For Muslims this past weekend, the festival of Hari Raya marked the end of the fasting month where Muslims could not eat, drink and had to abstain from sexual activities from dawn to dusk. Surely a much-deserved day of celebration was in order right? After all, we did have to experience discomfort for a month, although we could look forward to breaking fast, a privilege to enjoy compared to host of many developing countries around the world.
The question is, how can we dare to indulge in a festivity or celebration, knowing that other individuals – whose only “mistake” was being born poor and to strife – are unable to enjoy this same privilege. This applies to Muslims and non-Muslims. In fact, even as you read this article now, someone has left this world because of a selfish act of suicide or because he/she could not pay the bills to survive. The only way to feel any remote sense of guilt or pity regarding the suffering of others is to literally be confronted with images of war, poverty and destruction in front of you. Well, doesn’t that happen on a daily basis? The Western media teems with images on and reporting of the Syrian war, the fragmentation of post-war Iraq, poverty in African countries, natural disasters and much more. The truth is most of us do feel bad when exposed to these images, and some may even immerse themselves in introspection as I attempt to do now. At the end of the day though, normal service resumes. Subconsciously, we know we live comfortably. We take it for granted that we live comfortably, perhaps suspending the reality that one’s basic necessity such as shelter is another’s privilege. It is easy to blame the media for bombarding us with images of suffering in the world to the extent of desensitizing us to such images and making us feel numb. The reality is we really have no good (even moral) reason to not be emotionally affected by such images… but there has to be an explanation.
Author Susan Sontag wrote a book in 2003 entitled ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’. I read this book while in National Service, although I never got to finishing it. In her book, she reproves photography’s unhealthy obsession with suffering. Suffering has becomes aestheticized to the point of making it normative. You can almost always expect to view an image of a barely living child reduced to bones when you switch on the TV. That doesn’t matter because you’re unlikely to feel so outraged at such an injustice. It is difficult to exercise empathy with respect to conflicts happening at another continent. It is difficult to feel anything more than pity when hearing the poverty rates of developing countries (and even developed countries). Yes, the media has a part to play in these difficulties in that it selectively highlights what suffering to show, and whose suffering is more “important”. In modern consumerist society, we buy the images that are repeatedly marketed as deserving of pity, even if it’s condescending pity. As Australian auto-biographer Peter Conrad puts it, “In our ‘culture of spectatorship’, have we lost the power to be shocked?” We probably have.
Irrespective of the effects of the media, we fail to feel anything beyond momentary pity because of how empathy is defined (or rather how we define it). Images of others’ suffering disgust us, take us aback, endear us to the reasons for their plight, but all these emotions are only possible at a safe distance. We know our lives are not reflective of the images we see on television, although we’re not proud of that fact and shouldn’t be. We live in relative opulence. It doesn’t matter how many images we’re exposed to. All images are constrained by time. The images dictate how long we’re affected. Sometimes it deeply impacts us so that there are calls to boycott Israeli products and companies because of illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine. Most of the time, however, the images merely evoke a split second of anguish.
After this rather pessimistic account of human empathy, or lack of it, what are we to do? Surely it’s senseless to tell ourselves “I shouldn’t enjoy my life because someone out there is fighting for theirs”. We can’t live like that. What do we do when we turn on CNN and see how children are losing their homes because of ISIS? One way is to write about it. Another is to keep in mind the saying “Charity begins at home”. We live in Singapore. Unless all of us become humanitarian workers, give up our lives here and migrate to conflict zones, there is nothing much we can do but donate to victims of conflicts around the world, hoping the money donated ends up in the right hands. What we can do is focus on our own community. Donate to our local charities or even our religious places of worship. We can’t control the images of suffering we see around the world but we can control what we do to help the under-privileged in our own community.