A Culture of Amnesiacs: Remembering to Act on Injustice
Eco-Justice Final Paper
According to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights all human beings have an entitlement to dignity and justice. While this proclamation was written sixty years ago, many individuals still struggle to attain these freedoms. This ongoing struggle is broadcasted into the homes of millions who have the luxury of “patronizing reality (Sontag 2003, 111).” Instead, as images of suffering and injustice scroll across the television and computer screen the viewing audience simply watches suffering occur. World of Sociology notes that “justice is a social obligation,” this obligation demands action rather than simply watching (2001).” However, very view are compelled to do anything more than feel sympathetic towards the images portrayed. The safety and comfort the viewing audience feels in their homes allow them to be disconnected from the reality of suffering. The “privileged¹” class is instead encouraged to forget the reality of injustices, and permitted to view the suffering of others as a form of entertainment rather than a call to action. This complacency and ignorance must be replaced with a desire to act on the behalf of those less privileged in the aim of creating change.
The issue of social injustice is often the center piece of news stories and photographs. These forms of media attempt to capture the injustices experienced by others, and bring them to the privileged class. Although these images portray a serious issue it does so through entertaining the viewing audience. This is evident in Neil Postman’s argument:
Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure (1985, 87).
Although the content of the news received is often disturbing, television projects a perfect image of violence and tragedy. The newscasters often smile as they move the viewer through the fragments of information presented. Instead of allowing the viewer to grasp the full extent of the suffering being experienced, the viewer is invited to simply sit back and enjoy the news rather than think about the content they are viewing.
A problem with television lies within its attempt to provide serious information. This is evident in late night infomercials which highlight starving children, and inform the viewer that for a small donation they have the ability to feed a child. If infomercials like this irritate the viewer and causes them to feel saddened by this reality they are quickly distracted. They are distracted and soon allowed to forget as images telling them to satisfy their late night hunger cravings by a quick trip to a fast food restaurant follow the infomercial. The fast food trip is offered at the same cost of feeding a starving child, and the reality of the restaurant is often closer than the starving child. This mixed message causes the viewer to further remove themselves from the hunger experienced in the world. While the audience may be accustomed to seeing streets lined with fast food restaurants the image of starving children roaming the streets is foreign. It is easier to forget the things that seem foreign and hard to comprehend. This is also the case with photographs, as magazines often display pictures that may evoke different emotions side by side, such as a picture a war torn country next to an advertisement for clothing. Capturing injustice becomes an issue of art that is meant to entertain those who were fortunate to escape the suffering. This allows the viewer to become complacent to the fact that while suffering occurs they remain in the safety of their home.
The role of the media in today’s society often serves to connect individuals to the world around them. News broadcasts aid in providing critical updates about issues occurring not only at the local level, but globally. Through the click of a button individuals are granted access to knowledge of any social issue or injustice. While sitting in the comfort and safety of their home, they can learn about the daily suffering of those in far away nations and cities. However, the reply to the images and stories of suffering is often minimal. While the viewer may feel compassion for those who are suffering very little action is attached to those feelings. This reaction is deeply tied to Susan Sontag’s argument that, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers (2003, 101).” The problem of reduced action lies within the information being received. Although mass amounts of information is readily available, very little is communicated on what must be done with this information. Neil Postman describes this as a decline in the action value attached to the information being received (1985, 69). Therefore, news allows individuals to engage in the art of watching, and thus distancing themselves from the suffering others experience.
The framework of news on television lies within the phrase “now…this (Postman 1985, 99-100).” This framework allows the viewer to transfer their attention from one storyline to the next, allowing for fragmented news to be presented. This occurs as each storyline is not connected, forcing the viewer to focus on a completely different event every few seconds. A news story capturing the injustices experienced by the Apopka farmworkers may only be presented for 30 seconds before the newscaster alerts the viewer that should now focus their attention on the weather for the week. The farm workers have been struggling for decades to end the injustice they experience, however only a fragmented portion of their suffering can be presented in 30 seconds. Before the viewer is allowed to reflect on the tragedy they are diverted to the weather and the content of their wardrobe in terms of the weather report.
The context in which the media presents information does little to remedy the issues associated with critical social problems. In order to tackle these issues the gap between the “privileged” and the “unfortunate” must be closed. Often photographs and television make a spectacle out of the suffering others experience. Photographs do little beyond evoking feelings of pity for the suffering that is depicted. Susan Sontag illustrates this pity is masked by fear, as the increasing amount of violence that is depicted has become greatly accepted by society. As a constant stream of violence and suffering is depicted through mediums solely meant for entertainment, such as video games the greater issue of injustice becomes trivialized. Individuals watching the news must no longer be able to distance themselves from the injustice that is felt by others. The media should compel those watching to do something other than simply turning off the screen, and refusing to look at the images. In the struggle against injustice messages must be presented that encourage the viewing audience to reflect and act on the information they receive.
Stephen Rose’s information on social stratification illustrates the differences between minority groups and White households. This information depicts that African Americans and Latino’s are found less in occupations that are considered to be prestigious and professional. This is also seen in income level, as a disparity can be noted among Blacks in reference to Whites. The population of the Apopka farm workers mainly consists of Blacks and Latinos. Looking at the statistical analysis of the living conditions of these minority groups reveals that this case is not an isolated problem. Instead this case of the Apopka farm workers is not solely a case of injustice, but discrimination. The problems the farmworkers face is not unique to their community. The farm workers suffer from a host of diseases that are not only a result of the toxic exposure in the farm fields, but a constant exposure to toxins. This has occurred through the placement of a medical waste incinerator and landfill in close proximity to the community. As Robert Bullard argues this placement of toxic waste sites in the community is not merely coincidental. Instead, site of hazardous wastes are more likely to be placed in low income communities of color. Bullard illustrates that race the most determining factor in regards to the location of toxic waste sites. Therefore, in relation to whites, minority groups are more likely to be subject to living in polluted environments (Bullard 2001). Similar to the case of other social problems, the Apopka farmworkers are victims of structural violence. As Paul Farmer explains, the issues that the farm workers must wrestle with are neither a result of individual agency or cultural forces. They are the result of historical and economic factors that have coincided to ensue the limited the opportunities the individual or community is given (Farmer 2001).
The notion of creeping injustice is one that is hard to rectify in the mind of a privileged college student. After learning the issue of inadequate access to vital resources such as clean water it is hard to remember the impact of the issue. Although the facts presented state that many individuals worldwide lack access to clean water, there is a disconnect that exist for a privileged person as they walk into a grocery store with shelves full of plastic water bottles. After watching the short documentary “The Water Carriers²,” the image of women traveling long distances to collect water was hard to remember when simply turning on the faucet supplies the clean water needed at an instance. However, as Susan Sontag argues, “perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not to enough to thinking (115).” To think about the suffering of those who lack access to clean water or of the injustices that farmworkers experience would require the acknowledgment of their suffering. This involves remembering, which means to acknowledge the pain experienced by others. This acknowledgement is an overwhelming process which may cause individuals to feel as if there is far too much injustice in the world. Therefore, it is easy to become numb and feel as if there is nothing that can be done. Sontag expresses that a way of achieving peace is to forget the injustices that occur. This peace allows privileged individuals to be able to remove themselves from the injustice. Often this is a failure to recognize that one’s action affects others.
After having the experience of talking with former farm worker Geraldean Matthews about her experiences, and traveling through what were former farm lands it was hard not to be filled with passion to aid in helping to fight this injustice. This is because of the direct connection with the issue, rather than it being hidden behind a screen. The farmworker issue was not presented in a sound bite of fragmented information. Instead the layers of the issue, and its complexity were unraveled allowing for a greater understanding. In planning a forum to educate others on the problems that exists it was at times hard to realize that others did not have the same experience. It was challenge to refrain from resorting to telling only a fragment of the story, and to simply take donations rather than engage in a discourse on the problem. It was difficult when my passions did not translate to others. The advice of activist Lois Gibbs helped in the realization that in connecting with others you cannot get caught up in your own passions, but make an effort to ask about their passions and interest. In the case of farmworkers it was important to find out what made this issue relevant to the lives of privileged individuals3.
Through the experiences that were apart of the coursework the realization that it is not enough to simply be educated on an issue came to the forefront. Although the issue of farmworkers was clear, learning about the problems was not the end point. Margarita Romo4, a former farm worker commented that very little has changed for farm workers over the years. She stated that after years of organizing and fighting for rights, farmworkers have gained very little in lessening the gap of injustice. Therefore, this points out that even though many may have been informed about the issue very few have acted upon it. Although their struggles have been the center of televised news little progress has been made. This is conveyed through Postman’s notion that television is unable to convey serious messages, but instead to speak solely in “the voice of entertainment (1985, 80).” Therefore, looking at news stories on farm workers or at pictures that depict their struggle encourages the viewer to watch rather than act. The world of television and photography allows the viewer to be complacent with images that are shown, and encourage the acceptance of the way the information being received is portrayed. Individuals often do nothing about the information they receive, however in order to achieve justice the viewer must be encouraged to act.
As a group of college students from Winter Park, planning an environmental forum about the injustices occurring in Apopka the issue at first seemed like a separate world. Therefore, the 14 miles that separate “us” from “them” had to be connected. Although none of the individuals planning this forum had the experience of being a farmworker who was greatly underpaid, lacking benefits and sprayed with toxic chemicals each member benefited from the work of farmworkers in general. Looking at the vegetables available in the grocery store had to bring images of the labor a farm worker had to endure for the cabbage, carrots and lettuce to be well stocked and available for purchase. As Sontag argues, “to set aside the sympathy of we beset to others best by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering (2003, 103).” The suffering of the Apopka farmworkers was no longer on display at a museum or the nightly news, but a reality in each of our lives. A Howard Thurman quote stated by Mahjabeen Rafiuddin,5“I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you,” at the Global Peace Film Festival described this experience. This is a realization that the farmworkers struggle was directly in line with our privilege. In order for this group to achieve justice, privileged individuals must realize that this privilege comes at the expense of others.
In response to social problems such as the issues experienced by the Apopka farmworkers, I believe the best remedy lies in grassroots movement. These movements must however function through placing the locus of control within the hands of those considered the victim. Communities such as the Apopka farmworkers must be empowered to be activist for their own cause. This can be done with the aid of the privileged class, but must place the farmworkers at the forefront. The first focus should be to ensure that the needs of the farmworkers are addressed. In order to achieve this farmworkers themselves must be asked how they would like to be helped rather than being supplied with the ideology of a privileged group who lack the inability to comprehend the injustice the group has faced. Rather than focusing on providing charity to the farmworkers, any action plan devised must be focused on retrieving the inherent rights of dignity and justice mandated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The realization and acceptance that others suffer due to actions carried out by the privilege class is a vital factor for remedying injustice. However, this point becomes each to forget, and to shut down at the realization that others suffer at your hand. It is easy to simply say that there is too much injustice in the world, and believe that very little can be done to remedy that. However, if justice is an obligation to others, then the obligation lies in realizing that we cannot ignore that reality. The media encourages the viewing audience to view injustice and suffering as a form of entertainment to be watched. Individuals are often moved to feel sympathy for those suffering, however without action this fade. Rather than feeling only sympathy images of injustice should be a call to action aimed at alleviating the suffering felt by others.
These are activities that I have engaged in or plan to be involved with in the future in order to assist the farmworkers.
Environmental Health Forum--- October 2008 This forum engaged members of the Rollins College community on issues affecting the Apopka farmworkers, and ways in which they can be of assistance.
Apopka Turkey Drive--- November 2008 This effort was able to raise money to purchase Thanksgiving turkeys for about 196 families.
Farmworker’s Association Intern--- Ongoing This is an effort to assist the Farmworker’s association with getting a student from Rollins to intern in their office assisting in various capacities.
Farmworker baby shower--- January 2008 Along with another student Kerem Rivera I will be helping to organize effort to donate items for mothers in the community with newborn babies and young children.
2. “The Water Carriers” is a 27 minute long documentary directed by Jaime Jelenchick in 2007. The film documents a student’s work with Engineers without Borders, and the journey to bring clean water to children in Kenya. This documentary was shown in a group of environmental shorts at the Global Peace Film Festival held at Rollins College.
3. Lois Gibbs is the executive director of The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). She led an organizing workshop on “getting and keeping people,” at CHEJ conference on making Florida toxic free.
4. Margarita Romo is from the Farmworkers’ Self Help group and was a speaker at the CHEJ conference on making Florida toxic free.
5. Mahjabeen Rafiuddin is the Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Rollins College. She spoke at the Global Peace Film Festival panel “What Is Peace.”
Bullard, Robert D (2001). Environmental
Justice in the 21st Century: Race Still Matters.
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Farmer, Paul (2001). Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues. University of
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Reference. 14 September 2008.
Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves To Death. New York: Penguin Books.
Sontag, Susan (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador.
Rose, Stephen (2007). Social Stratification in the United States. New York: The New