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Activists’ Apathy Predicament

December 24, 2011

The Opposite of Good is Apathy

The New Inquiry has published an essay by Elliot Prasse-Freeman called Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics. It criticizes the work of New York Times journalist Nicolas Kristof, arguing that he keeps his readers in a constant loop of “awareness” that allows them to recognize the world’s injustices without actually asking them to recognize their complacency in them. The author compellingly argues that Kristof sterilizes and infantilizes the subjects on which he reports, and I agree that Kristof’s writing caters to the apathy of Westerners by focusing on the graphic and emotional details rather than on the systemic political and social causes that really need to be addressed. I am concerned, however, that the result that so frustrates Prasse-Freeman – Westerners who say “isn’t that terrible” without ever thinking anything more of the subject – is a far more vexing problem than can be solved by any adjustment to Kristof’s journalistic practices or even those of the entire profession. Indeed, journalism’s role in society is to improve awareness, not to direct action.

Let us consider what would happen if Kristof published the kind of shrewdly analytical pieces that the author requests. Prasse-Freeman suggests that removing the familiar Westerner through which Kristof tells many of his stories would free up “200 words or better” to tell the story of the person or people who are supposed to be the subject of the article. Kristof should then seek to tell the story the way it would be written for the subject’s family or friends, not for white people living thousands of miles away. The subject would become a human whose story extends beyond simply the violence that he or she experienced. Kristof could do this by exploring “the daily challenges of village life, only then moving on to why [the subject] was attacked.”

I am fully confident that if Kristof took this approach his readership would immediately diminish to the much smaller number familiar to the many authors who do actually write this way. Readers connect to that to which they relate and to stories that are visceral and shocking. The primary problem, I think, is not that Kristof makes an American woman the focus of his piece on violence in Africa, but that the vast majority of readers find the American woman to be far more compelling than violence in Africa, which, deep down, they understand as the natural and unchangeable result of the fact that the people there are poor, black, and “savage.” Kristof uses the American girl as a literary trick familiar to fiction writers in a desperate attempt to make his hopelessly apathetic readers care at all.

Prasse-Freemen then asks that Kristof “contextualize [the subject], making her a political actor part of a larger political economy.” This would certainly serve the reader a portion of important truth, but it would also make the article far too long for the average Westerner to even consider engaging. People read columns to get a taste of a subject, not an in-depth discussion. Longer, more thorough pieces of the kind Prasse-Freeman suggests are widely available to those who seek them, even in the NYT Sunday Magazine, but the readership is significantly lower. National Public Radio and the Pubic Broadcasting Station, for example, offer some excellent radio and television essays for free, but most Americans would prefer to watch the horrifically simplified sensationalized alternatives offered by Fox and MSNBC.

 Just imagine if Kristof then tried to suggest that the suffering of poor Generose from the Congo was a direct result of the economic system that provides the readers’ livelihoods. Not only would this be too inconvenient for agreement, but also too intimidating for further consideration. The DRC is a primary source of minerals required for producing computer chips used by gaming systems, and as much as we would like to believe otherwise, I suspect that most Americans would still buy a Play Station Three even if they were presented with clear and compelling evidence that doing so fuels a brutal conflict.

Mr. Prasse-Freeman addresses these points by acknowledging that his essay isn’t really about Kristof, but about the entire system of which he is a part. The “open secret,” as the author calls it, is the unfortunate truth that we all know and have quietly agreed is too complicated to solve. We distribute the blame wide and thin as to relieve ourselves from any individual responsibility, and the reader participates in this perpetual respite just as much as the journalist.

Prasse-Freeman then presents a reality with which I have been grappling for some time:

 “While the residue or gap that constitutes the open secret can assist in sublimating potential pressures, allowing people to become cynical and enervated (“What can we do, we all know the system is set up against us … yet no one will admit it!”), it can also liberate us from constantly uncovering secrets, expecting that information will itself change people’s minds. The era of the open secret lets us see the obscene underbelly and the official, insisted-upon truth in one field of vision. Given this, the task is not to try to find and broadcast some Truth but rather to make interventions on social desire itself.”  (Emphasis mine)

People (and societies) perform incredible feats of intellectual acrobatics to excuse the negative repercussions of anything that benefits them, as evidenced by our relationship with the open secret, and I am therefore skeptical that it is possible to conduct effective “interventions on the social desire.” I wonder if we can do anything more than manipulate people’s current social desires to serve our own ends. Is it at all reasonable, for example, to expect that we can increase the interest of Americans in the rights of Palestinians, or do we need to find a way to tell them that Israel is insulting their leadership and wasting their tax dollars in order to inspire action? Effective interventions, after all, are the ones that significant numbers of people, and eventually people of influence, actually have a reason to become involved in. Even the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Prasse-Freeman uses as a rare example of effective activism, is motivated by basic cost-of-living concerns. Many of the world’s most important struggles will never enjoy such relevance.

We have limited time, brain capacity, and resources (those of us who can devote our lives to some form of activism should consider it a luxury) and it seems unlikely any attempt to change the “social desire” could ever compensate for these fixed limitations. Most of the problems activists seek to address are complex enough that they require years of study to understand at a functional level, especially considering the amount of misinformation and moral ambiguity that is often present. The vast majority of humans will never possess the interest, let alone the time, required to engage at that level. Even fewer will then have the intelligence, experience, and motivation to then figure out what they should do about the problem once they understand it. This isn’t only the condition of “the masses,” but also of those of us who consider ourselves aware and active. How much time have any of us really put into understanding and then seeking to affect poverty in our own communities, let alone sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, or brutal political tyranny in Central Asia?

Activists therefore suffer a perennial tension between the desire to reveal the “truth” of a particular injustice, and the reality that so few people have the capacity to care about a given issue. They are then left to debate whether one should prioritize measurable goals over operational righteousness, and on the degree to which we can afford to treat the members of a target audience as inherently just, conscientious, and capable actors, rather than as pawns on a geo-political chessboard. Is the goal of activism is to create an informed citizenry, or to compel an audience to take actions that will lead to political change? Is the former even possible, and could it ever lead to the latter?

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