I don’t think of myself as extremely ‘patched in’. I watch, read and peruse a whole lot of news media, but I would never consider myself to be someone heavily involved in or aware of the global humanitarian situations. I can name a few current conflicts, send some spare change, recite a couple depressing figures and sigh at the latest reports like no one else, but I’ve never really immersed myself in one cause so much that I feel apart of a global reaction.
One of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had was slowly discovering that, at least in my immediate social circles, sentiment and individual activity for global humanitarian conditions are low even compared to my own relative inaction.
Conversations with friends or acquaintances, as they do, stray into the dangerous area of current affairs and the humanitarian crisis of the month. South Sudan, Syria, DRC, Hotline Bling, Typhoon Haiyan, even Australian refugee policy. People would have something interesting, poignant and worthwhile to comment and I would drop one of those depressing figures. We’d agree shit was fucked and call it a day. Frequently, however, people would know nothing or very little about a topic. Workmates, friends and even the esteemed intelligentsia that make up UOW would have little care or interest for that topical tragedy. This, as I’m sure you would know, isn’t a result of ignorance. Though the media constantly displays the atrocity that man and nature commit and though the most complex and advanced communications system in the history of our world sits at our literal fingertips, we have embraced apathy.
This brings us to this weeks topic. Specifically, the question of whether it is ever appropriate to capture and display suffering. I’m going to argue that, in fact, much to the chagrin of some, the answer is a definitive “sometimes, sorta”. In some cases it is justifiable and in some others, it is not.
First, let’s address the claim that the portrayal of suffering, wherever you find it, is a form of exploitation. Even in the examples we observed in class, media was created specifically with a goal in mind, a goal that wouldn’t directly advance the individual subject of the example. Even the Jack Black example, by far the least exploitative example, does not specifically advance the individual child that Nacho Libre interviewed, rather promising wider systematic change. In the mean time, music, a talented, dim lighting and depressing music is used to create the most impacting video possible. Does that make it unethical?In an age of that apathy I mentioned earlier, it isn’t. To create motivation among a public that is already at least vaguely aware of a problem, an aggressive, emotional, individual based strategy is needed to stir action. Though exploitative, the focus on the individual is justified if it is intended to bring about action from the viewer. Were that video meant solely as entertainment or were fund raised from that video sent direct to Jack Blacks new pool, then that exploitation could not be justified.
The Jack Black video is mild compared to our next example, that of Aylan Kurdi. Though a similar focus on an individual, the picture of the dead boy is obviously a far stronger example in almost every regard. The purpose, specifically with the exhibition of the photo across the world, is the same though; to motivate through exposure to a particular horror. As opposed to the Jack Black example, the exploitation wasn’t just of the dead boy and his family, but also to a point the exploitation of the public. Inherently offensive images, including that of Kurdi, and their display to the frequently unwilling and unexpecting audience, is designed to exploit the horror and guilt of the viewer in order to promote a political agenda (von Engelhardt, 2015, p. 701).
This exploitation of offensive, while deliberately affecting peace of a viewer, is justified if it would inspire actions that would promote a humanitarian good.
Now, that’s the depressing part. Let’s talk about inspiration and celebrity, but I’ll do it quickly because my word count is getting pretty high.Celebrity involvement in humanitarian or political media, as we all know, is not restricted to Jack Black.
Angelina Jolie currently holds the position of “goodwill ambassador” in the UNHCR, a highly effective role that sees her using her celebrity to bring public attention to the plight of refugees around the world. Now, this too is an exploitation of sorts, though a willing one. Jolie herself and the UNHCR exploit her celebrity to bring about public attention through inspiration and exposure.
Now, let’s get cynical. This is not necessarily true, of course, but an interesting hypothetical. Say Jolie doesn’t actually care about celebrity and just acted as though she did for the sake of her own publicity. As long as that exploitation, the appearance of humanitarianism and a public deception, resulted in a greater public support for the UNHCR and an increase in the capabilities of the organization to relieve suffering, would that not be a justified exploitation? Mrs Jolie, if you’re reading this, I didn’t mean that. Just a hypothetical. Please don’t have me killed.
Now, all these examples, though varying greatly in effectiveness, scale, and impact, they all rely on exploitation – an exploitation that is totally justifiable if it is done with the intention of promoting humanitarian progress.
von Engelhardt, J 2015, ‘Studying western audiences vis-à-vis mediated distant suffering. A call to venture beyond media studies’, International Communication Gazette, vol. 77, issue 7, pp. 695-707