Recently I have read a few Facebook posts that have made my blood boil. They don’t sit right with me. I will share why with you because I believe we can all learn from this. The posts were along these lines:
- An African child who is about to die of starvation looking miserable or completely hopeless with words like ’10 000 people starve to death everyday, share this picture if you hate starvation’.
- A video that goes for 4 minutes filled with images of starving people in Africa and India looking helpless and hopeless with statistics of poverty and then at the end it says ‘what are we doing about this? Be grateful for what you have. We need to stop hunger. Share this video and like my blog if you want to end poverty’.
So at face value there is nothing wrong with sharing facts about poverty, or images, to a certain extent. After all, I previously volunteered for the Make Poverty History campaign and I run my own charity that educates children in Zimbabwe. But there are three reasons why sharing images like this actually does more harm than good:
At the end of the day seeing image after image of someone else’s suffering does not empower the person who is suffering or empower us to make real changes. What it does is feed our obsession of viewing images of extreme suffering. In the instance of extreme poverty, unless we plan on doing something to help the person it is not our pain to share or even ‘look in on’. We can become obsessed with it in order to ‘feel good about ourselves’. Yet this thought makes me feel slightly sick. Poverty voyeurism is damaging not only to the person living in poverty, but also to the person looking in. Any voyeurism can be damaging.
2. False sense of righteousness.
By sharing or liking an image or video, a person can feel a sense of ‘doing my bit’, which can then justify not actually doing anything resourceful to empower that person. It can give people a false sense of righteousness, or satisfaction. It can alleviate them from donating, signing worthy petitions, volunteering or educating the public on the actual issue at hand and what can be done to solve it (yes, I know it might come as a surprise to you, but liking a picture is not a solution to world hunger).
3. Other people’s suffering increases my gratitude and appreciation.
I have read many times people say “this is a great reminder as to how lucky we are to live here, and how fortunate we are to have so much food. I feel so grateful now.” I am sure the person in that image is thinking, “I only hope my suffering helps to increase your gratitude and appreciation. It is such a pleasure to assist you with that” (*sarcasm intended).
When I lived in developing countries and worked with people suffering they all had common needs, they are:
- A need for dignity and respect
- To be empowered, not pitied.
When someone else’s suffering makes us feel better about ourselves we disempower and exploit the person suffering for our own benefit.
We need to be grateful and to appreciate what we have despite what other people have. Every day I am thankful that I married my husband, not because other people cannot marry him, but because he enriches my life. It should be that way with everything. Our gratitude and appreciation for having enough food should not be based on the fact that others are starving, rather on the fact that we have food, plain and simple. The fact that others don’t shouldn’t make us more appreciative of what we have, rather encourage us to support or help in a practical way. Not out of pity or a false sense of righteousness, but because of our values and ethics, and our sense of justice. We can use our privilege for more than to feed our own sense of gratitude and happiness.
Before you quickly share another graphic image of human suffering, I ask you all to ask yourself these questions:
- Can I do something to help change their situation that will empower them and give them dignity? Do I know of someone who I can speak to?
- Does their suffering directly relate to me? Am I personally involved?
Be grateful and appreciate the wonderful things you have everyday, not because others do not have it, but because they are just simply beautiful and enrich your life, even if everyone else on the planet had it.
Megan is founder of be the change and is a leadership coach and education consultant. Megan is also the President of the Edge Foundation.