Thursday, January 06, 2005

panic in the message centre

Ben makes some really good points about the reaction to the Asian Tsunami over at SWSL today, and links over here, contrasting my post earlier with Nick's, at Auspicious Fish. Nick writes:

"Yet more Diana-isation, yet more commodification of anguish, yet another dick-measuring contest to see who is more upset, yet more public shows of pain instead of practical help. Get over yourselves. There's nothing wrong with a bit of British stiff-upper-lip, and it's infinitely preferable to this selfishly adolescent melancholy show-off contest."

But picking out that quote in particular belies the more serious points he makes, which add up to the fact that a minutes silence, let alone three, does absolutely nothing except make its participants feel better about themselves. "Three minutes? Fuck off. Give three more pounds."

Ben says...

"Nearly one million people were slaughtered [in Rwanda] in the space of less than a year, and the lives of so many more were irreversibly changed. Yet the international response was practically non-existent. Why? Did those million lives not matter as much? And was that because Rwanda is a small country in central Africa and not an idyllic playground for Westerners?"

How would we be reacting if western holidayers were not implicated in this disaster? Before I wrote my blog post about my reaction to the three minute silence I noted that Blake Morrison had - again - written on the value of silence in in article titled 'A time to Mourn' in the Guardian. I say 'again' because I remember that he has written before about the value of imposing silence (at football games, if I remember rightly), and when he did I never found myself especially moved by either side of the argument.

I can see Nick's point, and half agree, that this prescribed version of 'grief' is unsatisying and often hypocritical (do nothing, say nothing) and anathema to real, spontaneous grief. But I find these moments oddly moving anyway - not because I imagine them to be actions of real significance, but because they resemble significance, and so often life does not. I rejoice when my life is briefly cinematic. So I don't begrudge the silences, nor think them that important. I tried not to talk about the worthwhile-ness of it all.

Ben's point is more apposite. Three minutes here for South East Asia. Three for Bali. None for Rwanda. None for the earthquake in Bam in 2003. None for the 30,000 in Bhuj a few months before Sept 11. Two minutes for that latter date (the queen balked at three, apparently). How do we judge the scale of these events? How much should we mourn? Who makes these decisions? How would it be if the chaos of the Asian earthquake had not destroyed lands where English men and women holidayed? Had Bhuj been teeming with Brits, would we have cared more than we did? A positive spin might be that this is amongst the first international events outside the West which the British have recognised as truly significant and worthy of aid.

Like everyone else, I've watched so much news in the last few weeks that I'm finding it difficult to keep watching. But I had to give up on regional news a day or two in, it's instance on parochial angles, 'human interest' stories near-nauseating. Part of me realises that if there are 200 brits in danger that makes 400 horrified parents, countless children, friends and colleagues who need to know more, and I appreciate that that will always be the case. But it is sickening to see that headline, whenever it appears - 'massive earthquake in India, 4 British feared dead'.

When I wrote 'Can't we impose this silence more?', I didn't mean the imposition of silent tributes, although it may have sounded like that. I read the Blake Morrison article afterwards (several details from it have been appropriated here), and several other points of view which question the tribute. The person who seems to have got it worked out best is Nick, actually - not because I think his anger is necessarily the most valid response, but because he can say

"I went for a walk at midday yesterday, meaning that I was silent for a few minutes, but I'm silent for many, many more minutes every day, and feel no need to be pious and demonstrative about it."

And this tells me he's a step ahead of me. I'm never silent, and I never stop to think, because when I do a whole jumble of a world appears before me, countless, irrational thoughts, fears and ideas. An old friend asked me how I find so much time to blog and it occurs to me that I allow no time for thought, so blogging is easy. This is anything but an online diary; it is a loud speaking voice which keeps me from being stuck in a silent room.

Three minutes silence is three minutes of liberating panic.


William said...

Really. People who work themselves up about other people taking three minutes silence need to relax a little more. If the Diana-ization of our culture means that people empathise with those half way round the world, that's great - even if I despised the flaxen-haired misery. "Three minutes? Fuck off. Give three more pounds."? That's of course ridiculous. The fact that people have dug deep is because we have gone all soppy. Yep, we need to spread the empathy a little wider, to Africa's AIDS catastrophe mostly, but... if the tsunami had happened pre-Diana-ization the British wouldn't have been half so generous.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that if the tsunami had happened pre-Diana, we would have given more. Long pre-Diana, things like Live Aid and Comic Relief prompted us to give on a large scale, and that giving has dwindled as we get asked for more and more, and become increasingly unmoved by the antics of various comedians.

Among the reasons that we have been touched by this particular disaster is the prevalence of information, the horror of the TV images, the vast coverage of it on the internet, and yes, the fact that lots of us are familiar with the affected locations. We're giving more because it does feel more personal, we can imagine the suffering, we can empathise very easily. This isn't necessarily the case with other equally horrendous instances of suffering in the world. It doesn't make us bad people for not feeling the need to put our hands in our pockets for every single cause. All giving is charity, and we cannot assume that people are better or worse for doing it; it's a personal, individual decision.

Karen Uborka

Ben said...

Thanks for your kind words, Jonathan, and especially for directing me to the Blake Morrison article - excellent stuff.

Like you, I hate the parochialism of the regional news - but then that's just to be expected, as is (as Karen says) the fact that we're more likely to be empathetic and generous in response to something that affects us personally.

As for the three minutes' silence - well, I don't like the way it's formally imposed upon people (one of Morrison's points), but I agree with you that it's what that silence represents rather than what it actually is that matters.

Sadly I still suspect that many people will have observed the silence and felt that they've "done their bit" - too cynical again, perhaps?

jonathan said...

Hi Karen,

"All giving is charity, and we cannot assume that people are better or worse for doing it; it's a personal, individual decision."

That's true, but it runs counter to the implied narrative of all these fund-raising events; that we should be contributing. What the Diana-ization of our society did do was imply that we had a duty to care. Not that I knock a culture which is keen to give support to its worst off, but I wonder whether it occasionally posits the role of charity from the public as more essential than the contribution of the government - whereas it should be the other way round.

Ben said...

"What the Diana-ization of our society did do was imply that we had a duty to care".

A duty to care about what (or whom), though? I wasn't alone in feeling no duty to care about some vacuous overprivileged bint who just happened to have used her position to do some good. There are millions of people all over the world who do much more and receive (and expect to receive) nothing in return.

I don't think her death (and the aftermath) did anything whatsoever to change attitudes and encourage the British public to take an active and compassionate interest in the problems faced by those in foreign countries.

I'm with Nick (and Blake Morrison, to an extent) on this one. At the risk of coming over a bit Boris Johnson, "the Diana-ization of our society", this tendency towards showy public "my grief's bigger than yours" type mourning is a lamentable thing. Self-serving and self-indulgent.

BUT I'll stress that this isn't what I see happening here - this is on the whole genuine compassion in response to a global tragedy which has cost the lives of thousands and affected millions more, rather than a media-driven reaction to the death of a single overhyped individual.

jonathan said...

Yep, I think the 'Diana-isation' thing is something altogether different and not quite relavent to this discussion; I've not seen an outpouring of grief - rather one of sympathy, which is different.

The only thing I would say is that actually, for the most part, I don't care if people feel smug and self-satisfied every now and again. I think when we argue this point we end up polarising the two prospects; the idea of the person who doesn't help at all but feels satisfied that he does, and the truly generous soul who does not seek acclaim for his actions.

In fact, I think people are a lot less easily defined than this, and people's motivations a lot more complex. There are plenty of selfish motivations behind the most generous seeming of gestures, after all. If people feel smug and self-satisfied... well, so be it. People will always take refuge in feeling they have 'done enough'. That's hard to escape.