In the media, the ratio of bad news to good is, needless to say, very high. This should come as no surprise to anyone when you consider both the business model of the news industry and the simple facts of life on Earth. The news media—especially the TV media—depend on people to stay hooked on their channel. TV, a real-time medium, is visceral and emotional; what is broadcast over the tube needs to have an emotional hook in order to keep you there. Bad news definitely qualifies because it invokes the fear instinct. This may well be the most primal instinct we have. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors, lacking physical reflexes to match those of animals that would prey on them as well as effective weaponry, relied on this instinct to protect themselves from predators. That twitch of horror you feel upon hearing about a child who was kidnapped and murdered? That’s an instinctive reaction left over from when we feared being the meal of a carnivorous animal. Knowing what the reaction is may tend to help alleviate the visceral horror that we feel upon hearing such things; at least it does for some of us.
But every once in a while, a news story will appear that is so awful that I don’t even want to know about it. The earthquake in Haiti is a perfect example. And before you immediately think, “This person is a sociopath just like Rush Limbaugh,” let me explain. I have been avoiding this story. The imagery that I have seen (it’s almost impossible to completely avoid the news in the information age) reminds me all too well of the images of human misery that came out of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. However, for all that this was part of my reason for not staying up-to-date with this one, that is not the primary reason I have been avoiding the story.
For all my life, I have been a “can-do” type of person. I am a Type A personality, an INTP (sometimes INTJ) on the Myers-Briggs, and an Enneagram personality type of “Achiever.” My ambition has taken different directions, and unfortunately it has sometimes had to struggle against stress or illness, but it has always had an object. It’s very difficult for a person like me to say, “I can do nothing about this.” Middle-class life in a first world country, high intelligence (it’s not boasting if it’s the truth), decent health, and they ultimately mean nothing for some situations. But that is the conclusion I have been forced to draw about the situation in Haiti. I had to draw the same conclusion about the devastating cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China a few years ago. I had to turn the TV off and walk away because there was nothing I could do, and because staring at such images with no intention of doing anything about it seemed to be little more than disaster voyeurism. I don’t have a high opinion of deliberately stoking that primal fear instinct for the adrenaline thrill.
Many people are going to Haiti for cleanup efforts. The U.S. military is sending troops into the Caribbean to assist with relief, and from what I have heard, those soldiers are pretty much universally proud and happy to be part of the effort. They should be; what they are doing is making a difference. They do have the power to help, as do the churches and charitable groups that are sending people. Unfortunately, though, most people just can’t go. I would not suppose this to be the case for myself, but some people undoubtedly have very precarious employment situations, and it would quite literally be a choice of keeping their job or helping an earthquake victim in another country. For my part, I would just have to take unpaid leave, lacking that much vacation time, but money is still a strong consideration in a harsh economy. We live in a society that places an extremely high value on work. A consequence of this is that most people are tied to work and cannot do other things if it is a choice between work and these other activities.
I suppose I could donate some paltry amount of money to the relief efforts. The Red Cross has raised millions, certainly, and that undoubtedly helps. But the simple fact is that even if I emptied out my savings account and donated 100% of it to this, that is pocket change compared to what needs to be done. Again, I’ve witnessed this firsthand as a resident of a state struck by Hurricane Katrina. Even in the year that will be the fifth anniversary of the strike, there is still work that needs to be done and work that needs to be done but won’t. There was that much damage.
This is no doubt going to come across as a heartless, soulless thing to say, but unless an individual is independently wealthy and donates a very large sum of money to charitable relief, no individual donation is going to amount to much, and moreover, having an impact was not even the primary purpose of the donation. Unless we have a personal stake in a cause (such as a widow giving to the American Cancer Society after the early death of her husband from cancer), the act of giving is something we do to make ourselves feel better. It’s a placebo effect. It gives us the feeling that we do have power to change the situation. Certainly if enough individuals make donations, that amounts to something, and I would not dare try to dissuade anyone from making a charitable contribution if that is what they want to do. But for me, I would look at the amount of money I would be able to give, and it would just reinforce my sense of powerlessness.
It’s not at all about wanting acclaim or recognition for anything. I am simply unable to feel that my efforts even matter for the cause at hand if they only have value after being combined with 100,000 other people’s efforts. 10 dollars more or less—what’s the difference when we are talking about tens of millions? It’s why I left political activism. It did not empower me; it made me feel like a single molecule in one grain of sand on the beach. “Hardcore” activist types (a term I’ve made up to describe those activists who are extremely eager to judge those not like themselves) condemn those with personalities like this, believing that we only are in anything for ourselves. It’s not true; we are simply people who want to see concrete evidence that we have made a difference. I’m not a hypocrite about it either. I have complained over the years about various aspects of the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort, but they were always directed at those who had the ability to act but chose not to, such as FEMA, members of Congress, the media, and members of the Bush administration. I do not harbor one iota of resentment toward any “regular person” who did not do anything for Katrina victims.
In comparison with what happened in my (relative) backyard four and a half years ago, the current governmental American efforts seem to be doing extremely well. It really should tell us something that it is easier for us to do disaster relief in other countries than in our own, but I blame the Homeland Security bureaucratic rules (and Bush-era incompetence) for that. I’m glad that there are people in existence who do have the ability and means to do something about this, and I’m glad that this time, there are people in place who will act and act effectively. However, for myself, I have to turn off the TV.