Sunday, August 2, 2015

Social Media: Whose Cause is More Important?


The course has finished but I thoroughly enjoyed it and lately there's been something that has really gotten to me so I thought I'd post about it.

In the past couple of weeks, two pretty horrible things have happened - first this...

The Deaths of Black Women While in Police Custody in the US

African American women dying in police custody, something horrendous that I'm sure has happened before, but now with social media and it's ability to shine light on the injustices in our society it's something that people are learning more about and are understandably outraged.

And secondly, this...

The Hunting of Cecil the Lion

A lion involved in a research project was killed illegally in Zimbabwe, skinned and beheaded by an American dentist to the tune of $50,000.

One of the most important lessons that I learned throughout the last semester of my Masters is that when you're dealing with public health issues, everyone has their own idea of where the money and attention should go.  For some, it's HIV/AIDS, for others it's chronic illnesses, mental health, child nutrition and education, the list goes on.  This issue was ever present in our disaster scenarios, for some, it was all about saving the most vulnerable in communities- the children....  Oh, how some people wanted to save the children before anyone else and shame on anyone who thought differently.  I mean, how could they not want to save these helpless babes?

But, then again, children left to their own devices with no parents to care for them will probably have a tough road ahead of them.  Children alone can't rebuild a community and the fact of the matter is that because children are helpless, they are also considered...  well, a burden (yes, I know it's not PC to say that, but in disaster scenarios you have to think about saving people who will be assets to the rebuilding process, you also have to think about who is most likely to survive-> save as many as you can-> children struggle to look after themselves and may not last long with no one to care for them).

The reason that I bring this up is that the people in our class all had different backgrounds, experiences, professions and opinions about where the resources should go and that was never more evident than when you put them in a group and asked them to come up with a disaster management scenario.  Essentially, when they were told: "decide who lives and who dies-> who matters most?" needless to say, all hell broke loose.

What the process of working in disaster management teams taught me was that you don't get very far when you point at someone and say: "your opinions are invalid, the things that you value, your beliefs and what you decide to give attention to are ridiculous in the face of this other issue that anyone with half a brain could clearly see is so much more important".  Generally, you just end up starting an argument, the group becomes divided and people get really defensive.  It's pretty hard to be productive with people feeling that way.

If we're talking about a scale of importance, I would personally put human lives above all else.  But, that's just my view.  Those women were the loves of peoples' lives, they were daughters, sisters, friends and they had dreams of what their lives would be.  They've been ripped from this world forever and those dreams will never become a reality.

I'm also an animal lover and I think that what happened to the lion is pretty awful.

The fact is that I could spend my entire life arguing the ridiculousness of laws in America- the craziest of which of course is the right to bear arms.  There really is no need to have a fail safe "right" to mount a militia in case the government turns on its own people.  For one thing it goes entirely against the government's own best interest to turn against its people, plus, they have drones and the most powerful army in the world- I hardly think arming yourself with a hand gun or even several semi-automatic is going to make a whole lot of difference.  I could go on and on about how people are more likely to be on the receiving end of their own firearm than protecting themselves with it, but at this stage all arguments seem moot.  The bigger issue is that instead of building communities that take care of each other, it creates ones in which people are afraid of one another.  It implies that at some stage, someone is going to attack you (also with a gun- because, well, they're allowed to have one), so you need to arm yourself.  It's likely that someone in your community at some stage is going to try and kill you and your family, so you NEED a gun.  Naturally, paranoia ensues.

But, what else does this law do?  In short, it gives people an excuse to hide behind when they shoot someone.  What we consistently see happening as a result is African Americans being shot and the police/armed individuals shooting them claiming that they "thought they had a gun"- and most of the time, that's enough to get them off.  Someone loses their life for no real reason, but in a society where everyone is paranoid, it seems like reasonable thought has led way to: "oh, you thought that person may have a weapon even though he didn't and you never actually saw one?  good thing you shot him first!!  Especially since he's not white, naturally you had to assume that he would have a gun."  Now that person gets to be someone who was just scared and protecting themselves rather than a murderer.

If we look at the statistics, African Americans are more likely to be shot than any other group in America, yet they themselves are far less likely to be gun owners compared to their caucasian counterparts.  This fact is even more interesting when you think about who makes up the biggest proponent of gun rights in the US - rich white men.  Tackling the race problem in the US has already taken decades and unfortunately barring some miracle will likely take more and there's no law that will magically change things.  But, at least getting rid of guns would take away the excuse most often provided in the case of shooting an unarmed black man (or woman) -> "I thought they were armed".  Instead the person who takes that life is held responsible without a get out of jail free card and I'm betting that would give police officers pause before they pull the trigger.

Anyways, now social media has started to pit both of these incidents against each other in a sort of "you think that's bad, you're so far off the mark and now I'm going to tell you about what you should be angry about!" as if the weight of those stories should have ever been on equal footing to begin with.  Part of the trouble is that people don't like being told they're wrong or that they've got their priorities mixed up.  So, instead of yielding support for both and recognising the importance of each and trying to figure out what to do about them, we're arguing about which is more important.  It's sort of the equivalent of: "Oh yeah?  you think your day was bad?  Let me tell you about mine and we'll see whose was worse!"  Instead of just listening to each other and recognising the value in what the other person went through and saying "that's awful, tell me more and maybe we can talk about how to change that"

Now, let's look at the lion poaching incident.  The details of the killing were released immediately as part of the story and they are pretty gruesome- it's hard not to feel a bit sick picturing the lion's head mounted on a wall somewhere.  But, if we look beyond what exactly happened to the lion itself, we see that it's not just an animal rights issue.  The fact is that there are local people who risk their lives defending the wildlife in Africa every single day.  They are often modestly armed and trained and they're up against expert poachers.  It's an extremely dangerous job and the truth of the matter is that it would be much more financially lucrative for them as individuals to help the poachers instead.  In a place where money goes so far and has so much sway, it says a lot that they are willing to risk their lives for the protection of wildlife and a significantly smaller paycheck.

Why is it important that they do this job?  Sustainability.  If the wildlife isn't properly protected, that will likely mean fewer jobs for future national park workers and less money for the economies of those countries.   They're looking at the situation long-term, less money now for them as individuals, but hopefully more money for their communities in the long run, maybe even higher education and jobs for their children and grandchildren.  In short, there are people risking their lives for this daily, people who have died and will die in the process of protecting these animals while others are spending their lives studying them to help ensure that those species have a future.  As a researcher, I know how much my work has meant to me- the sweat, tears and time away from my family- so I can only imagine what it means to have invested 13 years into a subject to have it's life and the results of your data end that way.

Yet another comparison that has been made is between the lion poaching and a photo taken of a starving child during the Sudanese famine in the 90s.  The photo in question was of a small malnourished child crouching as a vulture stood in wait in the background.  That photo is routinely included the lists of the most important historical photos ever taken.  It brought about a tremendous amount of emotion in people around the world and the public outcry that it sparked not only shaped the public's view of that famine and the situation in Sudan, but altered the very way that people think about the ethics of taking photos of individuals in times of crisis.   For the first time in history, a discussion occurred about the responsibility of a photographer to his or her subjects.   Should he have tried to help the child?  Was it unethical to photograph the child in such a state, especially if he didn't help her?  What about that child's dignity?  Or the dignity of that child's family and community?  Did the photographer take advantage of that awful situation?  Or, was the fact that he was taking that photo to raise awareness that would likely lead to more aid enough to warrant his actions?

The photograph went on to win the Pulitzer, one of the most prestigious awards our society has.  But, the controversy over the photo, the response that it received in the court of public opinion combined with the guilt that the photographer felt over the situation led him to commit suicide not long after.  To say that no one cared about the girl in that photo or the situation in the Sudan (especially once they saw evidence of the devastation) is just an outright lie and a pretty offensive one at that.  That photo had more repercussions than anyone could have ever imagine.  What we learned from it should shape the way all individuals take photos of people in crisis moving forward.

Famine is always the result of both human and natural factors and it was as true for the Irish potato famine as it was in Somalia between 2011 and 2012.  Conflict, poor political management of resources, etc, all mean that despite advance knowledge of upcoming food shortages, it's often dangerous and/or futile to try and get aid to those areas.  In the end, it's not really a situation where you can just blindly throw money or attention at the problem to make it go away, but more an issue of trying to figure out the best way to approach the problem.  In Somalia, the most effective approach to providing aid ended up being via Muslim countries and organisations- as it turned out, Al-Shabaab didn't have as much of a problem allowing them in to provide help, they trusted them.  Ultimately, that trust allowed those organisations to access people in desperate need of aid.  It wasn't the approach that would have typically been taken, but it worked.  Most people have no idea know nothing of the details of the famine in Somalia or what organisations were the most effective, that doesn't mean they didn't care or want to help.

The human race isn't that bad, people do care, but sometimes they feel so helpless about a situation that they would rather not think about it for too long.

So, why am I writing this?  Because I think there are so many issues deserving of our attention, from what's happening to African American communities in the States to the rebuilding of communities in Nepal to the plight of Wildlife in the Serengeti.  But, I think we miss the mark when we make it about which one is more important, or which one deserves the most "likes" or "#hashtags" - all of the sudden it's not about that issue anymore, it's about comparing ourselves to others.  Now we're criticising each other instead of the people who committed the horrible acts to begin with, the very people who should in fact be at the receiving end of our collective outrage and derision.

If we're going to rally against the ridiculousness of what society considers important based on #social media trends, I think we focus our energy on criticising the continuous presence of say, the Kardashians in, well, everything.  Somebody named Khloe came to Australia to promote something or other and that was apparently newsworthy...?  The other day the news station we watch in the morning spent 10 minutes on why Prince George was wearing a similar outfit to the one that his dad wore 30 years ago and what that says about the royal family.  TEN.  MINUTES.


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