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Riding the wave of compassion

Why has the UK media turned the Asian tsunami into a story All About Us?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The initial headlines, proclaiming tens of thousands dead in the largest natural disaster in living memory, were enough to make people care about the plight of the tsunami’s victims. We didn’t need the constant flow of bloated bodies on British TV screens, the pictures of orphaned children, the endless stories of the horror, to make us sympathise with the people killed, maimed or displaced by the tragedy, to make us want to help in whatever small way we could.

And we really didn’t need the barrage of stories and commentaries aiming to bring the disaster closer to home, by turning it into a story that is apparently All About Us. From the disproportionate interest given to British tourists, to the stories about who is giving what and how much to the emergency aid appeal, to the trite moral homilies on how this disaster may signal a new era of compassionate giving, the official and media reactions to the tsunami have narrowed into self-obsession with appalling, if predictable, haste.

What started as a major human tragedy has been deftly turned into a grisly Shared International Experience, in which we are all supposed to take part for the sake of our own self-esteem. This is an insult to the victims of the disaster, and an insult to the British public – who were not vicariously hurt by the tsunami, and don’t need to be healed by the wave of compassion that follows it.

We read, on the front page of the Sun, about a 13-year-old boy who ‘sells off Xmas toys with his pals to raise £275 for tsunami’. The front page of the Daily Mail reproduces a letter from one elderly reader enclosing his pension for the entire week. The Observer tells a tale of ‘individual heroism’ – a father who saved his wife and three young children from perishing in the wave by tying them to a coconut tree.

This is the happy news, amid the grim roll call of lost Britons and celebrities’ relatives, and strangely fluffy should-you/shouldn’t-you articles about the possible effects of the tsunami upon your forthcoming Thai holiday. And yes, as examples of individual generosity and keeping one’s head in the face of adversity, the happy news is admirable stuff. But are these actions so extraordinary that we should be somehow shocked by them, and need reminding again and again and again?

It should be expected that, in the face of disaster, people should want to help out. People are generally decent, compassionate and able to recognise their common humanity with others – even those who are not British tourists. This spontaneous desire to help is a good thing.

But within moments, this spontaneous compassion became politicised and media-managed, to the extent that every giver is now presumed deserving of a moral medal, and every (British) tsunami survivor presumed deserving of a bravery award. Newspaper editorials froth with admiration about their readers’ generosity (and every newspaper, of course, wants to have the most generous readers). Politicians fawn over their giving nation as they stumble along, playing catch-up with public donations. Saint Bob Geldof, of Live Aid fame, talks of 2005 being an extraordinary year of compassion and kindness.

It is as though, without enough pats on the back from the high-and-mighties and reminders that holidaymakers Just Like Us perished in the tidal wave too, people would simply switch channels and spend their pennies down the pub. As though enough pats on the back will ensure the moral rebirth of the British nation, from a land of disengaged consumers to a community of givers that feels the world’s pain.

The breathless appreciation of the UK public’s charity in the face of this disaster betrays an extraordinary level of contempt. It is presumed that we cannot be expected to relate to any world event unless it can be given direct relevance to our lives (however contrived such attempts at relevance are), and that insularity and selfishness are the normal character traits that the tsunami has, miraculously, subverted. This view of people is not only miserablist – it is counterproductive.

The desire to pump up what is presumed to be the British public’s newfound generosity has turned the swathe of post-tsunami giving into something rather less worthy than it was to begin with. The spontaneous desire to help has become ritualised; the humane response to the suffering of others has been transformed into an experience that people should apparently want to be a part of for their own sake. What started as a sentiment of compassion is in danger of becoming another exercise in self-flattery, as we are encouraged to give, not to do good, but to feel good. This will do nothing to help the victims of the tsunami – and will do the British public no good either.

Read on:

After the tsunami: horrifying, but not ‘humbling’, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics

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