The fear of witnessing the pain of others is caused by our empathy coupled with an intense feeling of powerlessness. And sympathy may even be a highly misleading path to trod on, if it does not encourage us to reflect on the reasons for horrors to occur.
by Elise Billard
Collage by Isles of the Left
On 23rd January 2016, Agnès wrote on a public forum:
I am going to be in Malta in April with my family and especially with my son who is 8 years old.
It’s silly but I did not realize that Malta could be potentially affected by migration notably from Tunisia and Lybia [*] since Lampedusa is closer to the African coasts.
Of course I am overwhelmed by what is happening to these people but I am feeling a bit powerless and I would not want to witness such distress and even more so for my son.
Do you know what the situation of migrants in Malta is, especially outside the winter months?
thank you in advance.
On the same day, the Times of Malta, a widely read local newspaper, published a report about a Pastafarian parodic protest which was planned in reaction to the pork barbecue organized at the same place by the Għaqda Patriotti Maltin (‘Maltese Patriots’ Alliance; renamed ‘Moviment Patrijotti Maltin’ in April 2016) to defend Maltese cultural identity, which they believed was being threatened by Muslims praying in open public spaces.
Both texts are related. This is not to imply that Agnès’s worry stemmed from the Pastafarians cooking pasta or even that it concerns the so-called ‘Maltese Patriots’ eating pork sausages on the streets of the island she was soon to visit. These are surely not the ‘terrible things’ which ‘overwhelmed’ Agnès. So what was Agnès worried about? It is difficult to know precisely from her message although the replies to her question in the forum do shed some light on the matter.
Commentators were quick to reassure Agnès that in Malta ‘migrants’ are ‘discreet’, that they are many fewer here than in her home country (France), and that they are given menial jobs like renting umbrellas and deckchairs on the beach. Perhaps Agnès was reassured by the thought that she will not witness the ‘terrible things’ that are ‘happening to these people’.
She positioned herself clearly against racism, yet she also clearly refuses to see ‘migrants’.
Her reference to Lampedusa strikes a somewhat illogical note, and here we can assume that she is worried about the ill-treatment inflicted on the African boat-people rescued and parked in closed camps on the island. We can safely say that she positioned herself clearly against racism, yet she also clearly refuses to see ‘migrants’. She knows, or at least, she has heard of ‘terrible things’, but the thought of participation frustrates her. Imagining herself witness these things inflicted upon these people is unbearable for her.
She would prefer to spend her holidays away from the harrowing images of people in ‘distress’. And in fact she never inquires into the general situation of third country nationals in Malta, limiting her question to the period during which she plans to visit the island; that is, ‘outside of the winter months’. She does not appear to be interested in the activities of the ‘Maltese Patriots’; nor does she seem to be overly concerned with the degree of racism in Malta as a whole, with the conditions of refugees and asylum seekers, with the complications attendant on securing protection status, the entanglements of the infamous Dublin treaty, nor the untenable situation in Maltese detention camps.
Agnès simply wants to know whether she can safely come to Malta and remain entirely ‘innocent’ by the end of her stay, much like her 8-year old son.
The plea for the right to remain ‘blind’ sheds light on an all-too-often overlooked demand: the advocation for the right to remain innocent.
But her plea for the right to remain ‘blind’, as jarring as it may feel to a many of us (because we have become attuned to the banal racism practiced by so many ‘innocents’ around us) is also crucial to note, because it sheds light on an all-too-often overlooked demand: the advocation for the right to remain innocent. To my mind, the most important strand of her message lies in her confessing to feelings of powerlessness, and her fear to become a ‘witness [to] such distress’, underlining this concern by claiming the right to preserve her son’s innocence.
I would like to explore what this ‘innocence’ implies. By this I do not mean to focus on guilt or fear, but rather, to talk about the impact of images one does not want to see, and to ultimately question our supposed ‘right’ to remain innocent.
The ‘Maltese Patriots’ and the Pastafarians have no desire to remain innocent. They plan spectacular actions in public spaces, they invite the media to be reported on and photographed. They want visibility for themselves and for their cause, and both want to bring under the spotlight the actions that they would rather not see. There is a game of visibility going on here. The ‘Maltese Patriots’ refuse to see Muslims praying in Malta, and Pastafarians do not want to see the nationalistic and racist reappropriation of Maltese culinary culture. All, including Agnès, question visibility in the public sphere.
However, the so-called migration crisis in Malta (and in Europe) cannot be said to be suffering from invisibility but rather from an overload of carefully edited and misleading images. The issue then is not invisibility per se but rather a spectacularization of the border, with cameras filming the huge military apparatus, naval operations, soldiers in uniform, the minister’s declarations and a mass of anonymous volunteers, in whose hands lie the population of the desperate, the alienated, the nameless, dark-skinned, impoverished migrants that are portrayed like a sea moving from one shore to another.
The so-called migration crisis in Malta (and in Europe) cannot be said to be suffering from invisibility but rather from an overload of carefully edited and misleading images.
We need to address the kind of representation these media images carry with them. But we should be equally incisive about the kind of dynamics at play when the celebrated contemporary artist Ai Weiwei chooses ‘Human Flow’ as a title for one of his films. What does this signify, exactly? Is it an unstoppable flow? A natural phenomenon? A homogenous plight? Does the kind of generalization, presented by Ai WeiWei with best possible intentions, really help to identify the multiple causes and cases of exile?
We know that people are not born as migrants, they become as such, and our aim is to reveal the dynamics that are shaping various people into being depicted through the grim images which we can all visualize today. Why are some people deemed to be threatening? Is it a coincidence that they are recurrently portrayed in tragic situations, living amongst rubbish and packed like slaves into barely floating vessels? The corpses of their children immobile on a beach or floating on the surface of the Mediterranean sea? Was it perhaps these images that had frightened Agnès to the point of—heaven forbid!—changing her holiday destination?
But images are not the only tool that constructs the figure of the migrant.
As much as one becomes a woman not only after understanding that pretty girls in the magazines are desirable, but after being asked to make stupid choices that men are not asked to make, it is state institutions, which, to a large extent, produce the female archetype or the migrant figure. State institutions like schools, hospitals, police forces, border controls, military forces are asking us to make choices, which are often fake choices. As much as women are asked, for instance, to choose between having children or having a job (because it is increasingly difficult to do both), refugees face a dramatic choice between remaining subjected to violence or embarking on a potentially fatal trip overseas. A trip that will quickly be branded ‘illegal’, despite the fact that no flight is illegal, according to the Geneva convention.
In the circumstance where the media, the police and judicial systems of ‘civilized European nations’ are constructing an image of the migrant, separating them from the citizens with visible and invisible borders, denying them constitutional rights, and homogenizing their identities, how could the very people subjugated as ‘migrants’ take a stand? What possibilities do they have to escape from the narrow cage they had been assigned to?
How are some people managing to defend their individuality and their right of speech? Is the stranger, the xenos, recognised as a knowledgeable person? Likewise, being on the other side of the fence, what actions can privileged Europeans take, once confronted by the distress of another person?
Most Europeans seem to take for granted their rights to welcome only select docile strangers: discreet, potentially exotic and amiable.
It appears that akin to the ‘Maltese Patriots’, Agnès did not want to be challenged by strangers. Most Europeans in fact seem to take for granted their rights to welcome only select docile strangers: discreet, potentially exotic and amiable. Strangers who will return to their place, which is ‘their country of origin’, or at least remain outside of the public sphere, far from Agnès’s eyes.
Naturally, the standpoints differ from each other: Agnès simply wished to avert her gaze—and that of her young son—away from any violence perpetrated on vulnerable people, while the ‘Maltese Patriots’ barbecue-based action was openly provocative. However, they both associated migration with distress and a generally negative impact on Maltese society. Thus, these positions are equally problematic because they both refuse to accept strangers as participants in social life.
While instances of open racism in Malta have continuously been challenged by organisations such as Aditus and Integra, to mention just two examples, I believe that Agnès’s position—more subtle yet very common—deserves to be questioned.
And so, my aim here is to share some thoughts about seeing, innocence and sympathy.
The great American writer Susan Sontag discussed this issue in her book Regarding the Pain of Others. Speaking about the universal desire to close our eyes when confronted with images of war and distress, she acknowledged that our fear of witnessing the pain of others was caused by our empathy coupled with an intense feeling of powerlessness.
Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. It is passivity that dulls everything.
Agnès seems to have thought: Unfortunately, I cannot do anything for these poor migrants. She went on to write: “Of course I am overwhelmed by what is happening to these people but I am feeling a bit powerless and I would not want to witness such distress and even less for my son.” As Sontag explains, “[…] it is because war, any war, doesn’t seem as if it can be stopped that people become less responsive to the horrors. Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. […] It is passivity that dulls everything.”
If compassion and powerlessness are to be blamed, then what kind of action is required?
For Sontag, action does not necessarily mean violent action, not even drastic decisions. It can be a reflection, a moment to pause and recognize not only the pain of the other, but also how much this pain could be linked to our lives. How much, even on holiday, one cannot expect to have a life that will have no consequences, possibly negative ones, for the lives of others. Although Sontag does not go as far as pointedly advocating for too-Western tendency towards generic all-encompassing guilt, nonetheless, she believes that sympathy is not enough. It may even be a highly misleading path to trod on, Sontag suggests, since it does not necessarily encourage us to reflect on the reasons for such horrors to occur.
Agnès thought it was sufficient to feel sorry about the distress of migrants in Malta, without wanting to know more about the reasons of this distress—the reasons that may very well be linked to her own political electoral choices, for instance.
Sympathy does not necessarily encourage us to reflect on the reasons for such horrors to occur.
Sontag warns us against the inherent limits of sympathy. “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not inappropriate—response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”
Letting ourselves be haunted by horrible images, as Sontag insists, should go beyond accepting the grave injustices; it should mobilize us to ask questions.
Today, photographs have constructed the figure of the migrant as the Other. Every day we see people who are portrayed ‘out of place’ in Europe, surrounded by rubbish, living in temporary shabby tents, walking in the mud and speaking languages that most Europeans do not understand. Can we be compassionate toward such ‘dirty people’?
Indeed, a number of campaigns have also sought to nurture compassion by emphasizing the similarities between the two sides of the European fence—by using familiar, non-threatening objects such as the mobile phone and the Teddy bear. But still, it seems that we do not expect the foreigner, the Other, to be similar to us. Compassion is not the sense that makes us feel part of the world.
It is precisely to preserve a make-believe innocence of those like Agnès managerial ordering of people takes place all over the world, including Europe.
It is precisely to preserve a make-believe innocence of those like Agnès such managerial ordering of people takes place all over the world, including Europe. Compassion once again has failed to confront Europeans with the grim realities of their co-citizens. The increase of state violence in European countries should be considered in this light. In this circumstances, what could encourage us to take responsibility for the distress of others?
We cannot keep averting our gaze from the distress of Africans on the other side of the border—be it a border fence or the Mediterranean Sea—like European leaders who sign treaties with Libya to keep the people in detention camps in which no journalist can enter. Here Europeans act just like the white Americans whom Baldwin calls innocents, protected behind a wall—like Agnès hiding away in her hotel—fearing any confrontation with a frightening state of affairs: “These innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe, are losing their grasp of reality“.
The American and European innocents are what German philosopher Friedrich Hegel called the ‘beautiful soul’ in his Phenomenology of the Spirit. The ‘beautiful soul’ only sees beauty and harmony everywhere, everything is well ordered, everyone is in their place and receives what is theirs by right. The distant world is just altered by a few barbarians that maintain disorder, so that overall, Evil is always kept at a safe distance.
The beautiful soul is desperately trying to keep herself ignorant of what is happening, and most importantly, does not pause to consider why it is happening.
The beautiful soul does not consider herself responsible for what happens in the world. She has a solid, good conscience that is only maintained by means of the same blindness that leads her to seek out safe, established touristic trajectories. The beautiful soul is unable to engage with the distressing reality and thus pushes it far far away—to the other shores, across the sea. In fact, the beautiful soul is desperately trying to keep herself ignorant of what is happening, and most importantly, does not pause to consider why it is happening. She wants distractions, entertaining spectacles. She wants peaceful holidays at the beach, anything that can prevent discussing the status quo.
How can we jolt awake the ‘beautiful soul’, the innocent European who refuses to recognize that violence could be inflicted upon others in her holiday destination? Baldwin, who was a devout Christian before becoming an atheist, proposed to reverse the power game, and advised his fellow subjugated black Americans to commit an act of love towards the ‘innocents’. For Baldwin, reality can only be revealed and told by the oppressed. Arguably, migrants are not the problem but the solution, since a society can only face its own grim realities through an active engagement between its multiple others.
Exiled people, forced travelers and refugees do not want a condescending sympathy.
The stranger does not have to be ‘like us’ or to be the object of our compassion. As Baldwin explained, “I do not know any Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them: they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.” Indeed, exiled people, forced travelers and refugees do not want a condescending sympathy, a tolerated integration, nor a good-hearted charity. No more victims than European exploited proletarian workers, the people that are coming to seek refuge in Europe have the right to be different as much as the right to take part in social life.
Since the divide between ethnically ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ people is coming at an extremely high cost, even for the ‘local’ EU-citizens, I believe that the place given to foreigners in European societies is what should be addressed as a key priority. The first question should therefore be: can European societies perceive the stranger as a knowledgeable person, whose opinion can contribute to society as much as his or her productive labor? Certainly, in order to accept that strangers are part and parcel of society, one needs to accept being confronted with the reality outside of one’s comfortable capsule.
Finally, I would like to stress that between insensibly bending towards a cynical xenophobia or closing one’s compassionate eyes to remain an innocent and beautiful soul, the only alternative is to enter the public and political space of action—’the world’ that comes to an end with the rise of totalitarianism.
Elise Billiard is an anthropologist. She is a visiting lecturer at the Department of Sociology and at the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of Malta. She is also Strand Coordinator for the Valletta2018 Foundation. She has published in peer reviewed as well as in online journals. Finally, she is a member of the Institute of Utopian Studies.
[*] typo in the original text.
This is a modified version of the essay originally published in the catalogue of to be [defined], an artistic-anthropological exhibition, which forms part of RIMA project.