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Via facebook my friend and yours JDRyan posted a link to the UK Guardian piece “Haiti and the Rules of Generosity: Why do people give generously to earthquake victims, but not to prevent the much larger number of deaths caused by poverty?“. As JD said in his facebook posting, a good question (not to mention a long-winded article title, something which I support).
The answer, something I’ve eluded to and spoken to quite often here, is liberalism. Specifically, in a society in which even those who do not benefit at all by the dominate economic systems and relations have internalized the logic of said system, an authentic and meaningful challenge to the status quo is exceedingly difficult. At its most glaring, liberals feel compelled more by a desire to maintain a system in which their basic needs are met (never mind whether or not they’re met in an efficient or healthy manner) than any genuine desire for social justice, equality, or fairness and thus syphon resources to aid the spectacle rather than towards any serious effort to combat the socio-economic conditions which contributed to said spectacle, let alone towards meaningful systemic changes which could elevate real suffering.
The piece rightfully notes the role the mass media plays, and above I intentionally used the word “spectacle” for just this reason. As the Guardian piece points out,
Media saturation obviously makes a critical difference. Scenes from Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, and now the Haitian earthquake were shown over and over again on all television news broadcasts…. The daily deaths of children in poor countries from diarrhoea, measles, and malaria are part of the background of the world we live in, and so are not news at all.
Which, of course is insane. To say (and frighteningly enough, to say rightfully) that the daily deaths of children due to easily curable diseases and conditions is “not news at all” is to point out that in modern society our experience is not one of authentic human relationships to each other, but rather of relationships through images and representations of life itself.
Which brings us to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. In that incredibly important work, Debord points out a modern society in which authentic social life is increasingly replaced by its mere representation. Through a confluence of the State, advanced capitalism, and the mass media of each our lives cease to be authentic human experiences, our relationships cease to be between each other, but instead all is replaced by images and the mere representation of actual experiences and relationships. From the surprisingly articulate wikipedia post on it:
In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there’s also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought. Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, imploding it with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never ending present; in this way the spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the society of spectacle is only a moment in history (time), one that can be overturned through revolution.
Indeed. Because in general we lack the knowledge to understand the causes (global capitalism, class divisions, colonialism) of poverty we lack an awareness of the means to alleviate such problems and human suffering; with no clear solution to systemic problems we gravitate towards the momentary tragedy instead- the spectacular images of which we are bombarded with by the mass media, furthering our own anxiety’s over the suffering of others in what we might call the last remnants of our instinctual drive for authentic, meaningful human relations.