Humanism 2020: Less “Misery Porn,” More Empirical Empathy

Humanism 2020: Less “Misery Porn,” More Empirical Empathy December 31, 2019

M L Clark, 2018

Let’s begin with a story. The day after Christmas, I was stocking up for this week’s stint of writing-isolation. Others, of course, were out for Boxing Day sales (yes, even in Colombia!), while still others–the beggars who had taken Christmas off because the streets would be empty–had returned to their informal labours. In the 28-degree-Celsius midday heat, under a bright near-equatorial sun, families with small children sat in the shade with their sweets and wafers, while old men and women and the differently abled weaved through stopped traffic with their gum; and while street performers at the lights juggled and performed acrobatic feats for small change.

And yet, if Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite teaches us anything, it’s that there’s always a deeper underclass. In this case, I’ve omitted from my scene one group that never took the day off; one group that is out every morning. These are, of course, the recicladores informales: the people who gather up cardboard, plastics, glass, and other recyclables on carts they haul through the streets at the break of dawn. Old women, pregnant women, old men, boys in their early teens; their skimpily dressed bodies lean, hard, sun-burnt, scar-laden, and heavy with the rankness of their living conditions: all can be found sorting and scavenging, packing and dragging their finds every day through the streets of Medellín.

I see them defecating, bathing, and setting T-shirts to dry along the viaducts early in the morning. I see them passed out on whatever stretch of grass or concrete or cart-bed they can find in the midday heat. I see them at collection centres in the afternoons and evenings, indifferently wrangling with a range of potentially toxic substances, then taking the edge off with marijuana, heroine, meth, and alcohol at night.

And a part of me? Since moving to Medellín, a part of me has desperately wanted to take photos of these people working so hard for so little, gathered together in small, silent groups under the banyan trees or Metro overpasses to organize and secure their wares. A part of me keeps thinking, what’s the harm in me showing my North American friends and colleagues what poverty looks like when it isn’t policed into hiding? Wouldn’t I be advancing the conversation about how poor people are so often pushed from plain sight in Canada and the U.S., and penalized in places like Skid Row, where they can’t be hidden in full? Couldn’t those photos help us discuss why our cities are more often interested in fining informal economies than eliminating the need for them?

Good Intentions, Lousy Aim

In a just world, after all, people who toil dust-and-grime soaked from early morning through to the midday heat, sifting through the detritus of more comfortable lives, would never be considered less worthy of pathways out of subsistence-level living.

In a just world, there would be resources to help folks like these find other ways to cope with their hardships, especially around addictions that intensify the poverty cycle. There would be protections, too, for the young women against whatever conditions might have led to their pregnancies, and prenatal care for the pregnancies themselves, and social protections in their aftermath.

But, no, I don’t take and disseminate photos of these people–or any other impoverished people in Colombia. To do so would be to perpetuate what the late Colombian director Luis Ospina termed “pornomiseria” (literally, misery porn): the sensationalized degradation of other humans for personal gain, monetary or entertainment-wise.

The photo included in this post is an exception, but a pointed exception: Can you see the street person in this shot from Bogotá? Of course not. He’s in one of the two sacks. The other contains detritus from the nearby construction site. And even then I’m not so sure about the use of this photo; even then, there’s something provocative about how visually easy it is to equate a human being with a heap of refuse.

So, why post even this image?

Well, because after my last essay, in which I asked fellow humanists to direct any potentially combative conversations over religion vs. atheism toward wonder and worldly suffering… I want to talk a little more about what that last part might entail. I’ve already discussed how our humanism needs to be anti-desperation, but I still struggle with a key step in that process. Namely:

How do we raise the subject of suffering without leveraging it for personal gain?

World’s Burning. World’s Always Been Burning.

Because, yes, there are genocides in process; and others rising to the surface; and a staggering number of displaced persons from these and other conflicts. If you were to ask most people in your life… gosh, I really hope they could name at least a few, like the ones in Yemen (by intentional starvation), Darfur (yep, ongoing), the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Uighyurs in China, the indigenous in Brazil, the Yazidis and Christian sects in Syria and Iraq, as well as Muslims in India-Administered Kashmir.

And yes, racialized injustice is plainly entrenched in the U.S. and Canadian criminal justice systems, while racialized human rights atrocities mount at the U.S. border on the back of decades of U.S. interference in Central American governments. Putting aside the heinous treatment of asylum seekers at the U.S. border, the U.S. also has the highest per-capita prison population, with devastating numbers in for non-violent offenses that end up costing citizens political enfranchisement and pathways to meaningful reintegration with the economy after release.

(But before Canadians shake their heads and sigh at, say, the disproportionate number of black men in U.S. prisons [even if the trend is starting to move in a better direction], we should remind ourselves of the disproportionate numbers of indigenous people trapped in similar circumstances [minus the lifelong loss of voting rights] up north.)

We know, too, that indigenous people are still being murdered in South America for trying to protect the land from mercenaries paid by corporations and government, alongside cartels displeased by their refusal to grow drug crops. And that Western soldiers (often from poorer beginnings themselves) are still killing themselves and others from untreated traumas related to brutal and brutalizing service that wouldn’t be necessary if their lives weren’t treated as disposable in an intricate New Cold War between Russia, China, Iran, the U.S., and Turkey (among others).

And that other populations are opting in large numbers for suicide, too–like farmers in places like the U.S., India, and Bangladesh, where surviving off the land has become nigh on impossible under a harsh social cocktail of multinational monopoly pressures, environmental change, and severe government neglect.

And that a great many children are picking through toxic waste to survive, or living in similarly grinding indentured servitude throughout the world, where they’re also dying of highly treatable diseases in the process.

We know all of this already, by and large, and more. We don’t need to see photos of poverty and injustice to know that both are in full, infuriating swing elsewhere in the world. Maybe in another country. Maybe just down the street.

We know–and yet, there still seems to be so little we as individuals can do: which leaves us with a great deal of frustration, shame, and worst of all, pessimism. Yes, the world has so much awfulness in it. Yes, the world has always had so much awfulness in it. And yes, the future-world will have more awfulness in it, too.

So what does it even matter what we do?

Moving from “Misery Porn” to Humanist Action

This past decade, there’s been a great deal of talk about the “backlash” against perceived North American and European progress on issues of racialized injustice. And good: we should talk about the rise of identarianism, including manifestations of overt white supremacy–but we have another backlash to deal with, too. We also need to talk about the insidious role of “feeling bad about things we can’t change.”

Why insidious?

Because this reaction-set traps us in a lousy cycle. It’s not just that a resistance to “feeling bad” keeps some people wilfully ignorant of pressing social injustices; it’s also that this perceived complacency on the part of others coaxes the rest of us into social-media outrage that readily becomes “misery porn.” First a new injustice makes its way onto the internet, where it spreads like wildfire, with people howling over what this injustice says about the world; then clever memes about it make the rounds; then the next, “shinier” injustice appears, and we transpose our old memes onto it. The whole spectacle often becomes more about the bio-chemical “rise” we get from awful news, and less about dealing with the injustice itself.

This is a strong part of why I try to avoid clickbait–both in the essays I write here, and the essays I disseminate online. I don’t always succeed, though; I sometimes still howl as much as anyone else about the horridness of a particular news item (or a Bible verse that makes me grumpy). I do have the wherewithal, however, to distrust my outrage, because I recognize the bio-chemical feedback loop it’s playing into, and I’m not sure how beneficial that feedback loop really is to anyone else.

Put another way, as much we’ve been trained to think that one needs increased raw exposure to the existence of a problem in order to solve it, there’s a significant danger to using the visual impact of suffering–whether through poverty photography or in shared videos and articles about worldly horrors–to inspire people to act in the interests of change. Certainly, it’s a good short-term tool, because it’s easy to trigger a panicked sense that something needs to be done right now. But is this the best biological priming for social issues that require a more sustained commitment? Is this the best cultural protection against a build-up of cynicism about the value of activism on whole?

What, are we just going to lean on that panic button in our hormone-production systems for the decades it will take to adapt to climate change, ease the rich-poor divide’s worst consequences, and heal the most devastating human diseases?

The Power of Humanism, Above All Other Contenders

Of course not. If pressing on that button all day, every day, was all we needed, we wouldn’t need to think humanistically. Thinking humanly would be enough: that is, frantically tribal, knee-jerk, and short-term focussed.

Because humanism is a philosophy of empathy, whatever one’s greater cosmology. (How can it be otherwise, when its core assumption is human beings are the known-universe’s most relevant agents of change?) However, humanism is also not just about feelings; it’s about feelings informed by facts; informed by empirical data that shows very clearly how to construct better societies.

And we can’t make any significant progress until we’re acting with both in mind.

Empiricism on its own is not enough, after all, because it lacks the intrinsic motivation to improve human outcomes. That’s why it makes for such a great scapegoat among religious nihilists, who try to deflect from science’s bounty of new intel by suggesting that there are only two options for moral clarity–religion OR science–and that science is not up to the task on its own.

Stopped clocks, etc.–because yes, they’re absolutely right that science needs oversight. Alack, not all approaches to religiosity are sufficient to that end–and the creeds that lean especially hard on arguing facts-not-in-evidence will almost certainly be at odds with the discovery of policy directions that can best improve human life.

Likewise, secular compassionate action is all sound and fury, too, if it’s not moored to well-evidenced assertions about the world. (Indeed, that’s why I’m calling it “compassionate” action, not “empathetic”–because it may well be drawn from a place of caring for other people’s welfare, but it’s not drawn from a place of caring enough to try to understand those other subject-positions, and to act to improve other subject-positions in accordance with that fuller knowledge.)

Compassion without empirical checks and balances, for instance, can lead to nonsense like “all children are taught to hate; children intuitively love everyone” when mammalian behaviour abundantly illustrates why even the most loving infant is going to form contentious categorical notions of safe/not-safe during a developmental stage that precedes its ability to fully recognize that “unfamiliar” does not mean “dangerous.” This is part of a normal growth curve for our species, and needs to be explicitly addressed in childhood education.

Compassion without empiricism leads, too, to people thinking they’re “against” abortion when they’re actually 100% supporting policies that ensure its continuation in higher and more diversely fatal numbers. Or that they’re “against” poverty when their paranoia about the possibility of a single “welfare queen” ensures that more people are trapped in poverty than should ever be possible in a world with so much overall wealth. Or that they’re “against” drugs when they’re actually against policies that would reduce social stigma enough to ensure that addicts can get the help they need.

Humanism for the New Year, and Beyond

What can we do, then, to try to break our addiction to outrage and related misery porn?

Well, we can continue to stay informed, especially by listening to what affected demographics are explicitly asking for in terms of activist support. Do the people most affected need another clothes fundraiser and your year-old canned beans, or are they asking people to send money to specific, locally vetted non-profits?

And we must continue to disseminate critical information about worldly suffering.

But we can also choose to do so more as humanists–religious and secular alike–which means taking the time to check our assumptions, choosing our news sources with care, and above all else, paying attention to how we’re using our outrage to advance these difficult reports. Is outrage the prime motivator for our posts? Should it be?

Because outrage is not just exhausting; it also makes us susceptible to neglecting key empirical data. Granted, the outrage may well be justified! It may also be an unavoidable first response! But it’s not something we want to get into the habit of fuelling at cost to our ability to think critically about effective activist engagement. Just because a news article is so awful that it inspires a sense that we need to do something, right now, and all our friends need to drop what they’re doing and help, too… take the time to look at what effective activism would mean in that particular case. Post links for direct action along with as many of these incendiary news reports and study results as you can. And pay attention to whether or not you’re following up on that issue and those activist strategies after the first flush of outrage has passed.

If not, why not?

The Take-Away

Suffice it to say: As humanists, we need to pay attention to where our communities are struggling and where we might be able to help… not just because we saw a photo that moved us to guilt and anger… and not just because we know how much social currency we can earn with our moral outrage…

But, rather, because we’ve found a way to live our empirically moored empathy as a sustainable and automatic part of our actions every day, irrespective of mood.

That’s what I’m striving for, at least–flawed and failing though I so often am–and that seems to be, too, what a great many of you are also striving to do. So, to those religious and secular humanists: Thank you.

Thank you for striving.

Because the world’s not going to stop being a painful place just because a couple numbers switch over on the calendar. There’s no more heft behind saying “It’s 2020, for heck’s sake!” than there was behind “It’s 2019, for heck’s sake!”

But if the symbolic impact of those numbers switching over helps you to frame your goals as both a human and a humanist for the next while… well, more power to you; and a very Happy New Year, too.

May it find you well-informed, and ever-curious, and kind.

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