Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Starving African Child: What do you see? How do you feel? What are you going to do?

I apologize.  The picture above is difficult to look at.  It was taken by Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, in 1993 in Sudan, as a starving child attempted to reach a famine relief center.  A vulture lies ominously in the background, waiting for what seems to be a certain death. 

What do you see? 
We’re confronted by images of absolute suffering like these all the time, particularly through charity appeals.  As anthropologist Liisa Malkki has noted, these images often depict the pain of innocent children.  They cannot be child soldiers or espouse any political stance, since this would betray their innocence by implying that they chose to die or suffer for a greater cause.  They can only rarely be replaced by adults, and if so, they are almost guaranteed to be the ‘fairer sex’ that is supposedly naturally nonviolent and loving.  If I sound like the director of a product commercial, making sure that I ‘sell’ the product as best I can, then perhaps there’s more in common between a Christian charity relief appeal and the commercial that follows it on an average cable network.

In 1967, French philosopher Guy Debord wrote an important work called ‘Society of the Spectacle’.  He suggested that, in this age of mass media and consumerism, our senses have been so numbed that reality itself has become mediated through images.  His work is a variation on Karl Marx’s idea of the fetish.  By this, I’m not talking about sexual fetishes (the analysis of which I’ll leave to Freud); rather, I mean that what are social relations between people are replaced by social relations between things.  We may not realize it, but (in Marx’s eyes) we fetishize these human relations everyday.  How many times do we see a fancy car on the street, admiring the car itself without thinking of the people who built it, those who collected rubber to produce its tires, those who dug the oil wells to provide the petrol to make it run?  When we come to relate to things, and not the people behind those things, we become fetishizers and in Marx’s eyes, further away from our humanity. 

What do YOU see in this picture?  I see a starving African baby, so malnourished and so disfigured as to be hardly human at all.  But what I don’t see are the conditions that created this situation, this thing that shocks us.  As Alex de Waal, a prominent scholar of Africa, has argued, famines are rarely if ever the product of natural causes like droughts, and if they are, they can often be predicted well in advance and addressed via preventive action.  Starvation is a result of human causes, of human actions and relations like politics and violence that turn people into things both in reality and in images.  As I examine below, looking at images in this way forces us to think about our own action or inaction in the creation and perpetuation of suffering.

How do you feel? 
Pictures like these meant to shock, to act on the emotions in a particular way.  Luc Boltanski, an eminent French sociologist, has talked about two emotions generated by this type of image – pity and compassion.  Pity, he argues, is a strictly emotional response that is generated by distant suffering.  It is sentimental, distinguishing only between who suffers and who doesn’t.  It doesn’t stop to ask if the misery is justified or not, but urgently rushes to action against suffering.  Compassion, on the other hand, is less emotional and less distant.  To have compassion requires a face-to-face meeting between the sufferer and the compassionate person, to have a real presence. 

Pictures like the one above are used in a variety of ways, as Susan Sontag reminds us.  They can be employed as propaganda, both by pacifists and war hawks, to end or go to war.  They can shock us into action, usually by donating money to a famine relief fund.  They can become part of an art gallery and turn into what has been called ‘disaster pornography’, in which the image of the suffering of another is exploited for financial or other gain.  Although we all have different reactions to images like these, a common response is that such images can tug on our emotions rather than our reason – they can urge us to feel and to act, not to stop to think and ask questions.  Such was the case during the blockade of Biafra, a secessionist region of Nigeria, in 1968.  The Biafran government, keen to attract Western goodwill to its cause, hired an American public relations firm that exploited images of suffering to aid the Biafran cause.  Rather than helping us understand the conflict, these images merely created for us divisions of good Biafrans against evil Nigerians.  But in such a complex world, should uninformed understandings of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ determine our morals and ethics? 

What are you going to do? 
This is where we come to the real ethical moment – the moment when our sense of right and wrong is challenged.  My own ethics when it comes to suffering is largely dependent on the history of that suffering.  Let me give you an example.  You may have seen a popular appeal from a Christian charity on television that profiles the suffering of a very young Guatemalan girl and asks us to sponsor her school fees. As an American citizen, I find this difficult.  I know that in 1954, the CIA, with the support of Chiquita, orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected socialist president of Guatemala who was trying to institute land reform to help bridge the gap between poor peasants and rich landowners.  I know that the famous revolutionary Che Guevara was in Guatemala at this time, and inspired by the injustice he felt was being committed, later helped overthrow Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, establishing a socialist state that spends more of its money on education than the US and whose current literacy rate is higher than that of the US.  So when I am asked to donate, I am more than a little cynical.  I wonder what might have been if the CIA had not overthrown a democratically elected government.  And I wonder if my own money is being asked to counteract the consequences of that spent by the US government more than fifty years ago.  I take the child to be a fetish – the perfectly innocent thing that demands my action while hiding history and politics outside the picture. 

Another problem with acting on this type of suffering is the form in which I am asked to act – that is, to give money.  Marx, and more recently, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, have been critical of these efforts of the middle class to help the exploited poor. 

In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx provided a stinging critique of charity:
A part of the bourgeoisie [the middle classes] is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.  To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind…The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom [that is, the revolt of the working class and poor]. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat [the working class].

Marx is referring to the fact that the upper classes who give charity rarely understand how their own actions contribute to the suffering of the working class.  Žižek states this case well, calling this the ‘liberal trap of “humanitarian help” ‘.  This trap is a type of ethic that permits a ruthless pursuit of profit as long as it is counteracted with charity – avoiding the issue of complicity and co-responsibility for the misery of the poor.  Žižek points us to the case of George Soros, who made his billions through hedge funds (an exemplary form of capitalist exploitation) and yet is strongly dedicated to philanthropy.  According to Žižek, Soros gives away with one hand what he stole with the other.  This type of hypocritical charity is not limited to the megarich.  At Berkeley, I am constantly reminded how we are asked to consume in order to solve problems of poverty through campaigns like the anti-HIV ‘(Red)’ or the anti-domestic violence movement ‘Shop till it Stops!’.  In promoting consumption as a solution to poverty, we forget that consumption (as part of the capitalist mode of production) is also a cause of poverty.  Not only that, but we end up coming to the aid of another by engaging with things, fetishes.  Buying a t-shirt substitutes for self-sacrifice, political change, or face-to-face help for another human being. 

I am, no doubt, cynical about charity.  But I have trouble with the idea of rationally explaining away the suffering before me.  Can I really dismiss it as a hypocritical appeal, turning away a child just like that?  As with my patient, I’m confronted by the immediate suffering before me and the structural inequalities that create it, and which are perpetuated by a ready acceptance to act in ethically questionable ways.  By consuming to save this child, I implicitly underwrite the system of production that produces this suffering, agreeing to wipe away the historical and political inequalities that have created such misery.  But what do you do when a suffering child asks you for money to go to school?  Or a mentally ill homeless man asks for spare change to buy a meal?  Is it unethical to give them money, thereby letting the government off the hook of providing free public education, healthcare, and low-cost housing for all?  Is it unethical to point to structures, politics, and histories to divest myself of personal responsibility for the child or homeless man? 

I don’t have an answer.  I’d like to hear from you to understand how you react to images of suffering, and what you do.  This is indeed a serious ethical dilemma of individual bourgeois responsibility for suffering in the world.  For some, like Kevin Carter, it is a matter of life or death.  The photographer was so haunted by, among other problems, the images of suffering he encountered that he committed suicide in 1994, a little over a year after taking this iconic picture. 


  1. It makes me feel hollow inside. My own son, about the same age, is plump and healthy. I would give anything to help this child but I can't.

  2. I think the better question is, how will you build a world where suffering and poverty are not a part of it? I think capitalism is far from perfect but there was poverty before capitalism and plenty of it. It exists in countries whose economics are founded upon different principles. Are the bourgeouise really responsible for all of the suffering? Suppose we flip flopped the whole world? When the dust settled I bet poverty and suffering would still be there.

  3. Also "steal" is sort of a funny phrase, how will it be decided how much George Soros gets?