Who will it be tomorrow?

1.

At home news enters our lives early in the morning, through the SWR2 radio channel. We listen to it mainly for the classical music, but the hourly news keeps us in touch with local reality. These days – in fact, since the beginning of 2011 – local reality has often been overshadowed by global, world-changing events.

The news regularly includes interviews, and in the last days the kind of people interviewed has reflected the shift in the events in Japan. In the beginning there were correspondents – generalists, because a story often begins with generalities; the specifics come later. Then came the earthquake and tsunami experts, who were followed by nuclear experts. And this morning it was a medical expert, facing questions about radiation sickness, its symptoms and long-term effects.

Who will it be tomorrow?

2.

We also get a daily newspaper, the Financial Times, which arrives by mail. One of us usually goes downstairs to pick it up from the postbox. This morning, Wife asked me to hurry up – perhaps there’s something about the nuclear reactor in the papers. Then, she changed her mind: “The news there is already a day old.”

News in the paper. A day old. Obsolete and irrelevant.

3.

Now consider this:

1. A million people die of malaria each year.
2. 89% of the malaria deaths worldwide occur in Africa.
3. In Kenya alone, malaria kills about 34000 children each year.
4. Every 3.6 seconds someone on the planet dies of hunger.
5. …

These are regular, day-to-day occurrences. They do not make headlines. They do not appeal to our compassion. We hardly spare a thought for them.

But the events in Japan trouble us. Deeply. They create an imbalance and we do not know where to turn. Or how to turn away from the media that has been feeding us with mind-numbing facts and images. We gorge further, discuss it with friends and colleagues, express our sympathy (for the Japanese), outrage (at the nuclear lobbyists) and despair (at the ongoing battle in Fukushima).

All this time, children in Africa are dying by the minute.

But these Africans are outside our consciousness: how can we feel sympathy for someone whose condition we know so little about, whose situation we have to try and find out about instead of just skimming the headlines?

They are also outside our class: we can easily relate to the suffering of those Japanese who live like we do – in houses like ours, driving cars we recognize and shopping at the supermarket – but to understand the misery of the hunger-stricken child in a sub-saharan village, that is beyond us.

And as we relate to those Japanese, it strikes us that if it can happen to them it can happen to us too. Fear permeates through us, a fear we mistake for sympathy. Then, to make ourselves feel better, we donate money to rescue efforts in Japan.

4.

Here’s The New Yorker on the 2010 BP oil disaster:

“But oil spills are saturated in blame and political confusion – and opportunity. There is a sense that they are not accidents but accidents waiting to happen, and thus acts of greed. As a result, oil-soaked birds and fish come to symbolize a reviled industry’s heedless behavior. Every year, as many as four hundred thousand birds are killed in America by electricity-generating wind turbines, but they do not make the cover of Time. Incremental ecological damage, even if it is severe, does not easily cause outrage.”

5.

We can look at the world as a series of events, and as a set of processes. 911 was an event; the rise of militant Islam is a process. Newspapers and news channels mostly cover events; magazines like The New Yorker tend to cover processes.

It takes time to place events in the context of a process. It also requires distance from the event.

But we are hungry for news about events, and the people controlling media know it. They feed us with one event after another, in an order they define appropriate, and we consume them accordingly, not fully knowing what to make of them but satisfied that we are in touch with the world. We congratulate ourselves with our knowledge of current affairs. We talk with friends about the technology of nuclear reactors, and even draw a diagram on the whiteboard at office.

6.

The day before yesterday our hearts went out to the brave Egyptians, yesterday to the courageous Libyans, and today to the grief-stricken but stoic Japanese. Who will it be tomorrow?



14 Replies to “Who will it be tomorrow?”

  1. a well thought out piece, thank you parmanu. and I am humbled as after nearly 4 years in germany I can still only make out a few of the headlines on SWR or WDR2

  2. Very well put. I think we always need to challenge the assumptions of the news industry, as well as our own reactions – and to make choices about our news consumption, so it doesn’t just render us overwhelmed, numb and shut-down.

    1. Yes, Jean. And what makes things more complicated is that our social boundaries have grown as the world has shrunk – so we think of the world as our community, which makes it very hard for us to ignore such faraway events.

  3. So well thought-out and said. It troubles me greatly that I’ve felt so much compassion and empathy with the Japanese, and somehow less for the people in some other disasters; I know the root of that, and it’s what you describe. Part of my reaction, though, is to the nuclear issue; this is us, the technological first-world, so sure of ourselves and our ability to control everything through science, coming back to destroy ourselves. I’ve been against nuclear power and weapons all my life, so it feels somehow more personal because it aligns with fears and convictions I’ve held for so long, and for which we humans are accountable.

    But the moral question you bring up about starvation and disease is troubling from the same standpoint: we could solve so much of this suffering, and we don’t. Do I care? Of course. What do I do about it, personally? Not a great deal.

    1. Ah, the nuclear issue. That should be a simple one, given that we have alternatives (so this should weigh against any arguments in favour of nuclear techology), but since most of those alternatives are (still) carbon intensive, and since renewable energy sources are not (yet) significant enough, the case against nuclear becomes complicated. No surprises then that even James Lovelock (originator of the Gaia theory) himself proposes nuclear as a temporary solution out of this climate-change mess we find ourselves in.

  4. This – your blog and this post – has been in interesting discovery in the deep tunnel of the internet.
    Strangely enough, my thoughts have been along the lines of part three of your post for the past couple of days before reading this here. Thank you for your insight.

    1. I know how such a discovery feels, Sabine, so it is really nice to be on the other side of that experience. Thank you for visiting.

  5. sadly, this is true, that we are numb to suffering by those whose suffering never ceases, and only touched when it is someone who is not ‘supposed’ to suffer. it is good that we are not completely numb, but you make an excellent point that part of this is due to our dependency on news media. that you can take personal action to make yourself more broadly aware (and maybe do something about things that concern you) is a hopeful side of this

  6. parmanu:

    nice post!

    daily, our bodies are constantly struggling, keeping those pesky microbes out. if i remember correctly, the lifespan for a red blood cell is 120 days. why do we ignore these rbcs that die daily? why is it that it is only when we have a deep cut that we go to the doctor to get it tended to? why do we see the doctor only when the body temperature rises above 100 degrees (or whatever the individual threshold is)?

    random noise that is part of the daily routine does not startle you, but if an airplane were to go by with a sonic boom, surely you would jump out of your chair!

    a cut on the face will likely result in a trip to the doctor asap. one on the foot – meh … who cares?!

    similar, no?

    as far as the fiendish media is concerned, of course they will put out what has always been selling. that is their job, and as long as they have a captive audience, that is what they will always publish.

    – s.b.

  7. very beautifully written. makes me think. also reminds me of a book called “half the sky” … with partly similar arguments…

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