Against Disaster Outrage

May 15, 2014

Of course, I am sad for the girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria. I mourn for their families and their communities. But, the reality is, I am not more sad for them than I am for 3.1 children that die each year because of lack of adequate food, or the millions of women that are raped every year, or the 2,400 people who have been killed by U.S. drones in the last five years.

I have concerns about the social media and traditional news media focus on this incident. I feel similarly about the obsession with the Malaysia flight that was lost, the recent Korean ferry disaster, the Haitian earthquake, and I even remember inklings of this concern in the wake of 9/11. My concern is not particularly aimed at individual people who are posting on facebook or sad, but I am speaking more broadly to the disaster/outrage/forget pattern that we are all familiar with by now.

My concerns are several. First, when we focus our outrage and our energy on disasters or dramatic incidents, we distract ourselves from the slow grind of suffering that is all around us, and all around our world. The kidnapping incident is terrible, yes. But it is but one of hundreds upon thousands of terrible, traumatic, and unjust happenings that are routine around our world. We need to train our hearts and minds to be attentive to the world as it is, not as it is filtered through the most sensational news stories of the day. We cannot know all of the suffering in the world, and we certainly can’t be sad or outraged by it all, lest we collapse from the weight of the pain. But, we can be thoughtful in managing our time, energy, and moral outrage. It is not a series of sprints from one disaster to another, but rather a slow, long, and difficult walk of endurance that demands awareness of, and an ongoing attentiveness to, our complicated world. It also demands that we take the time and effort to reflect on what actions we can take, actions that will likely not be easy or without cost to us.

Second, I am particularly concerned with the U.S. tendency to get so worked up about injustice somewhere far away, particularly if the injustice is taking place in Africa (Kony 2012, anyone?) or by those claiming a connection to Islam. I recognize that the outrage and the concern comes from a sincere place, and that it is rare that intentions are bad. Yet, I think we are all called to dig deeper and to ask ourselves why outrage comes so easily for this, but the injustices that are so close to home are not social media sensations.

Finally, the reality is that social and news media outrage does not have a particularly strong record of mattering. Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur have written an early draft of a study on viral social media engagement. They point out that there is very little empirical research on the impacts of such campaigns, but they speculate that, in a flawed and broken political system, social media campaigns have the potential to enhance democracy. I hope that they turn out to be right and that all of the hashtags have not been for naught. However, I suspect that efforts such as #bringbackourgirls primarily serve to provide people a sense of efficacy and mattering, but are not particularly helpful in actually creating change. I think by and large, change is slow hard work. My fear is that much online activism and Facebook outrage serves a palliative function, letting us imagine we are doing something when we are not. I include myself in this, of course. I am well aware of the irony of blogging about the ineffectiveness of hashtags and facebook posts.

And so, six years later, I return to my own words written in 2008 as I grappled with this. At the very least, it is a good reminder for me, but perhaps it will be helpful to someone else as we stumble together toward the world we long for:

I was about five or six when I realized that every person’s life seems as important to them as my life does to me. I was floooooorrrred. I didn’t know what to do with that. Everyone is equally as important. How could I take that all in? Whom should I care about? How were we supposed to deal with all the people in the world who were all as important as my own life?

In a sense, we can never really take that in. We can’t die inside every time we hear a heart-wrenching story about someone who lost their health insurance, lost their child, got deported, slipped through the cracks. We would be useless messes. So we have to filter. To pick our battles. To decide how much of ourselves to give, how much to hurt for others.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that the work of love and justice is often about mitigating the harm that goes on in our world.

We will not stop rape – we hope to make it less and less.

We will not end global warming – we hope to slow down the destruction.

We will not end poverty – we hope to make it less, less likely, less painful.

People in our world, town, congregations and families will continue to make mistakes, encounter injustice, ache so badly that it feels like they will split in two. No work that we do will stop this pain. We can only hope to maybe lessen its frequency, its intensity, its duration.

It is not that we give up on ideals and dreams, but we do not get frustrated when progress inches along at a snail’s pace. We cannot expect revolution, or we will burn out, give up. I can think of no successful, sustained revolution that changed everything it wanted to change. Justice work is hard, slow, and, compared to the rate we would want it to change things, it crawls along. There isn’t an end point.

That is not exactly inspiring – we can only slow down the statistics of poor, of hungry, of displaced by floods, of exploited and hurt.

Granted, some things get better. Racism is less these days than it was in the past. Heterosexism is less in many ways.  Sexism is less bad in many ways. We’ve made progress, yet we do not arrive at what we envision.

This is hard to hear. And hard, for many of us to come to terms with. How much should we do if what we do will not save the world? How much effort should we put in for little gains, for baby steps? I think of all the time and energy and money I have put into mentoring over the years. For three young men. Three great young men, but still huge investments on my part. I think of the hassle of rinsing out every cat food can, of flying less than I want, of paying more for green products, of getting up early on Sundays to give sermons that many will forget. Sometimes knowing how minuscule all this is in the scheme of things makes us do less. I know it does for me.

How do we know how much of our lives to give it we are only a drop in the ocean – if we are only mitigating harm?

I think a lot of times our solution is to do a little, enough, so that we can say we are doing our part. Many others will burn out, throw up their hands and give up. Some will never even give it a start – too much. The pay-off is not great enough.

Yet, I often try to imagine myself as the beneficiary of the little harm that is mitigated. Too many people don’t have clean water, yet many people have it because of the long, slow, hard work to get clean water for more people.

A lot of people are hungry or starving, yet many fewer are hungry and starving because people fight hard to make sure that they are fed.

Even if the hunger is not solved, access to clean water is not achieved everywhere, if I was one of those people who was less harmed by the work for justice and equality – with food and clean water – then I would say it is worth it. Probably because, to everyone, their lives are super-important, even if, to us, they only look like some statistic.

Mitigating harm is not as exciting as winning the revolution and saving the world and eliminating poverty greenhouse gases hunger war. But it seems to me that we should keep pushing ourselves to do more, to be aware of the ways we perpetuate systems of harm and can work to interrupt those systems, keeping in mind that each person’s life is just as important as our own, yet knowing that we can never fully grasp this or embody this. We will not bring about the revolution. But we can make a difference in many lives. For me, I am coming to realize that that is enough. It must be, and the time I waste fretting about not saving the world takes time away from the many lives that need harm-mitigation work.

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