January 14th, 2010
The pictures coming out of Haiti are as devastating as it gets. Technology now brings us directly to the site of the earthquake disaster way in advance of food, water, and medical supplies. We still haven’t advanced beyond having to load up monster carriers with emergency supplies and then waiting in agony until they arrive, often far too late for thousands who just didn’t have another 24 hours in their futures. Perhaps one day we will be able to transport large materials across great distances within an hour or two. For now, those who have survived the catastrophe are inhabiting a hell we just can’t imagine.
Yes, we can see it, and see their suffering, but sitting in a warm office or living room before a computer or television screen is an entirely different, complicated experience. Watching at a great remove engenders sympathy, guilt, helplessness, curiosity, even an element of voyeurism. This speaks to the cliché about car accidents, why people slow down to get a closer look at something both horrifying and spectacularly different from what they are used to. It’s human nature, sure, although that doesn’t make it one of our more attractive inclinations.
But how can we not watch the images that are pouring into our comfort zones, raw and largely unedited as they are? CNN reporters like Anderson Cooper have the uncanny capacity to report live from the very epicenter of the disaster, while obvious in the frame around them are dazed, wounded, and shocked Haitians, aimlessly shuffling from one spot to another, or desperately staring at rubble. Such exposure for people in such dire need can also rob them of their dignity. It’s the double bind of our technological reality. We need to see, but seeing such catastrophe becomes a moral act.
The news, so to speak, doesn’t get much more immediate, more live, than this. So accustomed are we to the canned, pre-packaged manipulation of information otherwise called the daily news that there is something harsh and gripping about seeing reality unfold before us in such an unedited way. It’s the opposite effect from the normally tranquilizing one that television has upon our critical faculties.
To be sure, a strong benefit of technology’s ability to bring the world into focus in this way is the speed at which donations tend to pour in. People –and certainly this is true of Canadians– generally do feel guilty for their relatively good fortune; they naturally sympathize and deal with the helplessness of being passive observers, and so they can now send money as quickly as a click of their mouse.
I am wondering, where is the university in the face of such devastation? I don’t mean Memorial. I wonder how can any university respond to the crisis? When I was an undergraduate at McGill, my English and Film professors would regularly bring the subject of the Viet Nam War into the classroom. It didn’t matter what work we were reading or watching that week, they would find a way to connect the material to the War, whether it had to do with the themes of human suffering, aggression, psychology, politics, and so on. We learned not only that it was okay to discuss the World outside the classroom but that the classroom could also connect to the World. Many of us woke up to that essential and powerful truth and it has guided us ever since.
I am sure many of my colleagues still bring the World into the classroom, so to speak, from time to time. If I were in a geography, geology, or physics class today I would want to be talking about earthquakes and how science might achieve better predictive measures of the violent clash of the earth’s plates. If I were a biologist I would probably want to be discussing about how best to sustain life in the wake of such catastrophe. If I were in an engineering class I would want the discussion to focus on the architectural infrastructure of urban spaces, of structural collapse and how best to avoid it. It is hard to think of any discipline or field of studies that could not bring the earthquake and its horrific effects into the rarified world of the large lecture hall or the seminar. And it goes without saying that any social sciences or humanities class would have a lot to say today—from taking up the vexed problems of Haiti’s miserable political system to its image as a destitute, lost, postcolonial nation, its centuries-old-history of tyranny and poverty.
Haiti is so off the radar for most of us, a place to be avoided as we plan our Caribbean escapes. Not anymore. I would like to think that this is the moment for bringing Haiti and its crisis directly into our awareness and, because we can, into the classroom. As I type this there is no getting around the fact that millions of people are suffering unimaginable horror, right now, in this moment, and the moment of your reading this. In the naked moment of that awareness, one feels the frightening shadow of that horror.
Marshall McLuhan once said that “affluence creates poverty.” I would start with that aphorism, no matter what the disciplinary focus.