An odd thing often happens whenever I post a meme on Facebook to raise awareness–and, I hope, concern–about suffering in the Third World. Comments are often made to the effect of distracting people from the issue raised. When the Ice Bucket Challenge was a trend last year, I posted memes criticizing the frivolous waste of water, and reminding First Worlders of how difficult it is for people in Africa to get access to potable water.
People responded with the usual snark, like advising saving water while showering, or saying it’s bad to guilt-trip people who are trying to ‘make a difference’ by raising awareness about ALS. The notion that people can save water by just donating money to the cause, without making soaking-wet buffoons of themselves, apparently was too difficult for them to grasp. But of course, that was all beside the point: raising sympathy for Third World suffering isn’t about making people feel guilty for dumping freezing cold water on themselves; nor is it about distracting us from other charitable work. The reverse, on the other hand, seems very true to me. Criticizing the memes’ criticism of the Ice Bucket Challenge seems to shame those who would raise sympathy for the Third World, and to distract us from focusing on how we can try to end the suffering of people in developing countries.
Another meme I posted was of two emaciated Africans, a mother giving her child water to drink. The caption read, “So, you think you have problems?” Here’s another one with the same in-your-face message.
Some may say this kind of caption is tactless and poorly-worded, but I still consider its message valid, for as I interpreted the meme, it was referring to these kinds of problems. One response I received was from someone who obviously reads too much right-wing propaganda. He spouted the usual ignorant nonsense: “They [i.e., the poor in the Third World] should stop breeding!” That these people earn so little a day they’re forced to reproduce just to help them survive (i.e., to have their sons and daughters raise money as child labourers for their families) was lost on this guy, as was the reality of Western imperialists exploiting Africa for resources. He blamed their woes on their local, corrupt governments, ignoring how those dictators are simply the puppets of Western imperialism.
Now, I expect such twaddle from conservatives. Far more depressing it is, however, when fellow Leftists and anarchists deflect us from the needed focus on the plight of the poor in developing countries. Comments I received on one of the anarchist pages I manage on FB included a statement to the effect that one shouldn’t guilt-trip others about being preoccupied with things like “crippling depression” by making them seem insignificant compared with Third World suffering.
To assess this comment fairly, the person in question acknowledged the seriousness of poverty in the developing world: also, it would be wrong to reduce to nothingness such problems as depression, the plight of LGBT people, etc., just because many of these sufferers live in the First World. That said, however, the purpose of the post was not to make those people feel guilty: it was to tell all of us in the West, regardless of how large or small our problems may be, to put our suffering in perspective.
A Brief Digression, If You’ll Indulge Me
Perhaps my mentioning the following won’t convince the reader that I don’t have a dismissive attitude towards depression or the troubles that transgender people go through; but recently I found myself having lengthy conversations with two FB friends of mine, one from Iceland who was struggling with a chronic depression, the other having bravely revealed to me that she is a trans-woman. The time I spent listening to these two women tell me what was troubling them, and the effort I made to encourage them certainly deepened my friendship with them.
The Icelandic woman, actually quite a photogenic model, was unhappy because she felt she hadn’t done much with her life; she told me she has repeatedly had these self-doubts over quite a long period of time. I reminded her of the many impressive modelling photo shoots I’ve seen of her, and of her beautiful daughter, I’m guessing about 8 or 9, someone my sad friend can only be proud of as a mother. Judging by her more recent posts, she seems much happier now. I don’t know how much my little pep talk helped in this overall recovery, but by the end of our IM chat, her spirits seemed much raised.
As for my second friend, her problems seem much more serious. She suffered terrible physical and emotional abuse from her religiously conservative guardian, hardly any kind of a father, who insisted she was a ‘boy’.
Since then, she–quite a talented guitarist and singer, whose music I’d gladly share here for you to enjoy, except that I don’t want to expose her identity to trolling from bigoted cyberbullies–has been in the middle of sexual reassignment surgery, and hasn’t enough money to finish it. She is extremely unhappy because she wants to move to France, but her passport says she’s ‘male,’ and she can’t get the authorities to change the sex on the page. She’s already too feminine-looking, in physical appearance and mannerisms, to fake looking like a man while going through customs.
While my chats with her have hardly brought a solution to her problems within reach, they have certainly made us become closer friends; they have also helped me appreciate the unique problems that transgender people go through day to day.
Now that I have acknowledged such issues as regrettably affect many in the developed world, let’s have some real perspective. Let us begin by considering this: did my meme’s critics consider that some people in the Third World are transgender, too? That many there also suffer from crippling depression? I assure my readers that the impoverished have much more to be depressed about than, say, people in G8 countries. And women’s oppression? Consider women in the Third World, suffering such problems as genital mutilation, honour beatings, denial of education, and the like. With regard to issues concerning the sexes, what do people in the First World tend to complain about? Men sitting on NYC subways with their legs spread too wide! (I plan to deal with issues of this sort in my next blog entry; its complexity is beyond the scope of this essay.)
But let’s consider some real problems, those suffered in developing countries. People starving to death by the millions each year (especially children under five), when we produce enough food to feed the whole world, easily–food that often goes to waste in G8 countries. Consider the inaccessibility of potable water in, for example, much of Africa. Consider how children are forced to work instead of going to school, just so their families have enough money–barely enough–to live on? We in our well-lit, air-conditioned rooms tend to forget this. Again, my purpose in saying all of this is not to ‘shame’ First Worlders (after all, I’m one of them): it is to provide perspective on our problems. And maybe to teach us a little humility.
Consider Third Worlders, including children, those who are lured into lives of slavery, for example, those in Ivory Coast who make chocolate or coffee for us as we sit in comfort in such places as Starbucks, which, though it doesn’t (to my knowledge) have slave labour produce its coffee, does exploit child coffee growers in the Third World to produce their coffee cheaply. Women and girls who are forced into prostitution. Imagine the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse they are subjected to; I was subjected to emotional abuse and gas-lighting by a bullying bourgeois family when I was young; but I realize that the poor in African, southeast Asian, and Latin American countries suffer far worse when they’re subjected to the same abuse, and they haven’t the money or wherewithal to escape as I had. I don’t shame myself when I realize their greater suffering–I enlighten myself with that realization.
Consider the lack of medicine in the Third World: AIDS victims in Africa who die out of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. How many die of diseases, perfectly curable diseases, provided one has access to proper medical care, mind you? With the trillion dollars that the US spends building up its military to kill people, imagine how all that money could be spent to save people. Because we must remember that all this pillaging of the Third World is done to ensure our comfort in the First World, a comfort that allows us to delude ourselves into thinking that a ‘shaming’ meme causes a suffering worthier of our attention than a suffering caused by poverty, malnutrition, and disease. Apparently, ‘shaming’ is a worse fate than death.
Indeed, another ‘comment’ made about that second FB meme, one made on both of my anarchist pages, was made by someone who actually had the presumptuous arrogance to say that such memes “invariably” are made to shame people, and that such memes’ distraction from other forms of oppression are a form of oppression in themselves. That’s extraordinary: raising awareness of poverty in the world is “invariably” a form of oppression, rather than an attempt to fight it. (Seriously: the commenter used the word “invariably”.) Frankly, I must say that the kind of self-absorption the commenter showed, pitted against the plight of millions of starving people, is genuinely deserving of a good shaming. But that’s none of my business…
To be sure, there are all kinds of suffering and oppression in the world, all problems that need remedying as soon as possible. But some problems are clearly more urgent than others, and those people who simply point out this reality don’t deserve to be shamed for saying so, let alone have their perspective ignored. When (I hope when, and not if) a socialist revolution finally happens, regardless of it being one of libertarian socialism (as I’d prefer) or of the Leninist variety, our comrades’ first priority will be to get food, medicine, and proper educational institutions to all developing countries. They need these things as soon as possible. They. Are. Dying.
We must also remember that, while helping those in the Third World is a must, leaving the Third World alone is, too. Western imperialism is what caused the Third World: all the plundering and exploitation of cheap labour is what caused their poverty in the first place. Some like to blame the victim (like that right-wing dolt I referred to earlier), and claim their problem is just their own supposed backwardness. Nothing could be farther from the truth: their people thrived and did well before the white man came along and ruined everything for them. One of the best ways we can help them is by getting out of their countries, and letting them develop for themselves.
I’m no Third-Worldist or Maoist, and I hope my all-too-easy conflating of concepts like Third World, developing countries, First World, and developed countries (or G8 countries, for that matter) doesn’t irritate the reader too much. If my terminology isn’t too precise, I hope that doesn’t distract too much from the general message.
We must always be mindful of the fact that, though we in the West are irked by the hegemony of the 1%, we First Worlders are the 1% of the world. Our global privilege, all at the Third World’s expense, has made us so comfortable and complacent that our own revolutionary potential is severely crippled, if not virtually nonexistent. The wars that imperialism fights may benefit the super-rich most of all, but we in the developed countries also benefit, if to a lesser extent, from the looting of natural resources from the Third World. Even the poor and the starving in, for example, America, though admittedly in a terrible plight, aren’t anywhere near as bad off as those in the least developed countries of the world. Informing us of this isn’t shaming: it’s an opening of our eyes, and a turning them away from our navels.