March 24, 2021

Our Ability to Ignore Suffering Can Make Us Lousy Humanists

hurricane destruction

I periodically watch old reruns of television shows I like because I missed them when they first aired for one reason or another. Even if the show hasn't been on for ages, I figure it is new to me if I missed it previously. Anyway, I recently saw an episode of one that had been filmed a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. I mention that because this particular episode involved people from the U.K. visiting New Orleans.

While walking through streets filled with rubble and commenting on how the scene around them resembled a war zone, one said something about how surprised he was that it was had been more than a year since Katrina hit and it looked like the clean-up hadn't even started. He wondered what the wealthiest country in the world was doing. He then looked directly into the camera, motioned to the scene around him, and posed the question everybody should have been asking:

How do Americans sleep at night knowing this is here?
It was a damn good question.

I can't pretend to have any answers. All I can say is that many Americans willed themselves to unknow that reality. Once the news media stopped covering it, public awareness quickly receded. People simply stopped thinking about it and moved on with their lives. Besides, many people were already tired of hearing about it. I suspect a sense of helplessness was involved for some in that the scope of the problem likely seemed insurmountable. Better to just forget it and move on.

I don't think this coping style is unique to Americans, and I don't think people who use it are necessarily monsters. I suspect that most people sufficiently preoccupied with their own struggles that involving themselves in others' struggles often seems like a luxury they don't have. Unfortunately, we are capable of putting up with many things with which nobody should tolerate. Activists of all stripes have long recognized this as a source of frustration.

In the case of New Orleans following Katrina, I don't think it was mere coincidence that the hardest-hit areas which were largely abandoned were predominately Black and low-income. That sort of neglect is far from unique to New Orleans. We see it in every city. As long as "those people" stay over there, we do our best to ignore them and the conditions in which they live. But while racism and classism strike me as relevant in this case, they seem incomplete as far as explaining our broader ability to ignore all sorts of awful situations and go about our lives.

How do we sleep at night? My guess is that we sleep pretty well until the situation involves us in a way we cannot avoid. In short, many of us are lousy humanists.