging in the dust.
Faced with such a sight, I did what any self-respecting, desperate Westerner would do: I reached into my backpack, dug open my wallet and gave him all the notes I could spare save my bus fare: rolled up in wads, crumpled, flat, I stuffed all those little pieces of paper into the child’s faltering hands. I wanted the money to do what I could not.
Then I took my deluded sentimentality of making a difference, and of getting him to ever love me, and I went home.
Does this story surprise you?
It shouldn’t. This is the emotional trajectory of sentimentality, the special place that burns with intense empathy when you read about North Korean gulags, or watch Kony 2012, or Hurricane Sandy, or injustices of every other variety, stripe and colour.
The writer Oscar Wilde once said, ‘the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence, and it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.’
While I am reading news of these terrible, terrible happenings, thinking to myself: ‘I must do something to help. I must write about it and tell as many people as I can,’ Oscar says inside my head: ‘You’re doing it again. You’re being sentimental.’
‘That might be true,’ I say back, inside my head. ‘But how can I not?’ To me, it’s not sentimentality; it’s just part of being human.
‘You’re right,’ Oscar concedes, ‘Wanting to help isn’t a sign of blind sentimentality. But have you thought about what the best way to help is? And how do you know that is the best way?’
And here another novelist, Teju Cole enters the imaginary conversation inside my head.
‘There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference”, Christine.’
‘So please Teju, tell me what more there is.’
‘There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.’
I think this over. Have we been ignoring this, every time we call for IMMEDIATE ACTION, or Down with The Man, or share the same, uncritical video campaigns on Facebook while wanting to ‘make a difference’?
Teju leaves me with a sobering one-liner: ‘All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need’, before vaporising into thin air.
In his absence, the fallacy of hasty action has just begun. When we latch onto slogan-friendly, assertive messages, ideally able to be plastered on bumper stickers and badges and to be crisply delivered in a single Tweet: Occupy Wall Street, GetKony, Ditch the Witch (Julia Gillard), etc, we are forcing massive, complicated problems through the bottleneck of communicative ease. By fixating on a single oversimplified interpretation of the cause (or more often than not, just the solution to a perceived cause), we ignore the wider constellation of factors underlying the root of the problem.
Then we take this ‘solution’ and multiply it, as social media has gratuitously allowed us to do. In this reality, even the most uninformed, pop cultured young person can do something. Everyone has something to offer, some way of helping, because everyone matters. This reality is the most important, if unspoken, commodity that our social-media-information-technology culture has sold us. It is also this culture’s greatest achievement – that of true democracy. Social media is a democratizing force that diffuses the power over the flow of information from media organisations and the state to individuals and groups.
Said of Jason Russell, founder of Kony 2012:
He gave people the excuse to act via two clever techniques; scarcity; act now or miss out, social norming, this is the new world order, act now everyone else is. He’s also ensured other well known popular celebrities are involved, modeling the appropriate behaviour so others follow.
But sheep mentality is not true democracy. Leaping from one bandwagon to the next without understanding the structural background of the causes we support is not enough – that is a dissemination of ignorance, and it can be harmful.
Perhaps the fear is that we are all hopelessly helpless. Unable to change the rules in Parliament, unable to march in there ourselves and rid whatever situation of whatever villain – we can only sit behind our computer screens, fuming and agitated with sentimental zeal.
Perhaps enthusiasm is but another way of expressing desperation. And a crowd of enthusiasts – well, that speaks of a culture raised on finite attention spans, while all the time social media ‘thunders indiscriminately, fecklessly from one glitzy cause to the next.’
For most of us, our only tools are our youthful idealism, the internet, and our sheer numbers – all of which, when used well can do good. Forget villains and guns. Changing the system first requires understanding of the system.
I give you the example of terrorism. We have spent eleven years and counting blatantly fighting the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its progress can be boiled down to tracking down and defeating the most identifiable villain – Osama bin Laden. But what of the pockets of terrorism created by the invasion of the Coalition? What of the terrorism of poverty, what of the fresh grievances made against America, what of the havoc wrought upon civilians by turning the country upside down in the search for one man?
Illegal immigrants, too. The only conceivable conditions under which we can reject boat people, belittling their plight is if we are totally ignorant of the circumstances from which they flee. And equal ignorance of our role, as the U.S.’s staunch ally in the Coalition of the Willing, in creating those circumstances. There is no war fought on earth that does not have its consequences. In rallying behind ‘STOP THE BOATS’, what version of reality do we commit ourselves to? Isolationist policies and tight border security may be a popular image of Australia, but it’s only one small slice of the whole Australia.
‘Doing something’ is different from ‘doing the right thing’. To me, doing the right thing often means just changing your attitudes and understanding of the world around you. Social media is a gift of the 21st century. But you have to be careful when raising awareness via social media. These can’t just be isolated facts or arguments without context. Anyone can read about severely exploited workers in Vietnamese Nike sweatshops and feel bad, but it’s more important to understand the structures of oppression created by the capitalist world order, one in which developed Western states had a head start that changed everything. It’s easy to condemn Western corporations for their greed and their corrupting profit motive, but first you have to understand the structures of inequality as a colonial legacy. You can watch Leo di Cap’s Blood Diamond and feel moved by its very real humanitarian crises to ‘do something’, but it might also help to remember the ‘divide and rule’ partition of Africa by the 19th century European leaders that split ethnic groups along arbitrary geographic lines, creating the blueprint for conflict and poverty that we now have to pay for in foreign aid. These wars can’t be reversed by a well-put together online campaign that wants to storm in and remove just one product of its history. Treat the cause, not the symptom.
The truth is, once you know about something it’s difficult not to care. You can’t ever go back to a state of not-knowing. But bandwagons are the exact opposite of this: they toy with people’s sentiments, and are quickly replaced by next seasons’ humanitarian fad. Without delving deep into the root of these problems I fear we will never care about much, for long. Doubtlessly, sentimentality is part of what it means to be human, but so is rationality. We were born with rational minds for a reason. We must use them – or we will forever be ruled by the irrational.