Proximity and the manipulation of moral feeling

Ethics Gaza Sudan

News coverage of Isis and Gaza recently has reminded me of Henry Fonda.  Specifically, the Henry Fonda thought experiment in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s landmark (and quite brilliant) paper ‘A Defense of Abortion’.1

For Thomson it’s a quite ghastly aside, the rejection of which (proximity to a moral issue has a bearing on one’s moral feeling) supports her overall view.

“Take the case of Henry Fonda again.  I said earlier that I had no right to the touch of his cool hand on my fevered brow even though I needed it to save my life.  I said it would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide me with it, but that I had no right against him that he should do so.  But suppose he isn’t on the West Coast.  Suppose he has only to walk across the room, place a hand briefly on my brow–and lo, my life is saved.  Then surely, he ought to do it-it would be indecent to refuse.  Is it to be said, “Ah, well, it follows that in this case she has a right to the touch of his hand on her brow, and so it would be an injustice in him to refuse”?  So that I have a right to it when it is easy for him to provide it, though no right when it’s hard?”

News media, and with it our ubiquitous social media that garlands, twists and toxifies it through the virtual soundstage housing our plethora of opinion, defines the moral issues of our age.

Well, that’s not strictly true, the vested interests of the establishments that govern the countries connected to the news media and that soundstage are defining the moral issues of our age.

The policies they construct, how they spend our money, what and who they align with, what and who they hate; all these things drive the news media’s agenda.  Thus, it is this framework that defines what, if any, courses of action we might take either with or against them, through activism or the polls.  (I could go further towards an existentialist/Media Studies 101 conclusion that what we believe is so defined, but that’s beyond the scope of my interest in this post).

Let’s have some numbers, however rudimentary their provenance, to illustrate what interests me about this.

A BBC report2 gives some numbers for the Palestinian dead in the last three major conflicts.  It’s about 3800, almost all civilian.  Al-Jazeera report a similar figure for the most recent conflict.3  These conflicts span a number of months, in elapsed time.

But did you know (because I didn’t):

  • There’s been a war in Somalia for over five years, with thousands of soldiers, backed by Ethopians, killed fighting Islamist insurgents, themselves dying in their thousands.4
  • Boko Haram, an Islamist sect, have killed nearly 1700 civilians this year in Nigeria5, most of that in first three months.
  • Add to that the two hundred and fifty schoolgirls recently kidnapped, and still missing, a report that initially was covered in the news, then went silent when Israel and Hamas kicked off, and re-appeared some weeks later.
  • In less than a year, a hundred thousand South Sudanese have been placed in ten UN camps (and millions more displaced), where rape, beatings and harrassment occur to varying degrees.6  Five million people are estimated to need food aid there, while humanitarian workers are being murdered on ethnic grounds.  Tens of thousands have died since last December.
  • Over a thousand Nepalese and Indian workers building World Cup Stadiums in Qatar have died, in conditions vilified by Amnesty International.  The projected number of dead is set to reach four thousand.

You can see what I’m doing.  I’m doing a shallow mine of news reports coming from places that are not prominently presented in western media because they are not interesting to western corporate and political interests.

In terms of human suffering and numbers of dead, all the above events, and I’m sure there are many more in South America and other African and Asian countries, would weigh as heavily or far more heavily than the suffering of those in the Gaza Strip, or those displaced by Isis.

So whom, of all the above people suffering, should I care most about?  What suffering is worst, most extensive and evil?

We ought to care about all of them, but we don’t (or we can’t, through compassion fatigue).  We focus on the shit in front of us, paraded in our news feeds.  We take sides against the oppressor, demand justice, howl our outrage.  Off-camera, hundreds of thousands more are dying, and in South Sudan millions are displaced with famine an ever-present threat.

The pressure we can bring to bear to change any of this, our ability to direct our ire and demands for change to those in power via our supposedly empowering social media connectivity, is already pre-defined by the establishment.  If we are Henry Fonda, we are indeed in the same room, virtually speaking, as our suffering fellow men, women and children in the Gaza strip, for our computer screens and TVs bring that suffering into proximity.  It is indecent for us not to pressurise and strive for change when we can so easily make ourselves heard.

But we are on Thomson’s ‘West Coast’ as far as all the other horror in the world is concerned, swimming against the tide, the narrative ecosystem forcing that horror far from us, virtually and geographically.

I go back to a comment I made on a previous blogpost, that our newfound globally connected community is paralysed and anaesthetized by its vastness.  Any form of action we can align with to make the world better has no inbuilt accelerators or lenses that we are in control of.  On the face of it, nobody else is actually in control of the vastness either, but without organising structures that can focus the pressure of our moral feeling, and with no way I can see of those structures appearing both powerfully AND democratically, how much better than puppets are we when it comes to deciding what change it is that should really take place in the world?

  1. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971) []
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28439404 []
  3. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/07/gaza-under-seige-naming-dead-2014710105846549528.html []
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_timeline_of_the_War_in_Somalia []
  5. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/20/nigerian-city-jos-two-deadly-explosions []
  6. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/11/women-south-sudan-sexual-violence-camps []

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