28 July 2011

Us and Them: The Limits of a Narrowed Worldview

I wrote this yesterday morning, just before the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee voted to cut USAID funds, eliminate contributions to UNFPA, and redeuce money give to the UN. This act, I believe is a symptom of the 'us' vs. 'them' mentality that I get to in this post.
The past week has experienced the convergence of four high profile tragedies. The ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa impacts millions, Amy Winehouse died after a long battle with substance abuse, a single man terrorized Oslo killing nearly 70 people, and a two trains collided head on killing 39. All have happened in quick succession and all have lead to some very hasty reporting.

This lead some people to comment on twitter and blogs about the rapid changing media from one story to another and the drive for sensationalism. Some argued that the millions affected by the drought in the Horn of Africa should be getting far more media coverage relative to the other tragedies.

There is no doubt that there not only needs to be more coverage, but better coverage. Owen Barder, Ed Carr and More Altitude have written excellent posts on this. However, any loss of life should not be weighed as more tragic than any other.

This kind of binary view of lives having greater or lesser value is a serious problem. Either extreme misses the point. One side will place greater value on the self or what is local. So they will argue that Americans should take care of America first. This has become a favorite argument for commentators who want to end foreign aid. I listen to my fair share of conservative radio and it has become one of the favorites amidst the budget crisis.

The argument goes that we are experiencing hard times and need to prioritize ourselves above all others. It is easy to see why this argument would lend itself to the idea of eliminating foreign aid and also why entitlements are the next target on the list.

This narrow view of humanity is dangerous. It is why the death of Amy Winehouse resonates more strongly within some people. To some, the loss is a great musician and singer. This can make her passing seem more important, because it is felt personally. People dying of starvation or being shot by a gunman have a distance between what we have experienced in our every day lives.

Food insecurity, for most Americans, is something that is never considered. Many are unaware of the privilege of being born into a nation with such a strong economy and chance to make a reasonable living. This breeds a disconnect on the basic level of humanity.

Bec Hamilton articluates this point well in the conclusion section of her excellent book Fighting for Darfur(review will be written soon).
[I]f sacrifices paid by those inside our borders continue to weigh much heavier than the benefits they accrue to people outside our borders, then we do not have the legitimacy to ask China or any other country to disrupt its national priorities to help the citizens of a foreign country. And it makes little sense to speak of the political will of those in power when, as now, the system they are working within is structurally aligned with the idea that the comfort and the well-being of people "here" matter more than life or death for people "there."
Peter Singer makes the same rough argument when he describes his 'drowning child' scenario. I think that Bec says it better by pointing out the problems with viewing people as 'us' and 'them.' Those arguing that the Horn of Africa needs further coverage should expand their view when considering the other tragedies this week. They are right, but have an opportunity to point out that unnecessary death and suffering are unacceptable regardless of the circumstance.

What connects these four events is that there are ways that they can be addressed and mitigated. Sadly, three have come to pass and there is no way back. The Horn of Africa is a place where this trend can and should be reserved. Food aid and relief can save lives and further support can hopefully prevent this from happening again.