Mrs. Jellyby: suffering as spectacle

November 19, 1995|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Balkan savagery is forcing Americans to think through a moral dilemma that brings to mind one of the great comic figures of English fiction -- Mrs. Jellyby in Charles Dickens' ''Bleak House.''

She makes a brief but telling appearance in a brilliant essay soon to be published in The National Interest quarterly.

The essay is ''Compassion and the Globalization of the Spectacle of Suffering,'' by Clifford Orwin of the University of Toronto.

Mrs. Jellyby was the ditzy do-gooder who practiced ''telescopic philanthropy.'' Her children were neglected and London's poor went unnoticed outside her window because her gaze was fixed on the suffering natives of Borrioboola-Gha. She had, Dickens wrote, handsome eyes but ''they could see nothing nearer than Africa.''

Today, writes Mr. Orwin, because of television, everyone's gaze can be fixed on -- can hardly avoid being fixed on -- the plight of distant people. This television ''window on the distress of fellow human beings'' is often thrown open as the suffering is actually ++ occurring, and humanitarians hope that the instantaneous global dissemination of heart-rending pictures of agony will soften hearts and prompt humanitarian interventions.

One in a million

Mr. Orwin has doubts. Compassion, he says, depends on imagination, which is why children manifest little of it. It is axiomatic: One death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic. We can imagine the former. Television pictures of real victims are ''pegs on which to hang our imagination.''

But before ''looking to television to effect universal moral regeneration,'' Mr. Orwin warns, note that ''images of televised suffering trade at a substantial discount.''

They can be turned off, or tuned out. Note the rhythm of the typical newscast, which begins with gravity and, long before 30 minutes have elapsed, is lighter than air, offering bulletins about the effect of beets on balding. Television audiences want to be entertained, ''and the right amount of suffering is entertaining -- but only the right amount of it.''

Television has a large menu of sufferers to choose from, and viewers can choose which to feel compassion for, until FTC compassion exhaustion sets in. There is, as Mr. Orwin says, an ''interchangeableness of the sufferers'' that prevents powerful affective links between the viewers and the viewed and prevents television from developing permanent constituencies for any suffering group.

Mere humanitarianism toward distant victims, as distinct from communal identification by viewers with similar people similarly situated, is, he writes, ''fickle and highly unstable. To find, as the Good Samaritan did, a single victim by the roadside is one thing. To confront a succession of them on television, all very far from us and widely scattered around the globe, is something else entirely.''

Wishes are enough

Which brings him to the heart of the matter: ''Our humanitarian impulses may fire, but they will also tend to sputter. On the one hand, we wish that we could help; on the other, we are only too likely to feel ourselves absolved by the fact of this very wish.''

Humanitarian intervention is noble precisely because it is not urgent -- not closely connected to vital national interests. So there is a mixture of high moral content and low practical content to humanitarian commitments that nations make.

Mr. Orwin says we resolve this ambiguity by saying that humanitarian interventions justify the expenditure of treasure but not lives. The result is a compound of interventionism and isolationism, expressed in multilateralism.

To comfort the onlookers

A German commentator says Western initiatives in the Balkans have been intended primarily to ease the sufferings of onlookers. A European diplomat, explaining his country's policy of neither intervening forcefully nor altogether refraining from intervening, cites the ''CNN factor.'' The Balkans are a television tragedy, Mr. Orwin notes, to be coped with on television by using images of symbolic concern to neutralize images of actual suffering.

He warns that ''the new abundance of televised suffering'' may desensitize rather than sensitize viewers, who become ''voyeurs the global village.'' Compassion's horizons become broader, but compassion becomes thin gruel.

We have seen something like this before. At the dawn of television, people worried that it would unhinge constitutional balance by making presidents irresistibly powerful.

Instead, it has miniaturized most of them by making them promiscuous claimants for the attention of the country, which is indifferent when not disdainful. People hoping that televised suffering will cure hardness of heart may be in for a similar surprise.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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