In light of recent news, one can feel exhausted and emotionally distraught when viewing images of those experiencing the ugly effects of what the Donald Trump immigration doctrine looks like in action. From small Brown children in cages to crying toddlers begging to be reunited with their parents or family members. It's devastating, and indefinitely, these images can inspire calls to action. The family of the little Honduras girl with the red sweater who had her mother searched by Border Agents has confirmed that she was not, in fact, separated from her family even though she has become the poster child for the Trump administrations sadistic immigration policy. The rule of separating migrant children (as young as months old) from their parents once they reach the border has always been in the books, but many presidents and their governments have always opted for keeping families together. President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and advisor Stephen Miller have opted for a "zero tolerance" stance on immigration, using the separation of children from their parents as a deterrent of sorts.
From north of the border, we can travel to the Bronx, where 15-year-old Junior Guzman-Feliz was stabbed to death several times in a case of a mistaken identity hit. Suspects grabbed the young boy and dragged him out of a bodega before fatally stabbing him. Junior ran to a nearby hospital before later succumbing to his injuries and was pronounced dead. Your timeline might be filled with heartbreaking images of children from South America, or of Junior in a hospital bed with his inconsolable mother standing aside his body. For this article, we're going to break down the reasons why we should be delicate with the pictures and videos we post and repost that depict- specifically the aptly named concept of "tragedy of porn."
What is "tragedy porn"? Essentially, it is the mass influx of images/videos containging people suffering a traumatic experience. The rise of tragedy porn is something of a sociological phenomenon brought to us by the rise of modern mass media, flourishing since the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle. Human beings in all communities crave the ability to know what is going on with their neighbour. Mass populations cannot continue without the constant influx of information on people around them because it provides people with the feeling of being part of a group. When you have images of people suffering spread across the news cycle of a specific demographic, it can encourage people to act, because they see those experiencing pain as a part of their community. Take those wholesome videos of a student buying a pair of Jordans for a classmate that could not afford them, or a homeless man receiving a haircut. Make no mistake, the media can and in some ways will always be a force for good. It gives us that tingly feeling of humanity being restored. However, there can be times where the influx of images of people who require our sympathy becomes less about the vulnerable, and more about us as a society with the privilege of detaching ourselves from their suffering.
The reason we have media that shows members of our respective communities is that democracies require ways of relaying the misfortunes of the vulnerable so (and if this part bugs you, it totally should) that community can decide whether or not to intervene and how resources should be allocated. This, in a nutshell, means that the burden of proving sufferage is on marginalized groups so that those of us with privilege decide to help. Not only does this put oppressed and marginalized folks in a position to showcase their worst moments, it forces other marginalized people to watch. BlackLivesMatter activists are constantly asked "why? Why would you specify Black lives?" and the videos of men who look like Eric Gardner, or a lack of video on the murders of people like transgender Black/Brown women suddenly become up for public discussion.
Exhaustion begins to factor in with the excessive inrush of images depicting suffering and trauma of Black and Brown people. Ironically, the defence of sharing these images comes from the fact that we want people to act, however, the opposite is truer. Scarily enough, Robert Merton and other sociologists have become known for their theory of “narcotizing dysfunction”. This means that increased media coverage of a specific topic (missing and/or murdered Indigenous women in Canada, or African Americans undergoing violence from the police state) paradoxically decreases the plausibility of public action. Influxes of images and videos that have trauma and violence against people have sympathy-deadening effects. In the book Distant Suffering by sociologist Luc Boltanski, the idea that if there is too much violence against a certain group, then perhaps nothing can be done is explored. Images and videos depicting suffering are meant to envoke crisis and pity, and sometimes people lose the ability to pity because of exhaustion, and are “also relieve[d] the anxiety, loss of self-esteem and sense of indignity which is often said to be provoked by seeing wounded, imprisoned, tortured, starving or even dead people, without being able to do anything.”
As we continue to attain more information on the conditions faced by children at the U.S.-Mexico border, or are exposed to violence against Black people, whether due to inner-community conditions or violence committed by the state (police shootings, and videos depicting them) it is imperative that we understand that we are not owed a first class look into the suffering of these people. There is a long history of oppressed groups to serve themselves on a silver platter to the dominant culture to intervene. The onus of proving that there is pain and suffering almost always lies on victims to showcase their misery and the unethicality of that, paired with the effects that "tragedy porn" has on said victims is beyond measure. In order to be truly effective with activism, yes, awareness is important, but so is harm reduction. In a world that makes it more and more difficult to engage in activism, it is important to realize that we can make subtle differences in the spaces we take up. Harm reduction is a theory that aims to prevent harm in the short term and is quite possible to achieve. Refusing to exploit images of suffering people for likes and retweets by reporting them is a place to start. Recognize the fact that for every image and video of a Black or Brown person, or woman suffering shared, there is a Black/Brown/Femme who must view that with almost no trigger warning or be faced with the choice of avoiding the internet. There is also the family members who have to grieve and cope with violence against their loved ones. Do you believe Trayvon Martin's mother wanted her son to become the face of a movement? Or the children of separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border suddenly deciding they want to be the political chesspiece of Democrats and Republicans leading up to a Midterm election? Progress for Black and Brown people should not come to the cost of their dignity and mental well-being.
By all means, this does not mean that we should never share photos or videos depicting suffering, however, we must be ethical with the way we share them. Be responsible. Better activism demands this, and a better world commands it.
Banner Image via Kendario La’Pierre